DEEP IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF HISTORY AND INFLUENCE

These are the liner notes for avant garde pianist Cooper-Moore’s solo piano CD of a live performance recorded in Canada in the fall of 1999 and to be issued on Hopscotch Records, in March of 2000

The great Japanese wood-block artist Shiko Munakata tells a story about his first one-man show back in 1930 when he was still painting with oils on canvas, “I had a few older pieces I wanted to exhibit. For the rest, I took bare canvases and frames to the gallery the evening before the opening, and there, that night, I painted most of my show.”

As Oliver Statler says in an essay about Munakata, “Speed has always been a goal of the oriental painter. He distrusts self-conscious rational thought. He strives for the swiftest possible realization of conception, for almost automatic transmission of idea through arm and brush.” And so too with this music called African-American Improvised Music, which ought to be called American Classical Music.

In the film about a photograph of jazz musicians called A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM, Nat Hentoff says, “Spontaneity is what makes this music so continually fresh. . . . You don’t think of the passage of time. It is the immediacy of what that person was thinking and feeling at the time.”

Think of Thelonious Monk’s tune titled “That’s the Way I Feel Now.” No revisions. No time to go back and redo anything. This is the suddenness of a Zen ink painting.

Yet it would be a serious misunderstanding to think that Munakata’s methods or the methods of improvising musicians are in any way akin to the ego-maniacal, self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent obsessions of The Me-Me-Me Generation. Munakata is hooked deeply into the traditions of both Chinese and Japanese painting and he and his whole family before him were followers of Shinto ritual and practitioners of the Zen sect of Buddhism. And so it is with this tradition-rich music called improvised music.

Clearly the focus in a method like Munakata’s tradition and also the focus in improvised music is, or should be, on the preparation of the person who will make the product, and how that person grows up and out of the tradition. All of us have a history. We all come from somewhere, and for improvising artists be they Japanese wood cut artists or African American jazz musicians, the neighborhood of history and influence in which they grow up is of paramount importance.

At the end of A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM Art Farmer, his lower lip and chin quivering with the intensity of his emotion, says, “When I start counting heads and I think about how many people are no longer there anymore, it still comes as a shock to me, because we don’t think about people not being here. If we think about Lester Young, we don’t think, yeah, Lester Young was here, but he’s not here anymore. Lester Young is here! Coleman Hawkins is here. Roy Eldridge is here. They are in us and they will always be alive.”

There is no better illustration of what Art Farmer has to say about how “they are in us,” no better way to talk about the neighborhood of history and influence, than to listen to this piano solo by Cooper-Moore.

Here are ?? minutes of spontaneity, in-the-moment freshness, impromptu, improvised, on-the-spot music, and yet this brand-new, never-before-and-never-again piece of immediate art is so deeply rooted in the past, so much a part of the neighborhood of history and influence, that it is all new and all old all at once, which is what Art Farmer is saying, and what Cooper-Moore says too.

For the sake of writing about this piece of music I’ve divided it up into a Prelude and Nine Parts.

As Prelude to his solo, Cooper-Moore speaks openly about the process and meaning of history and influence in his litany of the people he wants to give thanks to, his list of people to whom he is indebted, all those without whom Cooper-Moore could not play the way he does. Cooper-Moore walks us through, both verbally and musically, the ways in which he is beholden to and inspired by his ancestors. You will find here in this solo a deep sense of history and an even deeper sense of gratitude.

The music begins on an abstract, angular and modern note, as if to make an announcement about what is to come. What follows however is an amazing variety and blend of styles and understandings; this is, in fact, one man’s history of the 20th century African-American, improvised piano.

Part One, abstract, restless and angular, may make some people think of Cecil Taylor, yet it is also filled with silence and emptiness and small sounds, delicate touches to the keyboard, and then, without warning, it stops. A pause.

Then quietly, lyrically, melodically–I thought I saw the ghost of some late 19th century Russian composer, maybe Shostakovich, float by–a dirge-like, meditative beginning in the left hand announces Part Two which slowly moves and modulates to more angular and abstract sounds in the right hand as the style of Part One incorporates itself into and blends with the meditative melody of Part Two and begins to establish a new motif in the right hand while way down on the keyboard the left hand clusters chords for a strong foundation on which to build this new, insistent, frenetic and tremulous motif developing up in the right hand. Then suddenly: another stop.

It’s as if Cooper-Moore’s two hands, in constant dialogue with each other, show us how all these great musics from the past meet and influence each other, blend together to make a new sound and then push off into the future.

