Clifford Jordan's Glass Bead Games: Coltrane's Progeny
Glass Bead Games
Clifford Jordan was a soulful, powerful, deeply thoughtful Chicago tenor player who, though sought after by pianist Horace Silver and praised by fellow saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was fated to be the Lester Young of his era, misunderstood and often overlooked by general followers of the music. He had little interest in hard bop, funk or fusion, and his muse did not tempt him, like John Coltrane's, to scale Olympian heights. Not even his invaluable contribution to what may be Silver's most creative and satisfying Blue Note recording, Further Explorations By The Horace Silver Quintet (Blue Note, 1958), has brought him much notice because, inexplicably, it remains out of print domestically, one of the few Silver recordings not to be reissued as a Rudy Van Gelder remaster.
The single recording that best represents this gentle giant is 1974's Glass Bead Games, a two- volume session on which Jordan leads two quartetsthe first with drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Stanley Cowell, and bassist Bill Lee; the second retaining Higgins while replacing Cowell with Cedar Walton and Lee with Sam Jones.
Fetching sky-high prices on eBay, then reissued as a costly, incomplete Japanese import, it's small wonder the elusive album's reputation exceeds the number who have actually heard it. Early in 2007 Jordan's widow authorized release of the first complete and only domestic reissue of the legendary session once prized by collectors. Rest assured that the music more than lives up to its reputation. The session could easily be viewed as a missing link between tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter's JuJu (Blue Note, 1964) and Footprints Live (Verve, 2004), or as a more significant venture than either. Not only does the recording bear out the acclaim bestowed upon it by tenor giant Sonny Rollins, confirming Jordan's own mastery of the horn and establishing him as one of its unique and compelling voices, but it invites comparison with Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1964), an inarguable influence on Jordan.
Although using the same instrumentation as Coltrane, Jordan's musical discourse is a distinct departure. Besides Coltrane's seminal recording, Jordan was inspired by Hermann Hesse's 1943 Nobel prize- winning final novel, The Glass Bead Game. The title refers to a futuristic game designed to give players who have mastered its rules an understanding of the primary principle linking all arts, sciences and knowledge. So intrigued is Jordan by Hesse's game and its field of play that he employs it not merely in reference to one of his original compositions and to the session of which it is a part, but as a touchstone to the music as a whole. The twelve tunes on the date soon come to sound as a single, albeit many-faceted, organically whole piece, amounting to a virtual enactment of Hesse's famous game.
In the notes included with this latest edition of the recording, writer Stanley Crouch alludes to the session's "high velocity reflection" and "heated joy," attributing both to the music's "overwhelming the moment," insisting that this music "takes command of the moment to such an extent that each player's individuality and the power of the ensemble become onethe point at which everyone consistently makes the right decision" [Crouch's italics].
Crouch certainly speaks to the powerful effect of the music, though the reader might question his identification of the cause. The extraordinary accomplishment of these musicians is not so much to "control" the moment as to be fully in it, going beyond the more familiar and necessarily doomed struggle to extend or stop time. The experience of temporal flow, of the continuity of the self in time, of the connectedness of the individual with the "other," is fully realized during this singularly collaborative creation. Moreover, there is no prescriptive, external standard that must be met: the "right decision" is simply the one that doesn't disrupt the moment, the opportunistic move that keeps it in play.
The Cultural Context
Although the music stands on its own, Jordan's indebtedness to Hesse provides a key to understanding his approach and unique achievement, separating his music from the predecessor's quest for the sublime. Popularly regarded as Coltrane's apex, A Love Supreme was representative of its times, occurring at a threshold moment signaling the arrival of what an idealistic generation named the Age of Aquarius, which came to be seen as the outcome of the young artist's heroic, Promethean pursuit of a transcendent trutha quest, moreover, offering rapturous freedom to all willing to accept the boon of the artist-hero. The music comprising the Jordan date, on the other hand, marks a radical shift from the visionary, residually Romantic art of the 1960s, a time when artists seemed to be seeking beauty and truth in some timeless, transcendental order, or "other place." [At this point some readers may wish to bypass the theoretical implications of Jordan's Glass Bead Games and go directly to the discussion of the music.]
