The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2018

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FEB 2018 Issue


<em>Henry Threadgill.</em> Pencil on paper by Phong Bui
Henry Threadgill. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui

“…it’s just like flab when you get old. The same thing happens to your vocal chords.”

- One young woman to another near the New School.

“let’s drink our way there.

- One young woman to two others walking down Bleecker Street.

“…it is difficult to actually possess a landscape.”

- André Derain to Vlaminck

At the reading/talk the elderly academician proclaimed, “I’ve been teaching in the God-forsaken University for fifty-two years…” I wanted to ask during the Q&A, “So why do you teach? Is it to bring God into the system or for the creature comforts you’ve accumulated?” But I didn’t have the guts.

Later that same evening, after leaving the Stone where Ikue Mori had a residency, I heard a young man tell the young woman he was with “…just had sex,” and they chuckled. I wanted to ask him, “What does that mean, just had sex?” but didn’t want to disturb what seemed to be a newly minted romance.

Back to Ikue. Her week included Mephista, with Suzie Ibarra, Sylvie Courvoisier, and special guest Jim Staley (of Roulette) on trombone. It is a rare treat when Staley, who is very mild-mannered, plays in public. Though I wish he had been somewhat more forceful, he is a wonderful player who deals with sound in much the manner George Lewis does, so if you’ve never seen him, do your best to catch him. (Lewis played with Mori later that week).

Henry Threadgill did two free nights in two art galleries (Jack Tilton and Luhring Augustine), performing his piece Plain as plain, in plain sight. What I loved, unexpectedly, was the monologue, but for me the piece fell short when compared to Henry’s other compositions. The ensemble was three cellos and two contrabasses, plus Threadgill on flutes. Large sculptures stood in front of each player, and there was a video dealing with magic, memory, mysticism, the occult, and religion, with Henry in really cool shades adding to and moving around all manner of pieces inside what felt like a 3D Ouija board. Threadgill’s music always creates a discomfort that took me quite a while to get used to when I first heard it in the mid ’80s, but I knew I was hearing something completely new and unique—a privilege given to very few: a language only Henry and his music/poetry embodied. It was something that surprisingly did not go right inside me but always left me annoyed and critically puzzled. But I knew I could not give up and went back incessantly until his jagged, intervallic flow finally mingled with my mind, heart, soul, and ear, and I was able to listen without distraction or judgment—I’d particularly await Henry’s alto solos.

I knew his music dwelt in insight, wisdom, and profound intellect, and that once I put the puzzle together WOW, the impact would be worth the wait. They were/are pieces that don’t at first seem to fit but always do and are filled with clarification and illumination. With this new piece, the components that worked best for me were the singer and the monologue about gadgets (which sounded strangely like Henry’s voice) dealing with both their significance and insignificance in this already complex world. The music was Henry’s language distilled. The idea of the cutouts in front of the musicians to simulate a kind of oneness or lack of identity worked on some level but wasn’t strong enough. The video was just what it was—neither here nor there, though Henry was, as always, cool behind those shades. The piece was witty, troubling, artful, vital, necessary, and irresistible despite its shortcomings, and I enjoyed seeing Henry laugh a lot. It was interesting to see the way all the parts intertwined without pretense and with a somewhat awkward assuredness through their own continual prismatic interventions, with the final conclusion being that what is needed are “smaller cloths and larger shoes,” along with the indictment of society for the present situation that “it’s not a good day for a pencil. You can’t write with a smart car or a smart phone.” And if I may add: what is in plain sight is not necessarily right in front of you.


“Since I am getting old I decided to play only new ragas,” was how master flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia started off the evening, chuckling as he went right into the music. Chaurasia is one of those artists whose work immediately went inside me the first time I encountered it and still does. I had a clear view from the second row until some heavily perfumed woman plopped down in front of me. The smell overwhelmed me, and my mind wandered until finally the deep richness and intensity of his flute permeated my pores and became one with the perfume. He is a master of fluttering, extended tones, gentle and abrasive phrases, unusual time signatures, high and low register, two pitches at once, integrating, dissecting, re-inventing, bending, converging and contrasting melody, notes and rhythms, until finally bringing us back to the “head.” I kept thinking “Bird,” bop, and their inventiveness. The concert continued like this for more than an hour with Chaurasia, as is tradition in classical Indian music, trading fours with the tabla player at increasing and diminishing speeds, smiling and making expressions of mischievousness and joy during this game of intense but playful competition. The final piece was a short Tala played on a smaller flute, which for me was unnecessary, trimming on the already over-the-top CAKE filled with intellect, emotion, and infinite accessibility.


CDs of note:

Wadada Leo Smith’s recent Solo: Reflections and Mediations on Monk (TUM)—a side of Smith I am sure most have not experienced before.

Kris Davis & Craig Taborn, Octopus (Pyroclastic)

Wes Montgomery in Paris (Resonance)

Michael Cosmic & Phil Musra, triple-CD set of rare, reissued albums by these two brothers from 1974, with extensive notes by Clifford Allen (Now Again)


Gnostic Trio at the Village Vanguard in November (from the Masada: Book Three)

if there were angels that read books / who rode bareback /who held on tight to everything / as they sang / (to the moon    to us   to you) / yourself  a singer / if there were angels who carried books to school each day / who waited for the school bus just to be polite / who caressed the wind rather than beat it / if we could all fly at least once / just for the experience & not necessarily for the thrill / & land / books in hand / all perfect bound or pathetically dog-eared / & rest within the harp’s stretched breath / the earth(l)y desires of angels / i close my eyes / a flash of light ...& i know/ this poem needs you / as much as i need this poem.


I strongly advise you see “Song of Granite,” an unusual film that combines documentary and fiction as it portrays the life of Irish folk singer Joe Heaney. Heaney was not familiar to me. Neither was sean-nós, traditional Irish a cappella songs. This is a beautifully shot black and white film that deserves a wider audience. These are its final lines, which I cannot resist adding: Do you know why the warrior always kills the beast, because it is the warrior who is singing the song. But I don’t know if I am the warrior or the beast.”

When the child asks the old man: “What would you do if you had all knowledge?” the old man replies, “I don’t know I don’t have all knowledge? What would you do?”

The child replies, “I’d write a poem?”

The film ends with these hand scrawled words: “The sky had wings / Ice wrapped wings / That is my story.”

The best placement of music I’ve seen this past year was in Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past (2002) when the jukebox played Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “That Crawlin’ Baby Blues” at the beginning of the courtship scene. In his film Le Havre (2011) a similar thing occurs when out of nowhere a song by Blind Willie McTell floats above the characters’ heads.

I’ve found lately that a lot of the music I’ve been hearing is missing an awareness that what is presented does not really have a reality beyond the purpose on which it focuses—made for the moment to stay in the present and die somewhere down the line, like the crowd ignorant of what they are hearing crying out for one more, wherein the band plays a mediocre, generic blues that causes them to go wild. The crowd is relieved of its burden, this “spontaneous, improvised” blues having seemingly satisfied their need for an encore. They applaud wildly, return to their drinks, or prepare to go home. Until next time.

For Muhal Richard Abrams, Geri Allen, and my dear pal and inspiration Sunny Murray. His playing on Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, which I bought when I was a kid, still vibrates in my ears today. It’s “Sunny’s” time now.


Steve Dalachinsky

Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become one—the french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2018

All Issues