Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Cannibal Holocaust: A Review

'Cannibal Holocaust' - the very title screams excess and exploitation, and normally I'd steer a mile away from that sort of thing (I'd rather not have to watch a film that exists solely to show extreme cruelty), but the film's reputation, and the fact that I'd previously written essays about it (without ever watching it) made me think that I should probably get round to giving it a go. Ninety minutes later, I emerged from the experience, challenged, provoked, disgusted and somewhat perplexed. I'll try to pick through my thoughts below.

I won't bother summarising the plot - you can find plenty of other synopses on the internet - although I suppose it's worthwhile noting that it actually does have a plot, and quite a lot of dialogue. In fact, it sets itself up as something of a social critique (though it's unclear how far director Ruggero Deodoto actually bought into this), rather than a brainless gore-fest.

I think you have to see the film very much a product of its time (though with the rise into the mainstream of increasingly gory horror/exploitation movies like 'Hostel' and 'Saw', there has been something of a return to that typically 1970s combination of explicit violence and some sort of twisted moral thinking that hovers between the perverse and "hm, maybe they've got a point there"). So: the 70s, as every one knows, were a time of film-making excess (or boundary pushing, whatever you want to call it), and 'Cannibal Holocaust' is probably the most notorious horror/exploitation film from that period (it was made in 1979 and released in 1980).

The emotional/ psychological vein it taps into, though, was common to films with much bigger budgets, and bigger stars: gritty, unflinching looks at the cruelties men are capable of, like the films of Michael Winner, boasted actors like Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance and Charles Bronson, and were fairly popular at the box-office. We might think of example such as the opening rape scene in 'Death Wish', or, more relevant to 'Holocaust', the western 'Chato's Land,' in which Charles Bronson's near-silent, Vietcong-like Indian warrior, Chato, slowly picks off a posse, mostly consisting of caricatured rednecks.

There are no heroes in 'Chato' - Bronson's actions are pretty barbaric (there's an unforgettable image where the penultimate posse member is shot, and falls face down into a campfire, and another when the final member is driven back into the desert to die by Chato), though the white man's are even worse. This raises an issue of moral compromise which Winner seems to have ducked out of somewhat - at times he seems to be actually advocating the sort of revenge that Chato takes, seeing it as justified because the posse have raped and murdered his family, and are racist bastards. Similarly, in 'Death Wish', Bronson's vigilante actions are celebrated (when the law fails - and, by extension, in Chato, the 'laws' of 'civilised' behaviour - you have to take matters into your own hands, and act with the sort of violence and cruelty equal to that dished out to you). Perhaps this is unfair to Winner - maybe he is taking no moral stand, showing both parties as equally vile, and presenting a completely nihilistic vision. But it's deeply unclear, and, while such uncertainty accounts for the film's unprecedented power, their deeply unpleasant, 'impure' feel, it seems somehow reprehensible (if no less reprehensible than Hollywood's increasingly overt glorification of violence, if it's to save cute little kiddies and is done by your favourite action heroes).

So to 'Cannibal Holocaust'. Like ‘Chato’s Land’, its plot involves the intrusion of evil white men into the territory of natives who prove to be just as brutal in retaliating to the atrocities committed by said white men, and like ‘Chato’s Land’, it presents somewhat confused moral messages. Even more than ‘Chato’, it could be described as a deeply misanthropic film, and, if anything, its targets appear even more confused. As another review I've read has noted, it sets up its crew of film-makers pretty much as straw men (while it may be true that news-crews exaggerate, manipulate, distort, etc, I find it unlikely that they'd go as far as to massacre pretty much a whole village)and thus muddies the message. Furthermore, while the anthropologist, Prof. Monroe, becomes the jaded voice of reason later in the film, earlier, he's not exactly a pillar of virtue, shooting several members of one tribe in cold blood so as to gain the trust of another tribe. The idea that 'Holocaust' is attacking the 'Mondo' films (some of which actually did stage shocking events) is rendered unlikely by the fact that, with its attempt at verité-realism, it comes across as a Mondo film itself –at least, in the final, 'documentary' section. (Incidentally, this 'film-within-a-film'/ 'real documentary footage' effect is nicely done, at a time when such tricks weren't common, as they are now (Blair Witch and all its spin-offs), and as indicated by the fact that people at the time thought this was a real snuff film.)

In making this film, it seems, Deodato deliberately plays up and questions his own role as exploitation film-maker (though by doing so he unwittingly undermines himself as well). When, in the penultimate scene, the TV executive orders the footage to be burned, one wonders if this was not the very same attitude held by those who tried to censor Deodato's work. For a film that exists seemingly to confront (and arguably, to exploit) the depths of human depravity, cruelty and violence, the Professor's stance (wanting to suppress the footage) seems protectionist, censorial. Surely it would make more sense to expose the film-makers for who they were (as is Deodato and the script's intention)? After all, their earlier documentary 'The Road to Hell' has been shown to have been faked, to some extent, yet people will believe it be real - would it not make more sense to expose the film-makers (and by extension, the culture of exploitative reporting that they embody)?

