THE MAPENZI SOLO SERIES Performances at Mapenzi, Berkeley
Joseph Jarman / flutes, alto and sopranino saxophones, bass clarinet, percussion, voice. January 7,8, 1977 Roscoe Mitchell / alto saxophone. January 14, 15, 1977 Andrew Hill / piano. January 28, 29, 1977 Oliver Lake / alto and curved soprano saxophones, flute, harmonica, percussion, voice. February 17, 18, 19, 1977 Anthony Braxton / alto saxophone. March 3, 4, 5, 1977 Leo Smith / trumpet, flugelhorn, pocket trumpet, piccolo trumpet, Indian transverse flute, Ghanian bamboo flute, gongs, home-made gamelan, percussion. March 10, 11, 12, 1977 Julius Hemphill / alto and soprano saxophones, flute, taped accompaniment. March 17, 18, 19, 1977 Leroy Jenkins / violin, viola. March 24, 25, 26, 1977 Baikida Carroll / trumpet, flugelhorn, trumpet with saxophone mouthpiece. April 21, 22, 23, 1977
From January through April, a remarkable – and probably unprecedented – series of solo performances took place at Mapenzi in Berkeley. They spanned a range of musical possibilities, underlining the multiplicity of approaches to the art of solo playing that they encompassed. Yet there was a certain single-mindedness of purpose about them all too, or a certain aesthetic awareness that might best be characterized as the implicit acknowledgement of being (now) at a particular place along a musical (improvisational) space/time continuum. This could be said to revolve around two things: the perfection of language and the extension of form, the former being something of a prerequisite for the latter. For these were statements of a rather classic sort, meaning that for the most part, they were highly self-contained, and while retaining a basic commitment to improvisation, rhythmic sophistication, and to chance taking, they might best be described as “contemporary” works rather than, strictly speaking, “avant garde.”
To say that is to take nothing away from the performances themselves for, taken together, they demonstrated something of the deep-rooted and essential strength of (Black) American improvisational music in this period. But, to be sure, there is now a certain acceptance of instrumental limitation, those limits being ones largely established a decade ago. And rather than pushing further and further into areas of more “abstract” sound – what extensions there were occurred over more of a horizontal than a vertical space, that being the transference of certain sound principles (those being ones still associated primarily with pitch) from instrument to instrument (the concept of multi-instrumentalist) – that language is more busy being perfected than expanded, and it is being streamlined for use in more varied formal settings than were ever before possible. For “free jazz,” it can now be seen (more so than in the Sixties), not only freed the music from certain restrictions – the harmonic/structural necessities of the song form – but also, consequentially, introduced freedom of formal choice into the music for the first time in its history. In a real sense, it freed rhythmic improvisers to become (simultaneously) composers. And that freedom is now being exercised extensively.
There was, even so, a frequent overlapping of various technical/formal devices, but the whole approach of each musician to their use and the whole sense of each player’s music was different. Consider, for example, the kinds of contrast used, the ways each player’s statements balanced internally, and what it was about them that made them rise and fall and flow.
Jarman’s approach paralleled closely that used by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Costumed and with his face painted and bells on his ankles, he danced, acted out stories, chanted poetry, and wove his way through themes of a primarily melodic nature – though sometimes, as on bass clarinet, he plunged headlong into that jumpy percussiveness most reminiscent of Eric Dolphy; or else on alto, he worked his way through various levels of scream-pitched song. Throughout, however, he juggled melodic and percussive motifs, moved from fast paced to slower tempos, from high to low sounds, from rough passages to smooth. But always these seemed to exist not so much for the sake of contrast in itself or to produce an intentional splintering effect as to draw their very strength from each other. So there was a great feeling of the unity of opposites in Jarman’s music, one that seemed to go hand in hand with its basic primordial sense of itself.
With Mitchell the approach was more staggered – the spreading out rather than the coming together of vertical and horizontal elements. There were “linear”/melodic pieces that progressed bit by bit, or non-linear ones that emphasized the essential disconnectedness of the sounds that made them up – their “independence” established through differences of attack, dynamics, duration (tempo), registers, timbre – and there were frequently pieces whose endings were more implied in the mind/sense of the listener than they were actually stated. Yet always there was a tremendous amount of logic in Mitchell’s work – every bit as much so as in Braxton’s, though built on a somewhat “harder” foundation. Events unfolded irregularly and in fragments, but there was a certain inevitability about the manner in which they transpired. So that in the end all of the parts fit together snugly and with purpose.
Braxton, though as capable as ever of putting together the kind of sparse statement he has often made in the past, seemed more and more to be wanting to run all of his lines into one another. They flowed fast and smooth and sometimes furious from his instrument, though with great fluctuation within them – of timbre, tempo, dynamics. He especially used dynamic contrast effectively, even from note to note within quick and difficult phrases, and he coupled this with alterations in the way the notes/phrases were rhythmically accented. This seemed to me to be a relatively new aspect of his work (or perhaps only one that could be heard differently in this context), the effect of which was to create the illusion of several lines running side by side at once, sometimes as an “accompaniment” to each other, but frequently going by so fast as to suggest a continuous leaping interaction of one with the other. So while still keeping them separate, Braxton’s music has moved to bring together a whole series of disparate elements – this, rather than the tendency to throw them completely apart, as with Mitchell, or to make them so entirely interdependent, as with Jarman.
