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Ben Watson's contribution to the Punk Retrospective, convened by Mark Sinker at The Wire (November 1991)
photo credit: Paul Shearsmith
P U N K J A Z Z ... The very word sounds like blasphemy. To pop commonsense, what could be more different than punk and jazz? The one violent and nihilistic, defiantly threadbare, the other practically a marketing term for upwardly mobile lagers and expensive suits. Add to that the supposedly "white" nature of guitar rock and the black roots of jazz and they seem further apart still. But pause here: poor and white versus posh and black are images, not social truths (hence the need for iconoclasm). Punkjazz not only has a history that takes in the Situationists and BYG, Ornette and James Chance: it also has protagonists in the UK.
When the free improvising trio Hession/Wilkinson/Fell played this year at Huddersfield's Off!Shoots they left the audience in a state of shock. AC Temple's guitarist (and sometime Gun Club roadie) was shielding his ears with his fingers. What from? Whiteheat improvisation, full throttle free jazz out of Archie Shepp 1969, but somehow more so: more venom, more noise, more discord, more evil heat. Organiser Graeme Murrell was astonished: "I thought this would be jazz, but . . . you know, I used to be into Napalm Death and Bolthrower and that's what it was like".
Talk of hardcore/jazz crossover and you have to mention John Zorn - hardcore's most musically educated advocate, he has frequently hurled his bebop-trained alto into thrash environments (recently recording, for example, with Mick Harris, Napalm Death's drummer). Murrell, though, had not heard of Zorn beyond reading a review of The Big Gundown. Alan Wilkinson was intrigued by Zorn's Ornette-thrash opus Spy vs. Spy, but his baritone has been incubated over ten years of European collaborations and Leeds Termite gigs. Zorn has identified a genuine correspondence: it is no gimmick.
image: Out To Lunch
All three feel that academic jazz is a brake on creativity. Fell says: "Now you are getting a tradition of jazz education which is oppressive . . . the young people I teach who are consciously trying to work towards jazz seem to have least idea of what i t ought to involve. The ones who do the most interesting music are the ones coming from experimental rock or thrash metal".
Hession agrees. Currently on a guitar-building course surrounded by adolescents in Megadeth and Metallica T-shirts, he finds them much more open to ideas about music than people aspiring to be "jazz" musicians. Alan Wilkinson talks with enthusiasm about Jackie McLean and David Murray (players who always play at the top of their form), but explains that his idea of performance derives from too many disappointments: travelling all the way to London to see jazz heroes who do not try to deliver. Wilkinson has resolved to put everything on the line each time.
T H I S goes some way to explain the teeming intensity of the trio's music: no room to move, excuse, pretend otherwise. Fell reckons the three have gravitated together because of their desire to play densely and without reserve: "We are not afraid to go too far. That's what makes other people's music fragmented - people want to vary the picture. We'll have a climax and carry it further, instead of saying, Phew look at that! We say, Sod good taste - go for more!"
This approach has earned the trio a reputation for coarseness and vulgarity in high-minded improvising circles. Actually, Wilkinson is fascinated by sparse, cerebral playing (and speaks glowingly of John Butcher and John Russell) but he recognizes that this is not, finally, his ultimate music:
"It doesn't make me explode. The sight of Shepp's head expanding, sweat pouring off his face when he's going born! born!on the bottom of his horn - that makes me explode with excitement". He says this may stem from his adolescent desire for filthy heavy guitar music.
Hession speaks of how he is attracted to "dirt - imperfection, rough edges, lack of polish". Paradoxically, these players have needed to hone their technique to achieve such imperfections. Unlike hero Paul Lovens, Hession is an incredibly tidy drummer to watch. There are only a handful of bands - Marilyn Crispell's Quintet, Last Exit, Phalanx, Reggie Workman's Ensemble - that can equal them for simultaneous musicality and cathartic excess.
"Anarchy In The UK" was backed with "No Fun", a song from the first Stooges album ("No Fun" was the b-side of "Pretty Vacant" NOT "Anarchy in the UK"! - How did Wire office miss this? EL). Iggy Pop described early rehearsals: "thunderous, racy music, which would drone on and on, varying the themes. It was entirely instrumental at the time, like Jazz gone wild. It was very North African, a very tribal sound: very electronic". The Stooges' most powerful record, Fun House (1970), had saxophonist Steven Mackay adding Shepp-like extremities to the power chords. It provided the blueprint for X-Ray Spex and Lora Logic's sax. The trans-spectrum overblow of free jazz threaded its way via the Stooges into the Pistols sound. Without that it would have indeed been the "fast heavy metal" its detractors deplored.
Most jazz players rejected punk as hype, especially when punks boasted of not being able to play. You needed to understand anti-art to suss this scene. Lol Coxhill toured with The Damned, but he was the exception. Ronnie Scott did not book The Vibrators; Gaye Advert was not invited to play at Company Week; ECM Records did not sign The Nipple Erectors.
Ornette Coleman, though, thought differently. He had not followed Miles Davis into the electric world of Bitches Brew, seemingly intent on preserving his free jazz as chamber music. In 1969, though, he had released Ornette At 12, with his twelve-year-old son playing drums. He had also started playing violin and trumpet with no apparent training. This protested against fetishisation of skill in a manner similar to punk. In 1977, he released Dancing In Your Head, all twangy guitars, pressured 2/4 rhythms and rockingly repetitive riffs. It was greeted by the press as Ornette's "punk jazz". It is interesting to consider why Ornette's harmolodics do indeed sound punk when there are none of punk's hallmarks: feedback guitars, snarled vocals, brevity. Rhythmic impatience and delight in discord (the jazz equivalent of punk noise) and its no-room-for-margins, no-more-spectators onslaught were what made it punk. The effects were first registered in New York. New Wave (Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads) was superseded by No Wave. James Siegfried, a hip white kid who had gone to school with Mark Johnson (later Cassandra Wilson's drummer), formed James Chance & The Contortions. He recruited guitarist Bern Nix from Ornette's band and developed his own version of the new style. Siegfried's defiantly original saxophone was an unholy combination of Captain Beefheart and Maceo Parker. This was punkjazz so pure and beautiful it still makes the conventional categories curl at the edges. A later version of the band, James White and the Blacks, spawned Defunkt. Ornette's drummer Shannon Jackson ran a band - Decoding Society - which birthed Living Colour, designed to shake up the whole rock edifice. Hardcore (a word for screwing up punk impact a further twist) was the invention of a black mid-80s outfit who combine formidable post-fusion chops with uplifting political intensity and a singer who moves like Iggy Pop: Bad Brains. The racism of the music industry obscures the fact that black music is still the prime mover, even where rock is concerned.
PUNKJAZZ keeps resurfacing: an essential thread of anticommodity protest woven from view for marketing convenience. No accident that two of the most inventive forces in "English Jazz", Billy Jenkins and Pinski Zoo, both have a strong affinity to punk. Purer than either, Hession/Wilkinson/ Fell cut like a hot knife through a scene rendered torpid by the general turn to fusion (now just another word for the middle of the road). The fact that they are not signed to a major label merely shows how flaccid and timid the jazz revival has become. Ripe for a new Pistols, in fact.
photo credit: Andrew StockwellGet You Back Home