Furthermore, Deodato's attitude to the native tribes is confused. We're supposed to sympathise, or at least, to understand, the actions they take towards the film-crew, to see them as justified; while they react with initial suspicion towards Monroe, it never looks like they're actually going to eat him, but the massacre in a hut pushes them over the edge. Yet what to make of the native 'savagery'? In one (infamous) scene, the crew come across a naked woman, impaled on a pole. Alan smirks, seems to be enjoying the spectacle, but is then told 'you're on camera' and immediately changes to a face of concern, pronouncing that this is the result of some barabric sexual ritual, from a people who hold virginity as almost sacred (earlier on, in the film's first truly shocking scene, we've seen a native murder an adulterous woman by sexually mutilating her). Obviously, this is supposed to be yet another example of the thrill-seeking filmmakers' callousness and exploitativeness, but at the same time, it's unclear what moral attitude is being taken vis-a-vis the natives' 'uncivilised' practices. True, the girl may have been killed in this way because she has been raped by the film-makers in the preceding scene (although it's unclear whether it's the same girl), and the tribe's attitude to sexual 'impurity' demands such a grisly response, but that doesn't make the actual act of execution any easier to stomach.

And of course, there are the scenes of animal cruelty. We see a muskrat have it's throat slit, and hear its screams of agony. Is this supposed to be just a fact of life - look, meat-eaters, this is the suffering animals go through to get you your meat - or just another cheap trick? Monroe shows a little distaste, but doesn't seem too concerned. The disembowelling of the turtle is shocking (you see its legs move even as its insides are being cut out), an effect enhanced by the score, but would it be appear any more palatable (excuse the pun) if it was done with care, rather than lip-smacking relish? It seems ironic that Deodato condemns his characters for filming the turtle-killing (as indicated by the ominous and queasy strings that blare up on the soundtrack), yet is at the same time filming this staged event himself, for the purposes of his own film.

At one point, a TV executive tells Monroe "Today people want sensationalism; the more you rape their senses the happier they are" (of course, she hasn't seen the actual footage at this stage of the movie). I don't think anyone could come away from 'Holocaust' feeling happy, although they might well feel that their sense have been ‘raped.’ By pushing things just that little bit further, the film does succeed to some extent in exposing and challenging our attitudes towards extreme violence. It is strange how we find something like 'Holocaust' shocking and deserving of censorship ("ban this sick filth", as the Daily Mail might put it), but have become immune to the horrors and deprivations we see daily on our news screens. Our morality is very perverted if can react with absolute horror and outrage to fictional gore but, when confronted with real-life events such as those in Darfur, can switch on the auto-pilot response of "oh, isn't it awful, but we can't do anything, that's just the way life is"? Of course, Deodato IS exploiting his violence, just as his fictional film-makers are, and I suppose one could argue that the film's value lies as much in the issues that he DIDN'T intend to raise as the ones that he did. In that sense, it goes beyond (or below) being art - its value lies, not in its quality (though I didn't find the acting too bad, there are moments where one feels that things are about to tip over into porno, or worse) - but in the issues it raises, however it raises them. If there was ever a film that deserved the title 'thought-provoking', Cannibal Holocaust is that film.


You can download the soundtrack here: http://arquivosnet.wordpress.com/2008/09/20/soundtrack-cannibal-holocaust-1980/. Riz Ortolani's music is pretty effective, on the whole, though I’m not really sure that it works too well away from the film. Even in the film, it sounds a little dodgy – for example, the groan-worthy easy listening cue which plays over the title credits, and which steers things towards 70s porno when Monroe bathes naked in the river (the film's one concession to an idea of an unspoilt idyll, free from the trappings and repressions of modern life - "to be like them, naked and unfettered as Adam" as he puts it in the voiceover) – although it admittedly has some impact when played ironically over the village massacre, or at the climactic dismemberment of the film-crew. Meanwhile, the 'horror' theme, with its wrenching, mournful strings, is suitably disturbing, even without Deodato’s graphic images to accompany it (though the synth percussion effects are a little dated).


J.G. Ballard on Mondo films: http://www.ballardian.com/jg-ballard-on-mondo-films
Wikipedia on Mondo films: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondo_film
A review of ‘Chato’s Land’: http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=12010
A review of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’: http://www.braineater.com/cannibalholocaust.html
Another review: http://www.1000misspenthours.com/reviews/reviewsa-d/cannibalholocaust.htm
And another: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=1848
And another! http://www.lloydkaufman.com/roids/2005/11/11/cannibal-holocaust-review/
Review of the recent DVD release: http://www.eccentric-cinema.com/cult_movies/cannibal_holocaust.htm

Finally, 'The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media’, a 1984 book edited by Martin Barker, has a chapter on ‘Holocaust’, and discussions of other controversial exploitation/horror films from the 70s and 80s. If you want to acquaint yourself with the sort of issues surrounding these films (and it is a fascinating area of debate) without actually having to watch them, it’s a good place to start, though it might be a little hard to get hold of.