Witney Balliet has a book of essays about jazz called THE SOUND OF SURPRISE, and true to that sound, Part Three begins unexpectedly with a joyful and delightful Erroll Garner-like descending figure in the right hand–the ghost of Thelonious Monk is in here too–supported and good humoredly heckled by the chords clomping around down there on the left. It’s as if some kind of comic tug-of-war is going on between the two hands. And no matter what those heavy-handed left-hand chords do, the comic descending theme in the right rises out of the thickness of the left hand chords and with its defiant and wacky humor it prevails. Part Three makes me think of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Part Three also ends abruptly, and we hear Cooper-Moore say, “That’s three!”

Cooper-Moore not only likes to play; he also likes to talk, and here follows a brief commentary on his influences including the powerful influence of Jaki Byard and also how as a child at his grandmother’s piano he learned, as everyone did, to play Boogie Woogie. This brief verbal interlude ends with Cooper-Moore saying, “I’m gonna play a little bit of Jaki and a little bit of blues.”

Once again, here in Part Four of this history lesson–what a way to learn history!–two periods of the music sit at a picnic table in the backyard, eat fried chicken and collard greens and visit. Part Four begins as the left hand walks through the Boogie-Woogie while the right hand works out on some blues changes. Then slowly and easily, while the left hand continues walking through the blues bass line, Jaki Byard slips into Cooper-Moore’s right hand, and so subtly and easily, as a matter of fact, that you can actually hear how the modern sound grows out of, springs up from, the blues.

As with Monk and Mingus, Bartok and Kodaly, the greatest musics never stray too far from The Folk out of which they all emerge and to which they all owe their deepest and most lasting debt. As Paul Robeson said, “We who labor in the arts, we who are singers, we who are actors, we who are artists, we must remember that we come from The People, our strength comes from The People, and we must serve The People.”

No abrupt stops now, rather a segue out of “Byard and The Blues” right into Part Five, into a return to something like Part One only more hyper, frenetic, what Cooper-Moore and his cronies once referred to as “tremble time” music. Rapid tempos full of tone clusters and repeated figures, Coltrane-esque “sheets of sound,” pushing, driving intensely onward, then a slight retard, then back to the hyper central figure, then onward again, always driving relentlessly forward, then a retard again and this time the sound emptying out, slowing down, coming to an almost stop. But before a full stop, Part Six begins with one of the most lyrical, sweet and painfully beautiful melodies I have ever heard.

Cooper-Moore announces, “This is a song by Susie Ibarra called, ‘Radiance.'” And, as always, Cooper-Moore takes this new hymn-like and luscious melody and begins to fold it into the angular, atonal pieces that have come before.

Here, as throughout all of this piece of American Classical Music, Cooper-Moore’s motifs evolve and devolve into one another, which is, of course, exactly what this music and the history of this music has always done. One figure or motif leads to another and that leads to something new and so on and on and on forever.

Within this particular piece of improvised music not only are various aspects and periods of American Classical Music illustrated, but the very structure and evolution of this piece, this solo, this performance, is itself a demonstration in miniature of the history of improvised music.

Another segue and the music evolves, devolves into Part Seven, an insistent knocking-like chord in the left hand, the hyperactive dashing of the right hand over the keys in the upper registers, more “tremble time” music, more sheets of sound and that knocking chord.

Then segue again into Part Eight, and here comes Jaki Byard again around the corner, with his pal Walking Bass. The two of them stop to visit on the street with that fellow from Part Seven, the one who is always knocking. They talk quietly together for awhile.

Then suddenly Cooper-Moore stops in the middle of a line–another verbal interlude–and says, “Some people might think he’s abusing the piano.” He launches into a lecture-demonstration on how a piano player either does or does not abuse a piano, and out of this commentary and musical illustration appears The Knocking Man from Part Seven who yields to another melody briefly stated, a melody which makes me think of something Abdullah Ibrahim might write.

Again, Cooper-Moore breaks off in the middle of the line and begins Part Nine, begins talking, singing, a poem that might be called “The Agony of These Feelings Felt,” this brief history of the African in America, this tribute to a thousand black poets, and tribute also to the frustrations of being an improvising musician in America, and all this yet another part of the history of this music.

Finally out of a welter of cries and screams Cooper-Moore’s voice comes slowly down to pianissimo and then in the silence we can hear him quietly say, “Thank You.”

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.