Monday, 5 May 2008

against purism

Here are some records I’ve been listening to lately. These were all recorded between 1967 and 1972 in that odd period between the beat boom and the slump of the mid seventies and they all bring together different varieties of music in a manner that was common through that period with a kind of audacity that the later music shied away from. This is what I like about them. I suppose in more recent times they would all be seen as part of the ‘world music’ phenomenon.

Trees were not the first band to electrify British folk (they formed in 1969 and folded in 1972) but, like Fairport Convention they managed over a short period to make music that wasn’t simply tradition plus amplification (traditional musicians had often, unlike their sixties admirers, played loud: bagpipes can be deafening and some instruments, like the dobro, were specifically designed to be heard in uncongenial spaces). Like the Fairports (on Unhalfbricking especially),Trees made use of extended improvisation often achieving a drone-like intertwining of sounds. Most of the bands involved in this kind of music later retreated from open-ended improvisation to become (in Fairport’s case very good) modern interpreters of a perceived tradition rather than purveyors of something quite new.

The use of sounds from the Subcontinent and the Middle East precedes by a couple of decades the World Music thing. The Kinks were, surprisingly, the first pop group to introduce ‘Indian’ sounds on a record (‘See my friends’), some months before the Beatles caught on. Even stranger perhaps is the story of Surf Music which, in its purely instrumental form, I’d argue, derives largely from Middle-Eastern sounds. Dick Dale, whose disks are commonly seen as the earliest example of this style was of Lebanese background and his playing reflects this clearly (think of ‘Miserlou’, the piece later to appear in the Pulp Fiction soundtrack). The prime Australian instrumental group, the Atlantics, were themselves of Greek and Croatian background and their surf hit ‘Bombora’ reflects this too (guitars as electronic bazoukis).

In the mid sixties the Carribean-English saxophonist Joe Harriott, who had played ‘free’ experimented with a double quintet where jazz musicians would play alongside Indian musicians. I heard one of Harriott’s Indo-Jazz Fusion records in the early seventies, then not again until recently. The music has for the most part stood up well, even if the term ‘fusion’ gradually came to mean wallpaper music as performed by Tom Scott’s LA Express and various anaemic Jazz-Rock groups (the term has died a lingering death as the description of a cuisine). Though some of these bands didn’t do the music any favours it was also the victim of a fashion for purism. In an illustrated guide to jazz put out in the mid-seventies Brian Case made the breathtaking statement that Miles Davis’ music after In A Silent Way was ‘no longer of interest to the jazz listener’. The same fate would have befallen the late sixties work of the American saxophonist Steve Marcus who, over several albums, played versions of the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ (itself influenced by John Coltrane), the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, even the Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ and Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’. Marcus’s band (including Larry Coryell and the wonderful New Zealand pianist Mike Nock) had reacted against concealing as a guilty pleasure their love of the current pop.

You might have thought that purism would have died alongside high-modernism yet it persists across the arts. In music it took some time before many who hadn’t embraced ‘freedom’ were rehabilitated (and then there are purists like Wynton Marsalis who don’t believe ‘free jazz’ should have even existed). The current popular mix, match and scratch music, for all its own faults, is largely responsible for us listening again to those artefacts that were airbrushed from the canon, though at the same time it compartmentalises music by function (dance, chill out, lounge &c) tending also to reduce it to beats or grooves. And I can’t help but feel that in poetry it’s a strong element of purism that unites some of the Language writers with those they consider their polar opposites, the School of Quietude.


PB said...

Great album covers Laurie - the music just HAS to be terrific too.
Little Barry was on Blu FM here in Australia late last night and Carl Harrison-Ford gave you a big mention...shame their transmitter's as local as pirate radio and there's no podcast neither.


Laurie Duggan said...

Yep, Little Barrie are great. How to be funky, mod-like, but still sound fresh. They're only a three piece too. Nice.