Friday, 24 October 2008

A Power Stronger Than Itself

This review of George E. Lewis' book A Power Than Stronger Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music first appeared in Issue 2 of eartrip magazine. To access the full magazine, go to http://eartripmagazine. blogspot.com. To order the book from The University of Chicago Press, go to http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/ metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=236682.

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an organisation of some importance: even its detractors must acknowledge the validity of that statement. Over the years, its ranks have included Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Amina Claudine Myers, Fred Anderson, Leroy Jenkins, John Stubblefield, Pete Cosey, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill – and those are just some of the best-known. Yet, despite documentation and coverage in recordings, journalistic and scholarly articles, and references in academic books, ‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is the first full-length study of its kind, written by an AACM member who also happens to be a fine academic writer, and who has meticulously researched both the specific and wider contexts of the AACM’s genesis, from the background of economic depression in 1930s Chicago to the present day situation.

‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is much than just a historical curiosity; in fact, I’d argue that it is one of the most important books about jazz ever written, and is worthy of the attention of anyone who claims to be serious about the music. Lewis is an academic who actually says something through the complexity of his discourse, and is not a vacuous or pretentious name-dropper (his relation of Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali to what he's talking about is very much to the point and not put in for some intellectual brownie points). I feel this important to assert because of the rather snobby dismissals I've read in various publications, which, dare I say it, come from exactly the sort of views he critiques in the book. A black musician talking about jazz in academic terms? That’s not his place – he must be doing something wrong.

This review can only claim to cover a small number of the issues addressed by Lewis; there’s simply no way that I can write about everything that I had jotted down as an area of immediate interest when reading through for the first time. So, where to begin? Let’s dive straight into controversy…

The issue of race will undoubtedly be raised, with the AACM criticised as an exclusive black-only club. In chapter 6, Lewis brings to light the case of Gordon Emanuel, a vibes player who was the organisation’s only white member (though he regarded himself as essentially black, being the adopted brother of bassist Bob Cranshaw and living in the South Side’s black ghetto). Growing pressures from black nationalists in the group eventually forced a meeting, in which Emanuel was voted out of the organisation. This will provide plenty of ammunition for those who want to argue that AACM members, in combating the detrimental effects of anti-black racism, turned the racism back on white people; indeed, at the time, Leslie Rout argued that the incident showed how, “in the final analysis, all white men are enemies [to the AACM].” Amina Myers, who has the advantage over Rout of an insider’s perspective, admits that “I was one of the ones that was against having somebody white in the organisation. Whites were always having something. They always run everything, come in and take over our stuff, but this was something black we had created, something of our own, and we should keep it black.” Such a mentality was something that Myers had in common with Malcolm X, and those he influenced. Well-meaning whites often did more harm than good; this was about black self-determination, and there was no problem with whites as such, but the process of explicit co-operation could only come about once the generally racist conditions of America had changed to a significant extent.

Myers admits that she has since changed her views – and they were undoubtedly very much of their time (though that shouldn’t diminish their validity at that moment in history). Today, she believes that “music is open, and that’s what I look at now. There’s got to be a spiritual quality, regardless of what the color is.” I tend to sympathise with the thought-currents that led to Emanuel’s expulsion, if not the expulsion itself – but they are undoubtedly problematic, and many in the organisation at the time did not share them to such an extreme extent.

One might also note that, despite the very heavy focus on racial injustice, there was often a strongly sexist element to male-female relationships in the free jazz world, with the woman expected to be the supportive home-maker who was there for her man while he went out on his musical explorations (see the relevant chapter in Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious as Your Life’). Of course, as a blanket statement, this is entirely inaccurate – think of Sam and Beatrice Rivers’ Studio RivBea, Ornette Coleman’s marriage to poet Jayne Cortez, or the relationship between Sonny and Linda Sharrock – but there is still an element of truth to the accusations of sexism. In a valuable sub-section of chapter eleven, entitled ‘Leading the Third Wave: The New Women of the AACM’, Lewis discusses the issue of gender politics. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Maia recounts how she asked Phil Cohran: “When we as black people reach utopia, reach this point that we’re reaching for, is that when you’re going to deal with this issue that we have between men and women? Because the black revolution is more about the revolution of black men. The problems that exist between men and women existed before racism came about.” There’s a slight confusion as to whether the AACM membership was predominantly male because of residual sexism from certain quarters, or whether the situation was more complicated. Maia suggests that the problem was not so much deliberate exclusion as a (perhaps inaccurate) perception of the AACM as what Douglas Ewart calls “a man’s club.” “The revolution was about black men. Nobody meant women any harm. But if you don’t have on a fire suit, you ain’t gonna go into no fire. It may have been open to women, but if it is not inviting to women, women are not going to come.” So, it was clearly important that artists like Maia, Nicole Mitchelle and Shanta Nurullah began to form all-female groups, to highlight female creativity, and the validity of female contributions to black experimental music.