In the next decade the focus shifted from the transcendental to the textual, from "truths" to "meanings," as the philosophical critiques of thinkers like Nietzsche, and the playful literary games of writers like Hesse, had begun to grab hold in the broader academic and popular culture. European structuralists Roland Barthes (Death Of The Author) and Umberto Eco (Name Of The Rose) began to attract widespread attention, and soon a group of related theorists, known as "post-structuralists," could claim an even larger following, as seen in the growing popularity of cultural buzz words like "deconstruction" and "postmodern." Perhaps not surprisingly, many American readers remained unimpressed by the dense, theoretical jargon of French post-structuralists like Lacan, Foucault and Derrida and instead were drawn to Robert Pirsig's hugely popular Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, a 1970s novel that has perennially aroused cult-like devotion among new generations of readers, with its challenge to cosmologies positing a separate order of absolute, transcendent truth.
Common to all of these textsNietzsche's, Hesse's, and the structuralists and post-structuralists of the 1970swas a new paradigm replacing the dualistic order handed down from Plato as well as theologies acknowledging two ordersone physical, the other metaphysical, with the latter characterized as being in some sense higher, or the realm of "truth." The new "textualists," as they were sometimes called, dismissed the notion of stable meanings existing in some realm of abstraction outside the finite world. The only meanings with any relevance to human subjects are those made within a spatial-temporal order, or dynamic energy field, through the symbols of consciousness. In The Glass Bead Game, Hesse follows Nietzsche in acknowledging no reality outside the self and the texts created by language (the "beads" of verbal, mathematical, scientific and, in this case, musical language). The key to understanding the basis of our "reality" is to see that all of itthe arts, humanities and sciencesis not merely represented but constituted by these particles of consciousness, whether referred to as "language" or, in Hesse's case, as "beads." In other words, the game itself replaces the former importance of its authors.
Barthes asserts that the death of the author is the birth of the reader. Heroesauthors, musicians, scientists, inventorsare now replaced by master players all equally engaged in a game whose language, or symbols, is inexhaustible ("Every signified is also a signifier," in the parlance of post-structuralism). In music the new paradigm dissolves not only the space between soloist and ensemble but between performer and listener as all are engaged equally in the language of an interactive game. The goal is no longer the attainment of a state of rapture, or even of aesthetic pleasure, but rather the experience of Jouissance, which is the listener's discovery and acceptance of the conditions necessary to keep the game in play.
Clifford Jordan's Glass Bead Games acknowledges but then turns away from Coltrane's heroic questing after elusive transcendental truths and commits itself to a game that's close at hand. Hesse's emphasis on a mastery of the rules, or "language," of the Game deserves careful consideration. Most of us struggle with language, trying to make it express meaningsliterary, musical, or otherwisewe assume are outside of language. Like the Romantic artist, we chafe at the bit of language, seeing it as a barrier between the self and the reality it wishes to describe or express. We could express deep emotions, we tell ourselves, if only the words, or musical notes, didn't get in the way. The tension produced by the Romantic artist's struggles with language is felt by the reader or listener in the failed attempts at transcendence, as in the poet Shelley's "Ode To The West Wind," in which the Icharus-like idealist narrator exclaims: "I fall on the thorns of life, I bleed!"
On the other hand, the opening epigraph from Hesse is an epiphany granted the speaker because language is no longer the resistant "means": it's the meaning, the end in itself. For geniuses like Shakespeare and Bach, there is no "transcendent": the literary or musical text makes no "truth claims" that it cannot prove. Meaning does not lie outside the "text in some extra-textual place. A quick Google search will reveal numerous attempts to reconstruct Hesse's game, most of which bog down in literal interpretations of its complex, sophisticated rules. Taken as a metaphor, the beads represent the particles of the universal energy field that is consciousness itself, thus opening the game to musicians, mathematicians, and all "players" who possess, first, sufficient competencies not to require calling attention to them, and, second, an ability to displace all attention from the player to the game itself.
The title tune of the two legendary 1974 sessions featuring tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan with two quartets is a touchstone to the music on the album, which can be seen as an organically whole enactment of Hesse's famous game. Compared to Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Jordan's Glass Bead Games is less prayerful and more playful, less searching and more knowing, less focused on the religious quest than its rewards. The rapturous intensity of the earlier date is replaced by the quiet energies of the benefactors.