Lake’s work, too, built from multiple reference points, but those points (”sections” actually) stood apart from each other fairly easily, unfolding over a space of time rather than, as with Braxton, in-pieces-all-at-once. He did establish, of course, a wide intervallic and timbral range – so as to free the pieces harmonically – but these were more thematic than compositional points as such: that is, points of development or ways of flowing rather than, as with Braxton, continually surfacing structural pivot points. Still, this allowed Lake great formal flexibility, and he frequently moved from extremely melodious passages to highly cathartic ones. The form suggested a sophisticated, though multi-leveled and tangential, call-and-response technique. He brought his poetry into the music in that fashion, turning the poetry into music, with all the depth of feeling, shading, and inflection that characterized his approach to his instruments (and their integration). With Lake, the poetry worked because it became both the medium and the message and, in that respect, it stood side by side with his playing, moved the playing to other heights and, therefore, could exist as a real formal element – balancing, clarifying, redefining, negating, just as any aspect of his instrumental music might do.
Julius Hemphill’s concert consisted of his presentation of “Roi Boye and The Gotham Minstrels,” an “audiodrama” for instrumentalist with tape accompaniment, the tape featuring pre-recorded parts (improvisations/orchestrations) by Hemphill on the same instruments with which he played along with it, alto and soprano saxophone and flute. His work against the tape was a deliberate probing, slowing down here, stopping there, then proceeding more vigorously – and this, along with his in-and-out variations of attack and dynamics, seemed to fling his phrases about, suggesting, like his writing (and taped accompaniment) the interaction of layers of more or less jagged sound. Rhythms-in-motion they might best be referred to, seeming to take off from different points, shooting in different directions. Hemphill’s tape offered a continuous dramatic counterpoint, its long, textural tonal areas pushing and pulling against each other. If it at times sounded different in this presentation from Hemphill’s previous work – sometimes a certain neo-classicism did creep in – that seemed due to the areas of sound explored (the greater differences between them), the timbres employed, or perhaps even the pace at which the sounds moved rather than to any real difference in structural intent. In that respect, the music seemed similar to some of his work that has recently appeared on record – say, the pieces on Lester Bowie’s Fast Last! (Muse), or parts of the first side of his own Arista album, Coon Bid’ness.
A problem with this approach, however, was that the emotional content of the tape was already “set” so that when, as during set two on opening night, the level of intensity of Hemphill’s soprano solo generally surpassed that of the tape, the recording began to sound irrelevant. Yet one began to get a sense of Hemphill as orchestrator/composer as well as improviser, and it set thoughts running as to what his music might sound like were he to have an entire orchestra at his disposal.
At the other extreme from Hemphill’s presentations, Leo Smith’s were the starkest of anyone’s, as much for Smith’s extensive use of space as for his actual approach to his instruments – that being one emphasizing their percussiveness. On his brass instruments, he frequently employed a staccato attack, hanging sounds or series of sounds in space, as much belonging only to themselves as to any “context” created by their proximity. Thus, like the sounds of the gongs Smith used, they tended as much to expand into time and space as to assume a role in any more linearly conceived framework. At other times, either on his gongs or on his homemade gamelan, he would pile all of these sounds up, running them into and against each other, indicating their inherent multi-leveled connection and movement as well as their distinctness. Both kinds of pieces, the sparer and the more dense, seemed to be primarily rhythm or color modulation structures, most likely conceptualized in advance but suggesting, in their rhythmic insistence and a-thematic-ism, a completely improvised music.
Smith also made some very lyrical statements, as stark as any other of his work, though utilizing (as always) an extensive harmonic vocabulary. (Smith, perhaps more than anyone, has extended the whole range of pitch – as opposed simply to range of timbre – well beyond the conventions of even this sort of music.) These engaging respites were made up of largely single tones, embellished by an occasional aside on one of Smith’s array of percussion devices. These statements, as well as any others, seemed to want to hang in space or perhaps (with Smith on one of his bamboo flutes) to gently transport the listener into a certain inner space which, after all, may be only the same.
Baikida Carroll’s solo performance left a different impression with me than did his recent appearance with Julius Hemphill – or perhaps it was only a reverse of proportions. Whereas with Hemphill his work seemed more broken and (similar to Smith’s) made up of more self-defined clusters with lyrical interludes, here he played primarily the role of melodist, or motivic dramatist. There was a fragmented feeling to it, but the flow of it was clear, and there was little setting apart of elements, as with Roscoe Mitchell. Carroll did demonstrate again, though, his interest in timbre, frequently indulging in different types of pitch distortion or else setting off for a time on entirely timbral excursions – as, for example, his playing the trumpet with a saxophone mouthpiece. And again (as with his playing with Hemphill) there were passages primarily rhythmic rather than melodic in orientation, but it was the latter sense that lingered and connected everything up.