As indicated by such a discussion, nobody is claiming that the AACM is perfect, least of all Lewis; what makes it such an important organisation is that its members acknowledge areas of complexity or disagreement, and seek to work through these. Such an attitude that was there from the start, as made clear by the transcription of the very first AACM meetings, from May 1965, in chapter four, ‘Founding the Collective.’ A major virtue of the book, then, is that it is not sanitised; that it shows the contradictions and struggles of the organisation, at the same time as the way that it remained, as the title puts it, 'a power stronger than itself', representing something much bigger than the Chicago jazz scene, and providing a model for all such initiatives. This is what is overlooked by those who criticise the October Revolution in Jazz, the Jazz Composers’ Guild, or the AACM, by those who argue that the ideals of self-determination and creative autonomy shared by these bodies are laudable but inevitably fail. The AACM was not intended to be the solution to everyone’s problems, but was firmly rooted in the realities of a specific socio-economic, musical and racial situation, and was therefore in a good position to make an impact (on a local level, and perhaps further, as with the migration to New York). Thanks to Lewis, this is now clearer than ever; that should silence those who claim that he lavishing a disproportionate amount of attention to the AACM.

The issues of race and gender are clearly of importance, then: also crucial to Lewis’ investigations is the economic side of things. An academic not mentioned in the book, but relevant to the argument, is Ian Anderson, whose essay ‘Jazz outside the Marketplace’ contains an analysis of free jazz’s growing reconciliation to capitalism, through funding and grants from banks and institutions, that may prove depressing reading to those who associated the music with radical political hopes. This would seem to fit with the standard narrative, to which there may be some truth , which would place the trend identified by Anderson alongside the failure of post-’68 activism, as evidence of the decline of the left. However, pessimism, leading on to capitulation, and, ultimately conformity, are what brought about this change in the first place, and to react in the same way is not the answer.

For, what Lewis’ book offers, beyond informative and (generally) rigorous scholarship, is hope. Lewis shows how (predominantly black) self-organisation and self-promotion could provide a viable alternative to commercialisation, line-toeing and subservience to the greedy, exploitative machinations of big-time club-owners, promoters, and record company bosses. The AACM was not primarily a for-profit organisation –members contributed funds to keep things afloat at first, even if payments were not always diligently kept up, and proceeds from concerts were plunged into further musical developments and, importantly, educational and social projects. Thus, while the AACM was in the service of the art foremost, the art was intimately linked to the life. “My youngest son’s wife called me,” Jodie Christian recalls. “She said, do you know any place where they give piano lessons? I thought, the AACM, that’s what they do. If that ever dies, then the AACM dies. That’s what’s holding it together. That, to me, is the backbone of the AACM.” (P.506) One cannot understand the music without a knowledge of the socio-economic and racial conditions of Chicago (or, for that matter, America as a whole), and one gains a deeper appreciation of the AACM project if one realises its political significance, rather than simply seeing it as ‘interesting’ music. ‘Interesting’ music is what divorces the experimental tradition from a wider audience, creating an ivory-tower elite (most notably in the classical music world) which the free jazz musicians sought to combat from the outset (Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ provides further evidence of such ambitions).

Yes, perhaps some of the participants have gained (even courted) the support of the 'establishment' (George Lewis' own work at IRCAM, for instance, although that was a slightly strange episode, and one he felt somewhat uncomfortable with, I believe) - but, as Lewis argues, quite persuasively I think, the 'establishment' (the sort of 'high culture' institutions that Anderson argues have come to support free jazz) tended to (and still does tend to) look down on the music. As many, many people will tell you, it is still a struggling music – consider the state of free improvisation in the UK (the closure of one the major venues, the Red Rose; the cutting of funding for the LMC; and the post-Thatcherite bureaucratic muddle that complicates things still further). I think it’s more the case that that a few token 'progressives’ and 'radicals, get establishment support, as a means for the capitalist hierarchy to appear 'progressive' and 'liberal', at the same time as denting the subversive force of the art they have ‘embraced.’ When trumpeter Bill Dixon was featured on a BBC Radio 3 programme devoted to ‘new music’, for instance, his work was treated with a marked lack of respect, in comparison to the numerous classical composers that the programme features, week in, week out. Underlying it all, I’m afraid to say, is a residual racism that is all the more pernicious for being unconscious. If Dixon, one of the most important instrumentalists and composers of the past forty years, is characterised as “mad,” there’s not much hope for the free music project being taken seriously.

