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Experimentation is a New York Thing: The Knit Classics (Part 1 – Introduction )

By Brian L. Knight

"Anyone can make sense playing in tune. But can you make sense playing out of tune?" Sun Ra once queried, " if someone's playing off-key the rest of us will do the same. And then it will sound right." To an undiscerning ear, the music that has come out of New York City in the last forty years was out of tune. There has always been a tradition of breaking the rules in the Big Apple. During the 1940s-1950s, when jazz musicians were playing in big bands and limiting their solos, musicians like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker headed down Minton’s Playhouse in New York City and turned jazz on its back. Gone were the restrained orchestrated sounds of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and in was the unheard solos of be-bop. Twenty years later, musicians like Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane disrupted the scene again with the introduction of the "New Thing" sound. From the New Thing, the sound became known as "Loft Jazz" or "out jazz" and now it is referred to as the Knitting factory or the downtown sound. The primary difference between what was occurring at Minton’s in the 1940s and Club Tonic in the year 2000 is that the 21st century sound encompasses many more forms than simply jazz: there is also punk, folk, techno, metal, funk, klezmer and much more. The point is that today’s experimental sounds do not belong in a vacuum for it has evolved over the years.

Today, the biggest purveyor of the tradition is New York City’s The Knitting Factory. Since opening its doors in 1986, this venue has grown from fledgling nightclub to concert/festival promoter, Internet resource and record label. Through the label, up and coming stars such as Vernon Reid, Wayne Horvitz and John Zorn have been able to deliver their music out to the public. Now the label has taken a step further buy releasing both obscure and popular albums from the past that have been long out of print. Through this program known as Knit Classics, the Knitting Factory shows that the experimental music that the club/label represents is not a phenomenon of the present but rather and ongoing process that has deep roots.

The Knit Classics series shows that the Knitting Factory sound has been alive and well for quite some time now. It may not have been called the Knitting factory sound, for it had other monikers – "free jazz", "New Thing", "avant-garde" and "loft jazz" . In a 2000 interview with the Vermont Review, slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein discussed the on going transition of experimental music: "A lot of people who started the downtown scene moved to New York as a result of being exposed to the loft scene. People like Wayne Horvitz, John Zorn and Bill Previte – the real pioneers of the downtown scene, the first generation, were really inspired by that. So when they started playing, they came to prominence and there was an extension of that."

"I've got to keep experimenting." These are the words written by saxophonist John Coltrane for the liner notes to his 1960 album, My Favorite Things. Coltrane inadvertently described what is known as experimental/avant-garde music. He continued "I feel that I'm just beginning. I have part of what I'm looking for in my grasp, but not all". This quote embodies the ongoing process known as musical experimentation. From Lenny Tristano’s 1940s early examples of free jazz through Vernon Reid’s sonic collaborations with Elliot Sharp and David Torn. From Sun Ra’s first unorthodox, Fletcher Henderson inspired arrangements up to the Sex Mob’s jazz interpretations of popular songs. It is all the same experimentation that Coltrane successfully tried to embody.

In his book Kicking in the Head, Gene Santora describes the experimental music of today: "Rules and concepts are being discarded and reworked, and the results are revitalizing musicians and audiences alike." Santora continues, "the scene’s influences are as varied as its players. There’s Monk’s notion of space and close interval angularity…. There’s Ornette’s melodic emphasis, discarding of bebop’s cycle-of-chord cage, and transformation of funk into harmolodics. There are the expansive sonic idioms pioneered by Miles, Ayler, Trane and Dolphy. There is the early head fusion of Weather Report and of-the-wall melanges of Captain Beefheart. There are the slick Motown backbeats and fatback Stax-Volt soul, the jazzified funk of James Brown and the satiric cartoon sci-fi of Parliament-Funkadelic. There’s game theory, post Viennese atonality, spaghetti Western and kung fu soundtracks, African derived shifts on polyrhythmic interdependence and post punk savagery." These are the sounds that can be found within the many volumes of the Knit Classics.


Rashied Ali

There is no better individual who personifies the free spirit of the 1970s New York City jazz scene than percussionist/drummer Rashied Ali. Born Robert Patterson, Ali’s greatest claim to fame was undoubtedly his contributions to John Coltrane’s final works. Ali, whose nickname was "Sheed", had the difficult task of replacing the saxophonist’s long time drummer, Elvin Jones. Ali first joined John Coltrane at a gig at Birdland when Elvin Jones was late. The two played "Greensleeves" together and Coltrane obviously never forgot Ali’s skills. With Ali’s abandonment of traditional drumming techniques, like meter and maintaining beat, Coltrane was able to truly open up and embrace the free jazz period. It was Ali’s use of multidirectional rhythms that could propel a song into an infinite amount of directions. In his book Chasin’ the Trane, J.C. Thomas described Ali: "Ali was avant-garde, less concerned with basic pulsation than Jones and more involved with melodic improvisation. He liked to stretch and contract the time, constantly shifting his rhythmic accents and sometime playing more like a bassist than a drummer."