The session, like Coltrane's, opens with an invocationon "Powerful Paul Robeson." Played out of tempo with supporting coloration provided by Cowell's widely spaced voicings and Higgins' alternations between cymbal and snare, Jordan's prayer is intimately, informally "conversational" in nature. He has command of the altissimo register, but his use of it is earthy, "throaty," a voice attached to a sensuous body. Soon he establishes, virtually imperceptibly, a medium-tempo groove, which Lee followed by Higgins (pictured above) quickly fall in line with. The ensuing tenor solounderstated, dynamically nuanced, exploratory yet thoughtfully structured and completereaches the second of three out-of-tempo moments of reassuring serenity. The second, moreover, turns the game over to Cowell (below, on left), who responds with a solo of rare luminescent beauty, emulating the leader's economy and understated elocution, his fingers dancing lightly on the keys, his textures spare, a thought behind each note.
With the third track, "Prayer To The People," the session reaches its first climax, a moment of understated sublimity, and of ineffable calm. Staying in the major key (G) throughout, Jordan juxtaposes in a single measure notes from the lower and altissimo registers so effortlessly, so "naturally," that a listener is scarcely aware of the pitch disparities. It's a whispered yet powerful eloquence that enables him to be at once playful and prayerful, calming but riveting. Once again, the pianistthis time Walton absorbs the discourse of the predecessor with an almost equally spare and purposeful solo statement before Jordan re-enters and brings the piece to closure, leaving the listener in a state of blessed, if momentary, quietude.
The suspended moment of thanksgiving is broken beginning with the fourth track, "Cal Massey," which initiates a series of three musical portraits of kindred creative spirits. Cal Massey, the legendary composer- trumpeter, is a portrait of determination and strength in Jordan's brief but robust composition, with all four members of the quartet playing the melody in unison, followed by a Jordan solo that builds majestically from the original theme. Cowell's follow-up sustains the leader's idea, avoiding formulaic voicings in favor of two-handed motives running in contradistinction to one another before climaxing in broadly-spaced chords resonating with an epic grandeur.
Now comes perhaps the most mesmerizing moment on the session, effectively "sealing" the listener within the game as a mutual player. "John Coltrane" is introduced as a prelude by Lee's bass, which soon establishes a rhythmic pattern, augmented first by Higginss cymbalisms, then by Cowell's strumming the strings of the piano's soundboard, and finally the addition of Jordan's tenor, which mixes meditative incantations with lyrical intertextual commentary before surrendering the sanctum to Lee's repeated bass pattern accompanied by Higgins' simultaneous use of brushes and a tambourine, the spell culminating with the musicians singing the words "John Coltrane, black spirit and first newborn." The track represents the second climax of the performance, like "Prayer For The People" offering not merely a supplication but evidence of the newborn's legacy. The first time through, the "chorus" sings in unison; the second, in harmony. Rather than the uniform incantation of A Love Supreme, theirs is the song of the forbear's children, discretely delighting in their newfound jouissance.
The segue to the playfulness of "Eddie Harris" is as appropriate musically as it is thematically, with Lee's bass again introducing the piece, this time with an engaging, funky figure picked up immediately by Jordan's affirming unison, followed by Cowell and then Higgins joining in on the festivities. With "Biskit" Lee completes a hat trick, introducing a third consecutive tune with unaccompanied bass, this time with the most infectious, kinetic energy on the session. All four players foreground rhythm and maintain the dance, with Higgins constantly switching up patterns on the ride cymbal and snare while generating a high-energy swing from "within" the group, the pulse emanating outward, as though the equally shared responsibility of all four members. And for the third time in succession, it's Lee's solo bass that brings closure to the piece.
Tracks 8 and 9 bring back the second quartet with two Walton compositions, "Shoulders" opening with aggressive Jordan, and "Bridgework" beginning much the same, except that Walton's piano (on left) now doubles the assertive melody of the saxophone. On both tunes Jordan's solo is so resistant to learned patterns, to confinement to any single register of the instrument's range, and to maintaining a single dynamic level, that Walton's solos reflect much of the same freedom, with the exception of the latter tune, on which the pianist resorts to some glossy runs and pat voicings.