I mentioned the danger of elitism for (predominantly white, classical) experimental music, and there are those who criticise black experimental music in a similar manner, as elitist and inherently anti-popular. These charges are not hard to repudiate, and the connection between the black avant-garde and popular music should not need too much defending – Amiri Baraka had always maintained that Albert Ayler and James Brown were equally important as figures of black self-consciousness and self-expression (see his essay ‘The Changing Same’), and Lewis provides a corroborating anecdote about Henry Threadgill playing “free” in evangelical meetings (pp.75-6). Yet the other attack, often from critics with a black power agenda, like Baraka or Stanley Crouch, needs addressing – that connections with European classical music (Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and George Lewis with Cage, Stockhausen and IRCAM) are betrayals of blackness, ‘whitening’ the music and rendering it impotent, effectively obscuring and ignoring a part of one’s identity as an African-American by moving away from one’s heritage. This leads Baraka to claim that he would prefer to listen to the hegemonic comfort of Wynton Marsalis’ revivalism than to Lester Bowie or Henry Threadgill (though he believes that they too should have “regular stages” (p.444)). Lewis’ book is crucial in this respect, showing how misguided such criticisms are, and how the AACM’s avant-garde approach actually stays truer to heritage than Marsalis’ more overt engagements with black tradition. Maybe the Lincoln centre ‘jazz neo-conservatism’ is on its way out by now, though Stanley Crouch is still yelling out its propaganda at the top of his voice – still, for those taken with its proclamations, it might be helpful to consider this: who would berate contemporary rock musicians for not sounding like Hendrix, or contemporary composers for not sounding like Vivaldi?

Lewis, then, persuasively shows how much criticism of the work of black experimentalists, from both black and white critics, is based on outmoded principles and simplistic assumptions that might have people up in arms if applied to white composers - hence the famous 'anti-jazz' slur on Coltrane, and the assumption that one must be in the tradition (this mysterious, single tradition, always prefixed by the definite article) or one is nothing, and hence the straitjacketing of people to fit rules that you yourself have artificially imposed onto them. I don’t have the space to go into it here, but there are some crucial passages in which he argues that the annecdotalism of (predominantly white) 1950s and 60s jazz criticism (such as Leonard Feather’s ‘Blindfold Tests’) deliberately stirred up antagonism, and opened up a false and unnecessary chasm between traditional musicians and experimentalists, as well as creating a simplified and distorted climate, ill-suited for the reception of music (like the AACM’s) that went beyond a certain level of complexity, that went outside the bounds of certain fairly strict parameters.

In conclusion, then, Lewis has much say that is relevant and of interest, in relation to perceptions of music, and ways of avoiding the capitalist norm (communal, self organisation, art and mastery of a craft valued over 'product' and the market). Most relevant is his penetrating analysis of the still-present subtle and perhaps unconscious racial discrimination that exists when talking about this music: put the black man in his place, don't let him mix his entertaining jazz with serious music of any kind - hence the criticism of Braxton for taking an interest in Stockhausen. There are numerous thought-provoking passages which really do change one's perceptions of things might have just taken for granted – but I’ll leave individual readers to discover these for themselves.

In the end, despite compromises that may have had to be made (the move to New York, while creatively fruitful), and difficulties overcome. As attested to by the work of Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, and Lewis himself, these artists are still as creative as ever, and, even if some have moved beyond the AACM, they retain its ethos in all their activities. The younger generation is thriving too, and is in a reciprocal relationship with the older generation of pioneers, as seen in such examples as the collaboration between Matana Roberts and Fred Anderson on her album ‘The Chicago Project’ (reviewed elsewhere in this issue).

Characterising all these diverse activities is a strongly-held belief in the power of music as a force for good – not in a vague utopian sense, but as something that can have a real and positive impact on the lives of human beings. As Nicole Mitchell puts it, “we take for granted the power of what music really is. It’s not about trying to make a few dollars at some concert. It’s not about, do we have a crowd, or do I have an image, or have I, quote-unquote, made it.” (p.512) What it is about is the substance of this book.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Pharoah Sanders - Tauhid (1967)

Pharoah Sanders - alto & tenor sax, piccolo, voice
Sonny Sharrock - guitar
Dave Burrell - piano
Henry Grimes - bass
Roger Blank - drums
Nat Bettis - percussion

Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio, Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey, 15/11/1966.


"What...even those resistant to the new jazz...cannot escape is the emotional energy in the new music. By contrast, nearly every jazz breakthrough in the past has been challenged as being too 'intellectual', too 'European', not 'hot' enough. These days, the opponents of what's happening now seem to be charging that too much emotion is erupting in this music. And that is exploding without form. But too much emotion for whom? And what are the notions of form?"

Nat Hentoff, liner notes to 'Tauhid'

This is not 'Pharoah's First' - that's a strange album on ESP disk, with Mr Sanders trying to uproot himself from a conventional rhythm section, making them sound leaden as he tries to blaze apart their jazz preconceptions - but I guess you could consider it his debut proper, marking a continution of the work with Coltrane, but, perhaps more importantly, a departure into his own way of expressing a spiritual quest (indeed, of enacting it through music). It's important to note that this was actually recorded in 1966, when Sanders was still working with Coltrane, but I think the point still stands.

