Anthony Coleman: Ambiguity is a Richness

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By Anthony Coleman

Tradition. Sometimes I really don't like that word. It feels so limiting, conservative. And so much current discourse revolves around it. And we've seen something many of us hoped for: "jazz", or whatever you want to call it, put on the pedestal with the other great music of the world. Why aren't we happy?

In my musical world there are so many influences. Improvisation is central, but not always present, and certainly not always jazz-based. Everybody's into so many different things, and they all try to honor them and at the same time to subsume them into something that approaches a seamless vocabulary - what is called personal style.

Harold Bloom speaks of A Map of Misreading and The Anxiety of Influence. The way what he calls "strong poets" are in a constant dialogue with great predecessors. It's a very seductive theory. When I was 16, I was already prone to this very canonical way of thinking. There was Jelly Roll, Duke, Monk, Cecil...this was the jazz composer/pianist tradition and this is what I imagined my lineage to be.

Well, life had other plans for me and when I look at the orthodox image of the jazz tradition as it is bought and sold today I shake my head in bemusement. It's really not my world. And yet, I'm spending a good deal of my time developing this project where I'm interpreting the music of Jelly Roll Morton...

I find myself returning time and time again to Jorge Luis Borges' story Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote. Menard is a writer who submerges himself into Cervantes' language to such a degree that he brings forth a text which is, word for word, identical to that of Cervantes but, as Borges says, "infinitely richer". Borges contrasts Cervantes' writing, which reflects the common practice of his time, with that of Menard, who, writing 300 years later, is quixotically heroic in his ability to take on 17th century language and philosophy.

Neither the idea of re-creation nor the idea of updating - taking works as a framework for wild interpolations - really intrigues me. This story is my philosophical bulwark; it helps me to carry on with my project. Yes, I love the music but without Borges' brilliant reductio ad absurdum I could be happy to listen to the records and play the pieces for selected friends at parties. He brings out, at one and the same time, the absurdity and the tragedy and the sense of mission and neccessity inherent both in trying to make the old new and in trying to create some sense of a cultural continuum.

When Borges states that Menard's text is "infinitely richer" than Cervantes', he adds the following comment: "more ambiguous, his detractors will say; but ambiguity is a richness." Ambiguity is a Richness. This could almost be a motto for my musical milieu, and I keep this phrase close to me at all times. I am more indulgent than Menard; I have steeped myself in '20s jazz practice, but when an anachronistic sonority, line or groove emerges I subject it to intense questioning. Can I live without it? If not, it stays for a reason: the extent to which it illuminates an aspect of the original. There's a chorus in Morton's solo performance of "Wolverine Blues" which is a linear-ization of the chord progression that, though diatonic, evokes the bop to come 20 years later; the chromatic progression at the beginning of "Frog-i-more" begs to be blown upon; the funky groove of "Fickle Fay Creep" is enhanced by the subtle infusion of a funkier bass line - at least I think so. But what I keep close to me at all times - what has influenced me the most - is Morton's sense of form and process. Many of his pieces have an almost didactic presentation of the 3rd theme or strain as a sort of chorale. As this section repeats (this is usually the "blowing" section), it expands, opens up registrally and gesturally, becomes more and more syncopated and rhythmically active. Anyone who has listened to Morton's Discourse on Jazz from the Library of Congress recordings can recognize the connections between his analysis of what makes jazz jazz (both as opposed to ragtime and as a music in itself) and the exposition of his theories in his music. He is a conceptual thinker of a very particular order, and he sacrifices surface color and excitement and contrast to his ideas about language. That is why his music will never engage as many people as Duke's or Armstrong's. Well, it's not the only reason...

There's a lot more I could say. I have put my own music on the side for a minute in order to arrive at the teleology of this project - to make it what I think it is. As I said to an audience recently, "the extent to which my performance of one of these pieces is 'post-modern' is the extent to which I haven't really inhabited it yet..." And I wonder sometimes about what I'm doing with this - tilting at windmills? But, in any case, if I feel like I have anything to say to the legions of epigones who "celebrate tradition" in our day and age it is just this: recreate whatever you want to recreate but remember, ambiguity is a richness.

The NYC-born composer-keyboardist Anthony Coleman studied with the late Jaki Byard and has since performed and recorded with his own projects (Sephardic Tinge piano trio, Selfhaters Orchestra, the Lobster and Friend duo with saxophonist Roy Nathanson) and with numerous other ensembles (Marc Ribot's Los Cubanos Postizos, and duos with singer Shelley Hirsch as well as with Elliott Sharp). He has also produced recordings for Marc Ribot, Basya Schecter and Pharoah's Daughter.

Photo Credit
Peter Gannushkin

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