Tuesday, April 30, 2013

BYG Actuel 01: Don Cherry - "Mu" First Part

If the Festival Actuel is any indication, the founders of BYG intended their Actuel imprint and their brand as a whole to represent forward-thinking global music in any genre, with free jazz being the particular focus. Had financial mismanagement and the insane overreaching that came with holding such a gigantic festival so soon after the label’s founding not tanked BYG, it is not unreasonable to believe that BYG Actuel could have become one of the avant-grade musical leaders on the European continent. With these lofty ambitions, the first Actuel release had to set the tone and the standard of quality for the albums ahead and draw attention to the brand new subsidiary label. A minor public relations coup resulting from signing an established artist was certainly a helpful bonus as well. The label got all of this with “Mu” First Part, the first of two duo albums by Ornette Coleman Quartet alums Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell.

“Mu” First Part seems oddly sequenced at first, with two and a half songs on each side. The album could easily have been resequenced, but this would have interrupted the excellent flow of the album and it would have weakened the initial sonic impact that one gets when the needle hits the grooves and Cherry’s pocket trumpet squeaks out a jarring set of notes at the beginning of “Brilliant Action.” These squeaks are short-lived, as Cherry quickly moves into something less immediately abrasive. Cherry’s playing throughout this song as wonderful and casually virtuosic. It sounds like he was furious while they recorded this song, but this emotion is counteracted by the thin tone he gets from playing a pocket trumpet rather than a full-size trumpet. For an album with Cherry’s name on the cover, the first song is completely dominated by Blackwell. Early on, Blackwell operates in a Gene Krupa-esque mode, and the flurry of percussion frequently crowds Cherry out of the way, forcing him to catch his breath and come back in later spewing fire in order to be heard. Later on, Blackwell’s playing is skull rattling if played at even a moderate volume, and he changes his rhythmic foundation so frequently that it’s hard to grab hold of the song. Ed Blackwell proves why he was one of the first, if not the first great free jazz drummers, never letting any rhythm rest of too long, constantly shifting and dodging Cherry’s trumpet playing.

“Brilliant Action” is as forceful and heady as the title suggests, making the smooth transition into the much quieter “Amejelo” surprising for how not jarring it is. Cherry switches from pocket trumpet to flute and Blackwell calms down considerably, sticking mostly to a relatively consistent rhythm on snare and bell. Occasionally during the song, he shifts his style completely to match the volume and energy level of Cherry’s flute playing before returning to the original rhythmic template. Their interplay is great, and the African influence (that Cherry would continue to explore on future releases and that can be found on a lot of the Actuel records by other artists) is so palpable here, especially at the end of the song when Cherry plays some bells and does some clapping that dances through Blackwell’s rhythms. On this song especially, it’s very clear that these guys had played together for a long time before this session. Their connection is almost telepathic; every time Cherry makes a subtle change in his tone, Blackwell adjusts the rhythm and vice versa. Cherry is listed as the leader on the record, but it’s really hard to tell who is leading the other. This is really a recording of equals. 

Split into two parts (3 and 6 minutes, respectively) over the two sides, “Total Vibration” is both an excellent centerpiece for the album and a welcome return to the energy of “Brilliant Action.” The drums from “Amejelo” continue into this song but quickly fade out and are replaced by a Cherry pocket trumpet solo. This song is more halting than “Action,” frequently stopping and starting, but it retains the power of that first song. Cherry favors short runs here, with brief pauses in between each one. He really knows the power of negative space in his trumpet playing, and he is great at balancing sustained notes with lightning-fast runs. Meanwhile, Blackwell focuses primarily at developing compelling polyrhythms between the cymbals and drums. Around 3:45 Blackwell pulls back a bit and leaves a lot of space for Cherry to pull out the best solo on the record. It’s the longest period of time on the entire album that Cherry plays trumpet without leaving a space for Blackwell to solo, and Cherry takes advantage of this by folding early twentieth century New Orleans-style trumpet into his playing. The results exude a sorrow that isn’t found much elsewhere on the album or on Cherry’s other albums from this period.

Like the previous songs, “Total Vibration” segues straight into “Sun of the East” with no pause. Cherry repeats a melody a few times and then Ed Blackwell gives him some time to stretch out beyond this initial melodic framework. This track has the least Ed Blackwell on it and the longest periods of Cherry playing completely unaccompanied of any song on the album. The title of the song is significant in that it signals the increasing dedication to non-Western music that he would fully develop a few years later. This song has Cherry’s most plaintive playing on the album a couple of minutes in over a clop-clopping beat from Blackwell. That stretch sounds like it could be played during some exotic desert scene in an old movie, but this is short-lived as Blackwell picks up again and Cherry returns to the original melody, just faster, louder, and more forceful. Cherry’s playing rises in intensity like the sun over the course of a morning. As if to continue this cycle of daytime, the song switches emphasis toward drums and bells halfway into the song as Cherry and Blackwell move away from the midday heat and toward the placid coolness of the evening. The bells also signal the shift back to flute, and Cherry’s playing is airy and arid. This song has a very not-traditionally jazz feel to it that sounds as if it could be a freer version of an Ahmed Abdul-Malik song.

After the only between song pause on the album, it ends with its shortest song, “Terrestrial Beings.” It starts with bell, then a pause, then Cherry moves to the piano. He’s not doing anything overly technical on the piano, but it’s very pretty and expressive. Blackwell is just adding accents, long cymbal sounds and occasional small fills. One minute and forty seconds in, the piano turns from muted and pretty to fucking hip, sounding like library music designed for a detective movie, but that doesn’t last long before he goes back to the prettier mood of the beginning of the song. Compared to the first and third songs especially, Blackwell’s barely here until 3 minutes in when Cherry’s playing gets angular for a bit and Blackwell amps things up to meet Cherry. Their interplay and the way it builds at the end of the song is amazing, but then the record just kind of ends. You can tell that this isn’t the whole “Mu” statement. It’s incomplete without part 2, which wasn’t issued until much later (about thirty Actuel volumes later, actually), so Mu remained incomplete in listeners’ minds for some time.

This is a transitional album for Cherry, as he was moving from the sound of his landmark mid-sixties Blue Note albums that were very much an extension of his work with the Ornette Coleman Quartet to his excellent mid-seventies world music-indebted records (Organic Music Society, Brown Rice, etc.). Cherry and Blackwell didn’t show up on any other BYG Actuel records outside of the two Mu albums, so they weren’t part of the community vibe of much of the rest of the label’s output and aren’t the most representative case in examining the label. In spite of this lack of direct interaction with the rest of their labelmates, the looseness and spontaneity that characterize so many Actuel records, where anyone who wanted to play that day could play, is present on this album. While there are only two players on Mu, it sounds as if Cherry and Blackwell walked into the studio and just played two short, mostly improvised sets that were released unedited as the two Mu volumes. Also, while this is a great album, this is not the best release that BYG put out. In fact it falls somewhere in the middle of the label’s catalog quality-wise, which says a lot about the overall value of Actuel’s output. I’ll be getting to one of their absolute best in a few weeks, and I’ll be knocking around a couple of their worst not long after.

Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 02: Art Ensemble of Chicago – A Jackson in Your House
Actuel 03: Sunny Murray – Hommage to Africa
Actuel 04: Archie Shepp – Yasmina, a Black Woman
Actuel 05: Gong – Magick Brother
Actuel 06: Claude Delcloo & Arthur Jones – Africanasia

"Brilliant Action"
 "Terrestrial Beings"

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