Over time, it would become more and more obvious that there was less of a sense of struggle, of 'working through' in Sanders' music, than in his mentor's - it was as if he took a step back from the brink on which Coltrane was constantly tetering, instead choosing to locate himself a little further from the edge, with brief forays back to that edge that were conducted almost in nostalgic reminiscence. Though I realise this does injustice to Pharoah's undoubted and utter sincerity, one has to wonder at the musical gap between 'Live in Japan' (1966) and 'Love will Find a Way' (1978). In just over ten years Pharoah's preoccupations have switched from emotion stretched to the limit, outside the confines of traditional modes of jazz expression (or indeed, of almost any pre-existing mode of musical expression at all), to a more easily pre-packaged emotionalism that exists within the admittedly pleasant strictures of 'smooth' strings, finger-popping electric basslines, and creamy backing vocals. His saxophone sound is still undoubtedly there - it's not as if he lost his voice (shoute himself hoarse?!) in whatever process occured in that 12-year period - but it's been reduced in impact. There's less overblowing, and when it does come, it's as an unambiguously joyful sound without the history of struggle behind it that would make it resonante so much more. This reduction of the personal touch at the same time causes the voice to lose its universality, its appeal to the primal instincts, the very roots of humam emotional perception and response/responsiveness to sound.

But at the time 'Tauhid' was released, no one was to know that in ten years they'd be hearing Pharoah playing what essentialy amounts to a slightly classier variant of smooth jazz (OK, they didn't really know what smooth jazz was at all - I suppose the nearest equivalent would be Bobby Hackett's 'muzak' of the 1950s, though that was probably a little more of a niche market than smooth jazz would turn out to be). Pharoah had his reputation (or infamy) as being probably the most 'out there' it got - along with Ayler, let's say, though his own music had been noticeably toned down in those last few years, through collaborations with Mary Maria and Cal Cobbs.

Yet on 'Tauhid' the 'young lion' proved to be, if not quite a vegetarian, less of the marauding predator pulling chunks off jazz's fleshy carcass than might have been expected. In the liner notes, Nat Hentoff stresses the lyricism of what he calls the 'New Jazz', which had previously been far less prominent in Sanders' work (the searching solo that follow Coltrane on 'Peace on Earth' or the Village Vanguard 'Naima' are in marked contrast to Coltrane's own relative calm in stating the melodies, and, notably, Sanders does not play on 'Serenity' from 'Meditations'). While Hentoff puts it that Sanders' range was "continually expanding" (with the increased lyricism presumably evidence of this), in hindsight we can see that this expansion eventually turned into limitation - the interest in beautiful, singable melodies and in African and Indian percussion and instrumentation ended up being little more than an exotic colouring for the comfort of repeating chord alternations, to which the solos on top sometimes seemed even to be subordinated.

Lyricism in 'Tauhid', then: a reviewer on Amazon.com describes the music as "otherworldy but familiar", and notes the paradoxical mixture of the harsh and the gentle for what is ultimately a serene effect. I'd argue that, while things may remain in the realms of paradox here, as Sanders' work became more groove-based, the fearsome overblowing ended up becoming almost (almost) a trick effect with which to spice up otherwise mellow grooves - that complex mixing of emotions, the refusal to be defined, indeed, by terms such as 'harsh' and 'gentle', abandoned for more conventional and repetitive structures and harmonies. It's hard to draw a line marking where exactly this happened - and I do still have a great affection even for Sanders' 'easier' work - but the enjoyment I get from listening to the albums shouldn't blind me to the fact that much of Sanders' work is seriously flawed. (How can this be? If you enjoy it, if it has an effect on you, that should surely be the judge, rather than by some false 'objective standard' of 'musical quality' - right? Well, as you can see, I can formulate my own counter-arguments to what I've just said, and this sort of line of reasoning often comes up when discussing free jazz. But I must admit that, despite the elation and peace I feel when listening to Pharoah on !Impulse!, there is always a slight feeling of disquiet there too - the suspiction that the music *encourages* one to switch off, to let it 'wash over' one as generalised vibe rather than as body-mind engagement / experience - and this is a long way from the *enhanced* consciousness offered by free jazz).

