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How to Know: Spirit Music - Crazy Wisdom, Shamanism And Trips To The Black Sky

Ken Hyder By

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The following is an excerpt from the "Instability as an Aid to Spirit Music" chapter of How to Know by Ken Hyder (Amazon Digital Services, 2013).

There is a tension between precision and looseness.

In jazz, the tension is minute, but it makes all the difference to whether the music swings or not. In the old days, jazz bands and dance bands often played the same tunes. In a dance band it was usually stiff. And precise. In the jazz band it was loose and diverse among the players, with some players usually playing very slightly behind the others by the merest of milliseconds, creating a tension—and swing.

The paradox is that the tempic differences which create the swing are also in fact very precise, and this tension between strict-tempo and loose swing is something which goes throughout music-making.

Then there is another way to make things more interesting. How the drummer plays. If you look at two drummers who played in Spirit Music ensembles you can easily hear their different approaches. Elvin Jones was John Coltrane's drummer on that classic Spirit Music album, A Love Supreme, and Sunny Murray played with Albert Ayler on many albums, including his classic, Spiritual Unity.

Incidentally, many young musicians, and jazz educators got Coltrane's music wrong. They couldn't see it as Spirit Music at all. Maybe they thought A Love Supreme was some kind of romance, but that would have meant they had not read the sleevenotes. It was pretty obvious that this music was intended to be spiritual. But instead of acknowledging that, jazz professors insisted on teaching that Coltrane was a complex player, and in order to emulate (copy) him, they should learn to play fast and complex.

Max Roach once told me about these educators: "If you look at what we were doing with Charlie Parker in the 40s and 50s it was revolutionary music. Yet those jazz schools churned out students who only studied technique. Sure, they were technically accomplished—but they did not have the feeling. They played it like repertoire music."

Trane's drummer, Elvin Jones was a phenomenal timekeeper. So good was he that when Miles' and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain album was being recorded and players were having difficulty with some of the very slow tempos, they brought in Elvin to play percussion and keep everyone in time.

But that was not his role in the Coltrane quartet. His role was to provide a rolling polyrhythmic barrage so complex it was hard to follow. It made the listener focus more intensely on what was going on. Even the accents seemed random like small explosions in a skirmish.

I remember seeing Elvin playing at Ronnie Scott's. It was coming to the end of the chorus, and Elvin was about to launch one of his across-the-rhythm maelstroms which would end in a cliff-hanger of silence before starting the next part of the piece.

And rather considerately he looked at the bassist, who was certainly no slouch, and muttered: "Watch out!"

Sunny Murray did it differently. He was more polytempic than polyrythmic. He disoriented the listener by speeding up and slowing down. A lot. And having more than one tempo going on at one time.

Something might be made of his American Indian ancestry...and the Siberian connection with the native Americans coming over the Bering strait thousands of years ago. And the way many Siberian shamans play...speeding up and slowing down, making genuinely random accents.

The fact is that Sunny Murray created a floating freedom where you felt the tempo loosely, and you went with it as it got faster or slower. And it worked. Albert Ayler's tunes were excellent vehicles like a shaman's algysh—his or her spirit song which leads them to the altered state. And just as shamans do (I don't want to say "perform") their algysh differently each time to keep themselves fresh and aware, Ayler's band did the same thing.

None of this means if you copy Sunny Murray, then you will therefore play Spirit Music, any more than churned-out saxophone students succeed in fully emulating Charlie Parker, Coltrane or Ayler. And it doesn't mean that these are the only methods.

But it is the case that instability can be an integral part of some kinds of Spirit Music like the Korean Sinawi shaman-music, which, when I first heard it, sounded a bit like a lot of the free-jazz which was being created in Europe in the 1970s.

And in Siberia, tension between simple clarity and unpredictable multiplicity of lines is apparent among shamans in Tuva.

It starts with the drum itself. The dungur.

Unlike my drumming teachers in Scotland and later in London, the shamans never said a word about how to hold the drumstick (the orba). They never talked about rhythm, nor tempi and hardly mentioned music at all.

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