Through a presentation that he made to Tenth National Conference on Undergraduate Research, Gustavus Adolphus College Scott T. Anderson made comments from his paper titled John Coltrane, Avant Garde Jazz, and the Evolution of "My Favorite Things". For this presentation, Scott used the song "My Favorite Things" as a way to trace the music development of Coltrane. In the process, Scott also provided a great description of Rashied Ali. "Rashied Ali’s style also represented a striking change for Coltrane’s sound. Whereas Elvin Jones played with immense force and presented the listener with endless permutations of polyrhythms, Rashied Ali played with a style better described as panrhythmic. Ali, with his constant percussive percolation, seldom sought to play the traditional drummer’s role. Instead, his style, like Alice’s (Editor’s note: Alice Coltrane, was the band’s pianist who replaced McCoy Tyner and was married to the lead saxophonist), worked mainly for the sake of adding color to the total sonic mix of the group. Often he did not care to establish a clear sense of time, but simply to create a churning, forward-moving, expressive percussion line."

Scott’s description of Ali was extremely accurate. Even Coltrane spoke similar words. "Rashied is a multi directional drummer. Any direction I go in, he follows right along with me." Scott continues: "Ali’s style can be heard most distinctly on the Coltrane-Ali duet album, Interstellar Space, but it is also apparent in this 1966 recording of "My Favorite Things": although there is usually some rhythmic pulse, that pulse may change freely or occasionally disappear altogether. The music, in a sense, becomes timeless; while it certainly occurs through time, as music always must, there is no clear delineation of time to give the listener a foothold in the wash of sound. Even after the form becomes apparent, rhythmic pulse is provided more by Alice’s piano than Ali’s drumming."

After the death of Coltrane in 1967, Ali remained in New York City where he recorded numerous albums with Alice Coltrane, started the New York Musicians Festival, created his own record label, Survival and opened his own club, Ali’s Alley. All of these ventures were sources for Ali’s pursuit of free-jazz/ avant-garde. It was through the Survival label that Ali recorded some of his most striking work. Knit Classics picked up those recordings and resurrected them from certain obscurity to widespread availability.

One of the Knit Classics is Rashied Ali’s 1975 album Swift Are The Winds Of Life. Up till now, Ali’s 1970s work was unavailable. Ali was definitely active during this period but his major label output was virtually nonexistent. The album is a duo between Ali and violinist LeRoy Jenkins. Jenkins arrived from Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). But unlike the great saxophonists (Ari Brown, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton), pianists (Muhal Richard Abrams), trumpeters (Lester Bowie) or bassists (Malachi Favors), Jenkin’s brandished a different weapon to ply his trade- the violin. The violin is a rarity in jazz circles. Only Billy Bang, Mat Maneri and Mark Feldman made similar impacts with the avant-garde violin, but these three are relatively unknown. Ornette Coleman, who was primarily known for his saxophone work, also played the violin.

Another Rashied Ali release available through Knit Classic is N.Y. Ain’t So Bad, which has Ali in a setting that is far different from his avant-garde excursions. For this 1975 date, the Rashied Ali Quintet (consisting of Marvin Blackman, Charles Eubanks, Jimmy Vass and Benny Wilson) teams up with Texas blues singer Royal Blue. Besides T. Bone Walker’s "Stormy Monday" and B.B. King’s "Moontipping", the eight recordings were written by Ali and Blue. Ten years later, Royal Blue teamed up with Archie Shepp in 1985 for the album California Meeting which he wails out "St. James Infirmary." Like Ali, Shepp diverted from his avant-garde ways to record this traditional jazz/blues recording. Royal Blue obviously had some inherent effect on these avant-garde icons and make them return to the roots.

In the next two issues, we are going to visit the Knit Classics releases and see the many stages that comprise the New York City avant-garde sound. In addition to Rashied Ali, there is Ornette Coleman inspired work of Ronald Shannon Jackson; the 1970s loft scene and the music of the Creative Musicians Studio in Woodstock, NY. Until then, visit the Knitting factory at http://www.knittingfactory.com/

Go to Part II