Maybe it's a question of 'Balance', to take the title of one of Sanders' compositions - that you have to take the good with the bad, the rough with the smooth. Thus, 'The Creator has a Master Plan' ends up repeating itself, as does 'Hum-Allah', while 'Izipho Zama' is a little episodic, but 'Live at the East' makes effective use of vocals and 'Enlightenment' is an infectious listen. 'Black Unity' is over-long, but the front-line of Sanders, Gary Bartz and Carlos Garnett ensures a degree of friction, and the double bass-line is indeed hypnotic; the title track of 'Summun Bukmun Umyun' is another so-so African-tinged groover with free patches, but the following 'Let us Go Into the House of the Lord' is genuinely inspired, with some absolutely sublime playing from Cecil McBee (who's turning into one of my favourite bassists at the moment). Let's put that bad/good formulation the other way other way round: while 'To John' on the rare, Japan-only 'Love in Us All' contains some of the most effective 'fire music' Sanders' recorded under his own name (genuine free jazz rather than the hybrid styles he tended to play in at this period), 'Love is Everywhere' takes a small idea, attractive enough in itself, and stretches it to ridiculous lengths. There's only so much chugging piano, willowy soprano sax, and sing-a-long vocals I can take. So, Sanders' legacy is one I have a complex relation to; while I listen to his music a lot (more so than Coltrane these days, though that doesn't mean I think he's 'better' than Trane at all), I still find it very problematic.


(1) 'Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt'

The album opens with a collective meditation. Tympani(?), cymbal smashes, Sharrock's new approach to post-Coltrane ballad guitar, twangy and shuddering, Burrell as chordal colourist - a group *sound* and *feel*, not the soloist as free individual striving to be the lone voice of truth (this sort of collectivisim is perhaps what people disliked so much about late Coltrane - the ensemble passages on 'Ascension', the infamous Philharmonic Hall concert where people expected to see the 'Classic Quartet' and instead got an 11-piece group with the Ayler Brothers, Pharoah, Alice, etc).

A brief Henry Grimes bass solo - again concerned with textures and sounds, with the bass's properties as means of producing sound, with timbre and quality, with woozy arco rather than the melodic, horn-like role of La Faro or Gomez with Bill Evans.

Now Sanders' enters for the first time. His delayed entry could be said to either downplay or enhance the individual leader role I hinted at in the first paragraph: by waiting so long, his entry becomes more expected ("this album is under his name - where is he?"), more hoped for, perhaps - but at the same time the delay is a way of saying "you don't *need* to hear me straightaway - these other guys are important too." Playing piccolo, rather than sax, he vocalises through the instrument while playing, as he does on 'To Be', the flute/piccolo duet with Coltrane on 'Expression'. An 'exotic' and still striking sound, it could have become a novelty effect if Sanders had chosen to over-deploy it, but this and 'To Be' are the only recorded instances, I think. Needless to say, it's effect is a little different to Roland Kirk's use of similar techniques...

Drum ritual, low-toned. Almost nine minutes in, and Grimes is about to solo again - no, instead he locks in and begins to build the famous groove that will underpin the rest of the track (I guess we've reached 'Lower Egypt'). In the 'pre-amble', I hinted at the role this emphasis on the groove played in the diminishing quality of Sanders' music, but this particular groove, as they say, still 'does it for me' every time. In itself, with the emphasis on rhythm (the players' truly functioning as 'rhythm section' here!), this could be seen as part of the 'back to Africa' movement - although (I speak from a position of relative ignorance), with a simplified, totalizing effect that downplays the complexities of actual African tribal music (to me, 'Bailaphone Dance' on 'Thembi' sounds more 'authentic', and certainly freer). Still, Nat Bettis, from the little I managed to find it via an internet search, was an ethnomusicologist, so presumably he wouldn't have been happy slotting in to provide a merely facile sense of exotic colouring.

And *Pharoah's solo*, though brief, has such impact. For reasons of context perhaps: it's the first time he's let rip on sax, indeed, the first time we've heard him play sax at all on the album. Once again, the employment of the delaying/ waiting tactic - "that groove's been going on for *three minutes* now - what the hell is going on?" You're about to find out - Pharoah, first, echoing the groove line, three times playing the riff, then some repeated figure, now a note, first clean, now overblown - then, suddenly, WHAAARGH! WHAAARGH! WHAAARGH! I find it hard to restrain a physical reaction to those overblown whorfs of sound when I hear them. They seem so inevitable, so right - so truly the sound of a man as himself, as one with his instrument, as looking at his true centre, his true self. From the liner notes, his quotes resonate: "I don't really see the horn anymore. I'm trying to see myself. And similarly, as to the sounds I get, it's not that I'm trying to scream on my horn, I'm just trying to put all my feelings into the horn. And when you do that, the ntoes go away[...] Why [do] I want clusters [of notes]? So that I [can] get more feeling, more of me, int oevery note I play. You see, everything you do has to *mean* something, has to be more than just notes. That's behind everything I do - trying to get more ways of getting feeling out."

The subdued vocals that follow, might be a little underwhelming on their own, but are perhaps a necessary coming down, back to earth, back to the groove, to melody, after that solo.

