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Ghosts from the Bridge – Darren Mueller

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Today’s guest post is by Darren Mueller, a PhD candidate at Duke University where he also teaches, and writes about jazz, recording technology, and musical performance. He is also a jazz saxophonist and has appeared professionally all over North Carolina and the surrounding region.

On a hot summer night in August 2012 I took a rare trip from my Brooklyn apartment to Midtown Manhattan to see guitarist John Abercrombie who was at Birdland to promote his latest record on ECM.[1] Abercrombie’s casual demeanour created a relaxed atmosphere, even though the club was nearly packed to capacity. “Let me take this moment to introduce the members of the band—to you,” he remarked in the middle of their set. He emphasized “you at the end of his phrase, dryly adding, “They’ve met before.”

On drums, Adam Nussbaum.
On the bass, Drew Gress.
On tenor, Joe Lovano.

He paused for a brief moment. It was a silence with a smirk.

And on piano, Bill Evans. On alto saxophone, Charlie Parker. On trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Yeah, because they are here and are always here. It’s because they were around in the flesh and did what they did and were such brilliant musicians—that’s why we have a chance today to play because we learned from them. You have to start somewhere and these were they guys we listened to.

Historical personae like Evans, Parker, and Armstrong are “here and are always here” in the way that musicians pay tribute, demonstrate influence, and perform their historical knowledge on stage. They are “here and always here” in how jazz listeners continue to construct the jazz “tradition” by evoking history during live performance. Learning and listening are activities bound together through records. The past haunts jazz performances like this one.

Beyond the half-joking tone Abercrombie took with the audience, the spectre of history was present at the performance from the very first notes, though not in ways immediately apparent. The quartet began their set with an up-tempo yet unhurried tune written by Abercrombie that brought about a feeling of vague reminiscence. This feeling stuck with me through the nearly twelve minute song until its historical reference became explicit when a quazi-in-time cadenza by Lovano suddenly transitioned into the well-known standard, “Without a Song.” “You get two tunes for the price of one,” Abercrombie later explained. “It’s ‘Within a Song,’ which is a tune I wrote and the last little bit is called ‘Without a Song,’ which is a very old standard tune.” Though it had been coved by a wide number of artists, from Duke Ellington  to Perry Como  Abercrombie’s inspiration came directly from a well-known source within jazz circles:

“Without a Song” is a piece that I heard growing up on a very famous recording that came out from Sonny Rollins. Sonny Rollins did a record back in the ‘60s called The Bridge [RCA/Bluebird, 1962], which featured, of course, Sonny Rollins. Jim Hall played the guitar, Bob Cranshaw played the bass, and Ben Riley played the drums. It was a quartet just like you are hearing here. And it was probably one of the most influential pieces of music I had ever heard. When I heard it, I was about 17 years old and the guy in the music store, or the record store—I don’t know if you remember those, but we used to have record stores. [Laughter from the audience] Round things, you put a needle on it, it was very revolutionary at the time. I went in at the time and saw Sonny Rollins on the cover with no hair on his head wearing a suit and I said, “I wonder what this sounds like?”

His story about discovering the album and his jokes about record stores point to several ways that this performance still bears the mark of Abercrombie’s first listening in the early 1960s. Like the ending of the 2012 performance of “Within a Song,” Rollins’s 1962 “Without a Song” similarly concludes with a false, cadenza-like ending that snaps back into time in order for Rollins to play the final statement of the melody. Abercrombie’s mimicry outlines one way that jazz musicians bring history into the present through performance. Abercrombie’s choice in instrumentation, personnel, and repertory for this gig reference a shared history constructed around knowledge of past recordings.

more vinyl

(Photography by the author: NYC record store)

This Birdland performance showcased how The Bridge and other music of the same era was the prime inspiration for the Abercrombie’s record. Their performance of “Sometime Ago,” for example, was inspired by Jim Hall and Art Framer’s version that appeared on Interaction (Atlantic, 1963). Other compositions on the record, such as “Interplay,” “Flamenco Sketches,” “Wise One,” and “Blues Connotation,” were penned in the late-1950s or early-1960s by familiar names in jazz history: Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. Indeed, as ECM’s promotional material states, this record “celebrates the spirit of discovery that illuminated the jazz of the 1960s.”[2] The past remains “here and always here” through the spirit of jazz past on record.

All jazz performances are not indebted to history in such an explicit manner. Still, the onstage happenings at Birdland on that August 2012 night were in many ways ordinary. They were ordinary because Abercrombie’s balancing of now and then—of being t/here—is a praxis woven into the everyday fabric of jazz performance. They were ordinary in the way that the cultural economy of jazz is largely based around listening to records. “The potential stored in ordinary things,” as Kathleen Stewart has written, “is a network of transfers and relays.”[3] This is true of everyday performances, too, as Diana Taylor has explored in detail. “Performances,” she writes, “function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, an a sense of identity.”[4] Though it takes different forms, jazz performances make tangible the potential held in the ephemerality of sound on records, if only for a moment. Their presence organises a particular kind of cultural memory, one haunted by records past. Performance, Taylor writes elsewhere, hinges on that “which is already there: the ghosts, the tropes, the scenarios that structure our individual and collective life.”[5] References to recordings during performance access (or help to create) a network based on a shared history, shaping a sense of community by allowing individuals to access those things that are always already there. Or, in Abercrombie’s words, “here and always here.”