The evening I heard him, his presentation was made up of two long sets approximately forty minutes each. They may have been single compositions, touching base at various points, or else several, maybe only conceptualized rather than written ahead of time. In the second set, he returned a few-times to the same melody with which he began the improvisation, ending the set, however, on a more rhythmic note.
Leroy Jenkins had given only one solo violin concert prior to these perfomances at Mapenzi, that being in January in New York. His was a broken-paced, rhythmically inflected, ebbing and flowing lyricism. He moved from a simpler (though not necessarily “western”) harmonic language to one that was more and more far reaching, extending his music via a complex vertical and horizontal interaction. Bowing his instrument, he blended its sounds into a richly cross-pollinated harmonic fabric; or striking the strings, he emphasized their disparity. Similar to his role with the Revolutionary Ensemble, the form of his pieces seemed as much a product of (the process of) playing them as of any pre-conceived structural imperatives – for the textural/melodic/harmonic delineation, in one sense by sheer virtue of Jenkins’ instrument, could be highly elastic and open to considerable modification. Further, the sound he gets from the violin seems to transcend all categories of same and to move naturally and un-self-consciously across cultural lines. It seems at once “classical” but at the same time the product of some more “primitive” and earth-aware culture; with an obvious bent toward the traditions of Jazz, yet still contemporary.
The fact that Andrew Hill was the only pianist who participated in this series was an indication of the way in which jazz solo playing has changed; for traditionally, only the piano was assumed to be capable of sustaining interest by itself over a period of time. Ironically, Hill’s playing has moved in recent years to encompass more and more of that tradition, although in a decidedly up-to-date way. He now seems, for example, extremely comfortable with the instrument itself – different, say, from someone like Cecil Taylor for whom the instrument seems as much a limitation to be overcome as to be worked with. Hill’s earlier music suggested a dense, dark, and shifting, but closely knit, textural construction, vaguely Monk-like in its rhythmic/harmonic sense – though often this textural quality was as much the result of Hill’s interaction with his accompanists as of his actual playing. His solo work at Mapenzi (as can be heard in part on his 1975 Live At Montreux album on Arista) was an almost entirely textural construction, the insertion of linear/melodic/dramatic ideas (though often these were only motifs at best) into a fairly non-linear format. It was a closely woven interaction of voices, still bringing to mind something of the harmonic/compositional sense of Monk (though considerably brighter now and, at times, more romantic), but suggesting just as strongly – in the way he moved from hand to hand – the tradition of orchestral pianism best epitomized by someone like Art Tatum. His work was highly percussive (much more so, it seemed, than on the Arista album), alternating temporal/rhythmic ideas – sustaining tones here to underline one idea, creating space there to emphasize another, and with the structure as a whole building, then receding in wave-like patterns.
The evening I saw Hill, he played sets of two and two-and-a-half hours respectively, pausing only about a third of the way through the first set. For many, it was a difficult music, not only due to its length but also, I expect, because of its textural quality and – despite its conventional allusions – its unwillingness to settle easily into any more conventional format. To me, Hill’s attempt to bring the pianistic tradition into contemporaneity by changing the flow of ideas, their manner of interaction, and by alternating the structural givens seemed entirely rewarding. He convinced me of the continued importance of his work.
Moreover, what this nine-musician series of concerts demonstrated was that there are as many vital and equally valid approaches to improvisation as there are players now willing to confront them. There are really no absolutes, only the absolute necessity to pursue the farthest reaches of one’s own artistic vision. That is perhaps the true legacy of the last decade, and the whole concept of jazz has changed because of it; that is, while it still indicates a certain tradition (an aesthetic stance), it no longer suggests, as it once did (or came close to suggesting), the stylistic/formal/structural unity of a particular body of music. To be sure, jazz was always an art form (whatever its various connections to the entertainment industry). But it has now become an art in itself which, by implication, might include many forms. And if this series of solo concerts – as well as being an intense and moving series of presentations – can be taken as anything of a musical barometer of the times, that was the sense of the times conveyed.
Henry Kuntz, 1977
Additional notes from Henry Kuntz concerning the Mapenzi Club:
I was trying to do a little research on Mapenzi myself since it really deserves a writeup of its own. I don’t know who knows anything about it anymore, but it was arguably the greatest little jazz club ever. The name apparently means “lovers” in Swahili, and I seem to recall a pair of exotic sculpted “lovers” leaning out of the wall inside the door.
The club was Black-owned and operated (though by whom, no one seems to remember) and was filled with colorful neo-African art: paintings, wood sculptures jutting off of walls, pottery and mirror shard mosaic art work on the tables and around about. The musicians’ dressing room was equally adorned. There was no alcohol served but lots of tropical fruit drinks with whipped cream, tea and coffee. No one who went there will ever forget it; and the music that happened stays with all of us to this day. Mostly, those were solo shows that took place over some finite number of years. The one “solo series” that I reviewed in BELLS was really only one string of such performances that occurred.
If someone has more information and/or photo material of the Mapenzi club, please do not hesitate to contact Metropolis and/or leave a comment on this page. Thanks. Monsieur K.