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Gentle Beauty Spilled

Jacques Bisceglia and Steve Dalachinsky: Reaching into the Unknown: 1964–2009 (RogueArt)

But the time for invention is never gone
       & thrives it like an old tongue…

Steve Dalachinsky

The poet Steve Dalachinsky, whose writing appears regularly in these pages, has had a monumental book published. Reaching into the Unknown: 1964–2009 (RogueArt, Paris) is a collaboration with the extraordinary French photographer Jacques Bisceglia, who has been taking photos of jazz musicians for 55 years. Steve has been writing poems about music for nearly as long. In 178 photographs and 141 poems these visionaries capture the soul of what is commonly called “free jazz."

I have to say that before my encounter with Reaching into the Unknown I was not particularly moved by this kind of music. Then, as I leafed through the book, pausing to read a poem and take in the accompanying pictures—or as I looked at the poems and read the pictures—my imagination was fired. I heard the music as I’d never heard it before. The book turned me on and carried me up, up, and out. Now I am an avowed fan, going to concerts and building up a collection of free jazz CDs.

For example, open to page 94, read Steve’s poem the extravagance of breathing—David Ware Quartet, look at the photo of Cecil Taylor and David Ware on stage on the opposite page, and you’ll understand what I mean. Cecil is seated at the piano in the background; David stands in the foreground at the microphone, playing his saxophone. Ware’s great wild eyes grab you, and the ancestors come forth through the big man’s horn, making each hair stand on end.

The idea for the book, which Steve calls “the game,” is simple. If Steve had a poem about a musician or group, and Jacques had a photo of the same musician or group, they would match them up. Many of Steve’s poems were written on the spot at concerts or clubs in New York. Jacques’s pictures were taken at other times, shot mostly in Parisian settings or at concerts and festivals elsewhere in Europe or Africa. This “game” is thus a magical one, creating again and again a unique synergy between place and time, between the today on the page and the yesterday of sound and light.

The poems in the book are not ordered chronologically or alphabetically by title. Instead, the sequence was inspired by the cut-up method used by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. The title of each poem was put into a hat and then picked out. This luck-of-the-draw method further enhances the feelings of time-travel and joyful hallucination that permeate the book.

For those of you not familiar with the term “free jazz,” here’s a definition: It is underground, radiant, raucous, relentless, renegade music. Free jazz originally grew from the seeds of ragtime and bebop, the once-dominant structures of the jazz world, spurred on in part by the struggle for racial equality manifest in the 60s. Its development helped the disenfranchised find their own voice. This is the music that happened after last call, when the bar owner locked the doors and the musicians jammed all night. Think of the early music of Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk—it was the result of explorations in harmony, in syncopation. However, the key word with free jazz always is improvisation. It is improvisation that resists any restraint, that goes with the flow of the line. Like Steve’s poetry, this music is bright brought frothy runs bribbling to the top.

Jacques Bisceglia, whose photos are nothing less than sublime, says, “Of course there was a change [with the birth of free jazz]. ‘Explosion’ may be correct, but for me it was just a natural progression.” Maybe that is why it is also called progressive jazz. All too often in the music or art world what is avant-garde becomes old guard—the artist keeps repeating the work that brought him or her to fame, the same old same old, again and again. Free jazz, with its roots in improvisation, never remains the same. It keeps happening. Go hear Cecil Taylor, over 80 now, who plays as if he were playing the music on his skin (p. 217). Catch Charles Gayle, at one of his rare concerts; follow him on his way to the Rapture Sparkling clean WHITE ALTO of penitence calling the crowd of sinners at his feet to jump into the fire (p. 125).

Between the pages of this book you will find (along with the iconic musicians mentioned above) Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Sun Ra, Abbey Lincoln, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler. You will find other transcendent geniuses, like pianist and composer Cooper-Moore, who makes his own instruments such as the diddly-bow. You will find Joelle Leandre, perhaps the best bass player in the world, who also happens to be a woman. I hope when you read this book, you will experience as I did:

how many revolutions are created by sound?
musser the gentle beauty spilled
The chao(h)s caused this sleeper to awake.


Tsaurah Litzky

Tsaurah Litzky is a widely published poet, novelist, writer of erotica, short stories, creative nonfiction, and commentary. She is currently working on a book of interviews, Wide Eyed Lives of Poets.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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