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The Creative Music Improvisers Forum: New Haven's AACM

Daniel Barbiero By

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As Smith described it, CMIF's was essentially an ecumenical vision of a compositionally-structured, improvisation-pervaded music informed by the musical cultures of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe—an admirably broad-minded vision that was inclusive in the most generous sense of the word. Although at its founding CMIF was made up of musicians working with Western instruments within predominantly Western-developed forms, one of the group's goals was eventually to incorporate into the Creative Improvisors Orchestra instruments and performers representing the world's various musical traditions. Some of the members had already taken steps in that direction: in New Dalta Ahkri, for instance, Brown played Ghanian flute in addition to bass and Smith played Indian and bamboo flutes as well as various percussion instruments; in addition, the Creative Improvisors Orchestra percussion section included gongs and other non-Western instruments as well.

The music on The Sky Cries the Blues finds the group playing works that, featuring structures more complex than the basic head-improvisations-head arrangements of much mainstream jazz, integrated elements of composition and improvisation in organic and sophisticated ways. Composition was an important part of what CMIF was about and was emphasized by Smith in particular; as Pavone remembered it, Smith encouraged members to compose. In a 1991 interview with Robert Spencer of Cadence Magazine, double bassist Joe Fonda, who recalled becoming a part of CMIF in the early 1980s—after having seen a flyer advertising for new members—also credited Smith with having had a decisive influence on his own emergent musical concepts. Encouraged by Smith and by their own backgrounds, CMIF's composer/improvisers didn't restrict themselves to a narrow set of influences but instead looked to a variety of models and sources. Although most of the musicians on the recording were rooted in the jazz tradition—and some, like Andrews, who doesn't appear on the recording, had had classical or conservatory training as well—the influences of contemporary art music were noticeably present as well.

The four compositions realized on The Sky Cries the Blues were performed by a large orchestra: sixteen pieces on three of the four tracks, with guitar added to make seventeen on the other track. The instrumentation consisted of four brass, four reeds/woodwinds, three double basses, and five percussionists including vibes. The makeup of the orchestra ensured a broad compass and a wide gamut of instrumental colors, all of which were used to good effect. Of the four compositions on the album, two were contributed by Smith and one each by Hemingway and Naughton.

Smith's "Black Fire in Mother-Land My Soul," the opening tracks, is an art song that plays on the contrasts of instrumental voices by setting out short, asymmetrical themes that serve to separate the choirs of brass, woodwinds and strings, to which is added Harryson Buster's voice. "Return to My Native Land II," also by Smith, provides further evidence of his skill as a colorist. The piece begins with the rattle of percussion and moves into sets of dissonant chords built up from the fused timbres of brass and woodwinds. Lines for vibes and a drum interlude add a further layer of timbral contrast, as do the series of sparsely accompanied solos for saxophone and bass clarinet. The percussion-thick passage towards the close makes an effective allusion to the group's interest in non-Western traditions of polyrhythms.

Hemingway's "The Interstices of a Dream (for Henry Miller)" is a tension-maintaining piece built on the dark undertow of a recurring drone played by the basses. Like a dream it proceeds as a montage of uncannily juxtaposed and changing moods. Hemingway mixes composed and improvised parts to create introspective and expressive passages, which are thrown into relief by a duet for guitar and saxophone and solos for drums and bass clarinet.

A Phrygian figure in a steady pulse played by the three-bass section of Wes Brown, Joe Fonda and Mario Pavone opens Naughton's "Picnic Wobble," the final track on the album. In contrast to the predominantly episodic pieces that precede it on the album, it largely maintains the continuity of its steady pulse throughout, while allowing for breaks into brief solo statements from many of the players.

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