Birdland, too, is a space dedicated to its history. It is now one of the top tier (i.e., most expensive) jazz venues in NYC, though it is neither at its original 1949 location nor owned by the same people. As a place named in honour of jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker, the club still clings to its past in ways beyond the photographs of famous musicians on the walls. Consider an excerpt from a brief essay that appears on the back of the menu:

Count Basie and his smokin’ big band made Birdland their NY headquarters eventually recording George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” live in the club. John Coltrane classic quartet regularly appeared at the club in the early 1960s, recording “Live at Birdland.” And the famous DJ, Symphony Sid Torin made a name for himself broadcasting live from the club to radio listeners up and down the eastern seaboard.[6]

Records by Basie, Coltrane, and others maintain a central presence in the club’s sense of their own history. They alert customers to objects (live recordings) that have documented the importance of that space, attempting to create a sense of collective memory, identity, and belonging. One also encounters this history in the club’s entryway, where a large picture of Charlie Parker hangs along with six 12-inch albums, compilations of Parker’s best-known recordings. Records literally confront customers as they enter into the space.

Elsewhere Stewart writes that, “There’s a politics to being/feeling connected (or not), to impacts that are shared (or not), to affective contagion, and to all the forms of attunement and attachment.” As the ghosts of jazz past haunt places like Birdland during performance, records help create a sense of shared feeling (or not) and understanding (or not) among audience members and musicians on stage. Stewart goes on to state that there is “politics to ways of watching and waiting for something to happen.”[7] When Abercrombie starts his performance with aural, sonic, and linguistic gestures at Rollins, he sets the stage for my listening in the audience. There is a politics to ways of listening for something to happen. His history with the music is part of the story, one layer among many that influence my listening. Records haunt these contemporary moments of music making.

While I settled my bill after the performance, I happened to overhear a woman telling her companion how she usually struggles getting into jazz. She continued to say that this performance was much more memorable than the jazz she hears on the radio. “It’s different,” she concluded, “since it’s live.” By coincidence (or not), this conversation took place while Sarah Vaughn’s 1954 rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland” played over the Birdland PA system. The spectral presence of records always remains.

musiclives2

(Photograph by the author of a brick from John Coltrane memorial in North Carolina, where he grew up)



[1] John Abercrombie, Without a Song, ECM 2254, CD, 2012. Information about this event still appears on Birdland’s website: “John Abercrombie Quartet featuring Joe Lovano, Drew Gress & Adam Nussbaum,” accessed 23 August 2013, http://www.birdlandjazz.com/event/136903-john-abercrombie-quartet-joe-new-york/.

[2] ”Within a Song,” ECM Records, accessed 23 August 2013, http://www.ecmrecords.com/Catalogue/ECM/2200/2254.php?lvredir=712&cat=%2FArtists%2FAbercrombie+John%23%23John+Abercrombie&doctype=Catalogue&order=releasedate. Emphasis mine.

[3] Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 21.

[4] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 2.

[5] Ibid., 143.

[6] Emphasis mine. For a reproduction of this essay see: “History,” Birdland Jazz, accessed 23 August 2013, http://www.birdlandjazz.com/history/.

[7] Stewart, K.  Ordinary Affects,(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 16.

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4 thoughts on “Ghosts from the Bridge – Darren Mueller

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  1. Abercrombie’s back catalog has in itself inspired and influenced many later musicians and not just in jazz but also in hip-hop (another community obsessed with its past and roots) and electronic music, where his music has been widely sampled.

    • Yes, this is not surprising. The reason that this moment caught my attention was precisely because this process of borrowing, sampling, and paying tribute is so built into the community of listeners. Do you have some examples of Abercrombie’s music being sampled by electronic, hip-hop, etc. that you could share?

      • here are some examples for just one tune (though there are others).

        http://www.whosampled.com/Timeless/John-Abercrombie/sampled/

        The slum village beat is probably the best known, but I really like the very subtle use in the boards of canada track everything you do is a balloon (right at the end). I feel like the hazy nostalgic sound that boards had at that time is pretty inspired by music like that of Abercrombie’s… (though that would be my own subjective impression based on listening rather than a more solid fact).

        One thing I find interesting is that the practice of sampling has lead hip hop heads and djs in particular to often develop extensive knowledge of music and have massive respect to what went before. This always seemed to parallel jazz, perhaps as jazz always had quotes and standards. Or perhaps becuase of the cultural environments these forms developed in.

        • Wow, thanks for turning me on to whosampled.com. What a great site–like rapgenius.com but in sound rather than text. I’ll be digging in soon.

          Jazz has always been a music that, as Jean-Luc Nancy once wrote, “listens to itself.” I’ve always thought of expert jazz musicians as more than being great at their instruments; they are expert listeners. Jazz musicians even complement each other by saying things like, “whoa, big ears!” This usually signals a depth of listening in the moment but also through history. The notion of Signifyin(g) on the past is one part of black expression–jazz, hip hop, and otherwise.

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