“It’s the history of jazz in one blast, and you could not help but be hooked on that,” said jazz historian and longtime Wire contributor Val Wilmer about a trumpet solo by Lester Bowie, her route into The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, when I interviewed her in a video for the upcoming Tusk festival. “At the base of it you always knew there was this basic jazz thing,” she explained, “which could be Hot Lips Page, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, anything.”
This idea that a piece of jazz can contain past, present and future in a short moment chimes with a recent Invisible Jukebox discussion between John Edwards and Caroline Kraabel in The Wire 439, where the pair listened to Louis Armstrong & His Hot Sevens’ “Willie The Weeper”. Recorded in 1927, they found in it a freedom and energy to rival any free jazz or hypercomposed ensemble piece. “It’s really advanced rhythmically,” enthused Edwards. “So much going on there! Super exciting isn’t it?”
Whether jazz can stay true to an original essence, yet still find a way to evolve, has been the subject of controversy for decades. For some, jazz renews itself through its very character as an improvised artform; for others, it is just repeating what it has been doing for the last 40 years. Those who take the latter argument might point to jazz being an older artform than rock music – some variant of jazz started evolving in New Orleans in the 1910s, so it has had time over the generations to ride all the cycles of progression, commercialisation, abstraction, fusion, deconstruction and nostalgia that you could possibly imagine.
Certainly, any new group that rolls up with horns, piano, drums and double bass immediately runs into audience expectations that have solidified over several decades. Faced with a group of instrumentalists, punters often expect strong solos, unified themes, maybe some breakdowns dividing it all up – a sort of formalised roll call or showcase of the group and their skill.
The commercial logic of the spotlight and the star system still exerts a significant pull on jazz,
70 or so years after it exploded into the popular consciousness. Sometimes jazz groups can be free in their individual moments, but predictable and governed by unspoken conventions and expectations across the span of a performance. It’s a situation that’s sometimes mirrored by a certain mode of jazz criticism, where after a short introduction, a writer describes what’s played in detail moment to moment by each player, before summing up in the manner of repeating the head of a composition.
Where does The Arkestra fit into this? Somehow they are a group who for more than 60 years have managed to present a vision of the past, present and future of jazz, often in just a single gig or song. Such is their taste for time travel that they have managed to keep the band together as a going concern, playing many of the same old songs, now led by the extraordinarily youthful 96 year old Marshall Allen, more than a quarter of a century after the death of Sun Ra. Yet, if you go to an Arkestra gig, it is full of surprises, tangents and plot twists. Wild chaotic energy segues into romantic cosmic crooning. Old school big band power evolves into bass-heavy funk.
The thrill of the new that is at the heart of jazz is preserved by The Arkestra in a kind of radical personal and musical freedom – the members of the group swap instruments, move from instrument to the microphone, join in on percussion, shake their butts, and generally liberate themselves from whatever expectations you might have of how a jazz band should act on the stand. Their roots extend back to the golden era of the big band, but they bring past and present together by fusing it with electronics and free playing. The history of jazz in one blast, again.
Bands always mourn when longterm members leave, and this month sees online editor Daisy Hyde and listings and newsletters compiler Frances Morgan move on to new places and new projects. Both have been in the orbit of The Wire for a decade or more, and we wish them well in their new worlds. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 440 October 2020 £5.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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Words Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Britt Brown, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Raymond Cummings, Laina Dawes, Geeta Dayal, Katrina Dixon, Phil England, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Maya Kalev, Kek-W, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Neil Kulkarni, Sam Lefebvre, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Marc Masters, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, John Morrison, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Chal Ravens, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Stewart Smith, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, Greg Tate, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Val Wilmer
Images Claire Arnold, Clayton Cotterell, Ezekiel, Glen E Friedman, Heather Glazzard, J Houston, Joseph Kadow, Li Hui, Marcus Maddox, Da’Shaunae Marisa, Áine O’Dwyer & Graham Lambkin, Bert Queiroz, Savage Pencil, Ines Vansteenkiste-Muylle