The difference between the two quartets becomes even more apparent when Cowell and Lee (pictured right) return for the next two tracksCowell's "Maimoun" and Higgins' "Alias Buster Henry," which together constitute the third and final climax to the set. On the former, Cowell opens with octaves yielding to thickly textured chords followed in order by Lee's galvanizing pulse, then Higgins' encouraging brushwork, and finally the leader's embracing of the graceful descending melodic line, eventually returning it to Lee, who brings the piece to calm closure with arco bass.
"Alias Buster Henry" begins with a brief drum solo by the composer before Lee once again establishes a deep groove. Each time the piece is taken throughinitiated in order by Jordan, then Cowell, next Lee, and finally Higginsthe tempo is way up, gradually decelerating and coming to a stand-still, then repeating the process. The four players are in such complete synch that the changes in tempo, texture and timbre; the distinction between the ensemble and the soloist; the pauses between selections are all secondary to the continually unfolding, inexhaustible surprises and serendipitous delights that will keep the "active" listener returning again and again.
Glass Bead Games is full of revelations at many levels. First, the decade of the 1970s did produce genuinely creative, "human" new music flowing from the jazz mainstream; second, Bill Lee (pictured on right) was more than Spike's dad: he was a superlative bassist, a team player of the first order, a powerful catalyst who, if anything, deserves to be better known than his son; third, Billy Higgins was, as so many musicians insist, a once-in-a-lifetime drummerthe bellows inspiriting the collective flame.
Most importantly, Clifford Jordan was an artist of the first order, his playing so effortless and unforced, unselfconscious and focused, mature and wise that, at a time when altissimo fury was all the rage, it's small wonder his authentic voice frequently went unheard. His musical rhetoric is so personally expressive, its substance so compelling, the listener couldn't care less about the extraordinary technique required to convey its captivating message. Compared to some of his more acclaimed peers he's a less aggressive yet paradoxically more directive and shaping influence. The climaxes, rather than spelled out, are merely suggested, registering with deep and lasting impact on the listener. It all comes down to learning the language, those precious little beads. Not every player, including Jordan or the listener, can use it like Shakespeare, but all can learn to read Shakespeare and understand its principles of arbitrariness and serendipity, of invariance and transformation.
Jordan, no less than Shakespeare, requires a like-minded cast of playersin this case four musicians of such redoubtable proficiency that each remains committed to keeping the beads in play. He's not a man content with a mere musical "dialogue" with his fellow musicians nor is he about to take the initiative in pulling his troops up to his level. Instead he begins to tell a musical story that's so compelling his three comrades are inspired equally to contribute to a collaborative narrative. This is brilliant music-making by a Coltrane- influenced successor who feels no obligation to mime the predecessor. It may be the most significant saxophone performance on record since Coltrane and, providing the listener stays with it for any length of time, the most deeply satisfying. Jordan's gameso effortless, unforced, and "level"erases distinctions between composed and improvised, soloist and ensemble, narrator and narrative, the dancer and the dance. It seems incapable of wearing out its welcome.
To call the playing "remarkable" is to do it an injustice: rather, it's exemplary as a record of one instance of tapping into and then realizing the potential of the vast energy field that is human consciousness. The moment one player shifts attention from the beads to the skill of the mover, the game's up. The first quartet, with Stanley Cowell and Bill Lee, keeps the game freely in play; the second quartet, with Cedar Walton and Sam Jones (on left) replacing Cowell and Lee respectively, introduces just enough self-intruding glibness to occasionally disturb play. Keeping the game alive, as Hesse knew, is an altogether rare, epiphanic event, as is this extraordinary recording.
Tracks: Powerful Paul Robeson; Glass Bead Games; Prayer To The People; Cal Massey; John Coltrane; Eddie Harris; Biskit; Shoulders; Bridgework; Maimoun; Alias Buster Henry; One For Amos.
Personnel: Quartet 1: Clifford Jordan: tenor saxophone; Billy Higgins: drums; Stanley Cowell: piano; Bill Lee: bass. Quartet 2: Clifford Jordan: tenor saxophone; Billy Higgins: drums; Cedar Walton: piano; Sam Jones: bass.
This authorized edition of Glass Bead Games is available, at a reasonable price, apparently from a single distributer.