(2) 'Japan'

At just over three minutes, this is quite clearly an 'interlude' between the two long tracks that bookend it. Chugging bells and a stately promenade beat, Grimes mixing things up a little by alternating affirmative on-the-beat plucks with melodic counterpoint that goes in a slightly different direction. Sanders then sings the melody a few times, Grimes takes what I suppose one might call a short solo, then it ends. It's really all about the melody though, which could strike one as gorgeous and elegant, though to me it's alway seemed a little twee, a Hollywoodized idea of Japan rather than the deeper engagement with world musics that Hentoff's liners claim for it.

Sanders' vocal shows him embracing not the need to be 'correct' or 'traditional' (though he claims he was trying to impersonate an amalgamation of various different singers), but to be *yourself*. Certainly a different way of doing that to the 'Lower Egypt' solo, and few will argue that it's as succesful, but it has a pleasing, unaffected simplicity about it. From this track, one could say that Burrell and Sharrock are rather under-used on the record - or that this is just part of the collective conception. Certainly, Grimes is the most prominent solo voice after Sanders, which is somewhat unusual. Pretty much impossible to tell what Burrell's personal voice is from 'Tauhid' (Sharrock has it easier because no one else played the guitar like him, so, even if it's just a few seconds' space he gets, you're going to know it's him!)

(3) (A) 'Aum'

Pharoah had been here before, participating in Coltrane's 'OM' from 1965 (about which, see 'Circling Om', Simon Weill's superb article, available on the All About Jazz website). Things aren't nearly as terrifying here, though this is probably the freest section of the album. Lick-spit-riddling cymbals and hit-hat keep the sound tight, Grimes' immediately perplexing it with fast free walking, Burrell adds boxy ominous chords, then Sanders comes in, sribbling away on alto while Roger Blank switches to the more forceful toms. Off-mike for a moment, we might suppose Pharoah to be in an eye-closed calisthenics of ecstasy; he roils up and down, his tone vocal and gruff (though not as powerful as on tenor). Sawing, see-sawing up and down in motions that lead to a *strain* for volume and air, at the end, of those long notes held before the next darting rally. Highest in the mix behind the sax are the drums - the recording isn't great (they really should release a new mix of the album), but your ear can just about pick up Sonny Sharrock raging behind the Pharoah. Imagine the sonic experience if this had been better recorded! These guys truly had power behind their sound, it was *frightening* to the jazz establishment, to the critics, the guardians of 'good taste' and Jim Crow 'get in line Nigger' custodianship of a music they didn't really understand.

(B) 'Venus'

Sounds like they suddenly turned Sharrock up in the mix because they thought he was going to solo - as it is, Pharoah comes back in almost immediately, on tenor, but we do get to hear a precious few seconds of that guitar squall. Sanders' tone just *radiates* spirituality - later on, perhaps he traded on that a bit too much (by playing even just melodies he could convince), but here the utter sincerity is captivating, the vitality of being and the living of life in sound. Shakers and cymbals, strummed repeated bass notes and finally piano runs that prefigure Lonnie Liston Smith's harp-like arpeggios on 'Hum-Allah'. One might also note that 'Aum/Venus/Capricorn Rising' has the concision 'Hum-Allah' lacks. The three-part structure focusses things, prevents over-reliance on just one groove, one vibe. Sanders' playing of the melody, and variants on it, are the main focus here; either Sharrock's not playing, or he's just really undermiked - I guess guitar in avant-jazz wasn't really too common at the time; maybe producer Bob Theile just didn't know how to deal with it.

(C) 'Capricorn Rising'

'Capricorn Rising' seems to be a variation on the melody of 'Venus', no less sublime. It's as if Pharoah taps into this stream of melody which is that of the universe - he takes a little fragment, puts it in barlines, turns it into a melody of its own - self-sufficient, but part of a greater whole. And I guess that's the essence of jazz improvisation too - endless variation, and sometimes that reality can include what we'd term noise, fearsome sounds of overblown shrieks - all part of Pharoah's 'Journey to the One'. Earth-bound for transcendence, Pharoah's playing here acknowleges difficulty and struggle; indeed, it *incorporates* them into lyricism, rather than retreating into the slightly drippy peace-and-love sentiment, as with 'The Creator Has a Masterplan.'

So, where does that love 'Tauhid' as a whole? Well, it shows that, for all their reputations, free jazzers wrote damn good tunes, often better than the mainstream guys' - check out Frank Wright's 'Kevin My Dear Son' or 'Shouting the Blues' for other examples. It also ends too soon - an incomplete record. Obvious highlights - the 'Lower Egypt' solo, the melodic rhapsody of 'Venus' and 'Capricorn Rising' - remain flashes that never quite develop, and the lack of any real extended free jazz purification /catharsis feels like a missed opportunity (in particular, I can't help wishing we'd heard more of Sonny Sharrock). It was this uncertainty with *form* that was the major problem in Sanders' career, I think - not that I'm suggesting he should have tethered himself down more to the sort of structures/strictures the critics accused him of abandoning, but the solutions he came up with were often rather simplistic, aiming for coherence and instead getting a too broad-brush approach that tended to emphasize mood and vibe over detail and engagement.