Iain Cameron's Diary
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2004-07-10 - 11:41 a.m.
WORKING on text for Tony's 1948 NDCD - have had a first shot:
Jazz versions of Nick’s stuff then.
Modern songs lend themselves to versions – its in their nature. Gracyk tells us that they are “ontologically thin”. The core of their being is slight and volatile. Think of the Flying Lizards doing “Money”. The more the tune is a classic the more the a version may be deformed to make it belong to its new owner.
And , of course, in jazz each new owner takes over and rebuilds – has a personal duty to establish possession – here, now.
It’s a democratic art. We all got rhythm.
Nick’s stuff goes beyond this. We might turn to Adorno even though he wasn’t much into bebop. (Stravinsky was into bop but Adorno thought Stravinsky was schizophrenic. )
Adorno’s idea was that in modern times the true artist expresses the distance between himself and his environment in the structure of the work. This is how the best 20th century music works according to Adorno.
We can follow Adorno’s direction and dig deep into Nick’s work – and bebop. Bebop is scat for the tritone, the flattened fifth. In “Know” we find a tune written round the tritone – floating without its place to be, unresolved , over that nagging jocular pulse – with just a step down from the fourth to that viciously benign major third to parody the traditional Western mechanism of harmonic completion. Ha ha.
And we can open the lyric as deeply as we wish and find that the surface sense and depth of sense is compressed into a musical/verbal totality. Structure and sense express the artist’s place – or lack of place – nowhere.
Adorno’s thesis is both proved and proved wrong in a 100 seconds or so. Its proved because Nick uses to structure in the way Adorno predicts real modern artists will – and its proved wrong because Adorno thought it wouldn’t happen in jazz.
And we can work through Pink Moon and find layer upon layer of compressed musical/semantic imagery and mechanism and magic, structural echoes, variations and a host of other tropes. Nick is both a pawn in his own game and finds the pearl. He does this without a place to be – but none the less there’s a place that he works from as if by magic.
Peversely this means that Nick’s work, especially his later work, is replete with ontology – the being of non-being is laid out like a map for those who wish to explore the terrain. (Searching for Robert Johnson’s Crossroads?)
If the work is replete rather than thin – will it still work as jazz? You’ll find jazz in it sure enough, but can you take jazz out of it? Ontology is how things are – things today. Today jazz is in a strange state. Perhaps poetry got there first but jazz is there too now.
Lets go back to Fitzwilliam – Nick’s College – from where he had to cross the river to get to practically everything – including fellow English scholar, Paul Wheeler, arranger Robert Kirby, saxophonist Steve Pheasant who founded HORN, some rather hot record collections etc. All conveniently co-located in Caius, along with Needham, the Sinophile, Hawkins, the cosmologist and J H Prynne who hot-wired English poetry for decades.
The other Fitzwilliam musician of the last third of the 20th century is Simon Fell, who one day happened to catch a lecture by J H Prynne on how poetry might mean which catalysed his vision of how jazz might work.
The result was Bruces Fingers – a label and a network of radical musicians and even one or two songwriters taking forward a hard-edged agenda to reinvigorate meaning and being in music – assert the authenticity of how they and things are today. As I write I am listening to Bruce’s Fingers The First Ten Years with Martin Jones, Pete Mimms, Charles Wharf, Keith Tippett, Paul Hession, Mick Beck, Su Lynn and Jeffery Morgan.
Would Nick have liked Bruce’s Fingers – which started five or six years after his death? In the biography we can find out that Nick was not very happy with the way John Coltrane’s music developed in the mid 60s – as it entered its cosmic phase. It looks as if he and a friend listened to Ascension - the one after A Love Supreme.
Nick had liked the extremely hard bop of Giant Steps – and the carryover of hard bop into the radical wing of English RnB such as Graham Bond who before he switched from alto to Hammond was compared to Trane and Dolphy. Its an odd irony that Bond came to Cambridge – looking for something – just as Nick was leaving it. Worth noting also that the seminal guitarist Davy Graham who turned us all onto that way of using the guitar for jazz/blues/ethnic records his debt to Bond helping him understand scales, chords etc.
The radical agenda was in the air in all kinds of ways not just in poetry. HORN played free jazz at the May Ball that featured Nick and the Kirby Band. Fred Frith was being converted to the New York School and graphic scores by Kings Student Andy Powell who went on to produce the first Kate Bush album. Henry Cow started to frighten the horses. Tim Souster organised the first ever UK performance of Terry Riley’s In C in his rooms in Kings. The late Ian Macdonald jammed with Fred and took various notes. Richard Williams thinks maybe it was a golden age.
One of Fred’s greatest fans is Gilbert Isbin – I should declare my interest here – they have both had a large direct influence on my thinking about music. Gilbert was the first to take the radical agenda to Nick’s music with magnificent results. (On yes - I ought to add that Mick Beck from Bruces Fingers has also given me the once over.)
And now another label, Songlines, like Bruce’s Fingers driven by a vision of what jazz can be - here, now - is picking up the baton. Well you have to admit its worth a punt.
Who knows what Nick makes of Ascension these days? You think its all about some retro-English neatness in a privatised landscape? Listen again, its bigger than that! Ascension is very………extreme.
Now we rise and we are everywhere. That’s what I want.