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Zen Sounds 044: Organic Music Society
Spiritual trance sounds by Don Cherry & Jean Schwarz and Mahmoud Guinia with Pharoah Sanders
Last week I had to travel to Stockholm for business. Instead of flying, I decided to take the overnight train, crossing the enormous Öresund bridge from Denmark to Sweden. I had almost forgotten how much I love sleeping on the train – the bunk bed’s soft shaking in the Scandinavian winter storms made it quite a pleasurable experience.
I was re-reading Val Wilmer’s 1977 book, »As Serious As Your Life – Black Music And The Free Jazz Revolution«. In this outstandingly written treatise, Wilmer places the works of African-American musicians in the broader socio-political context of the Civil Rights era and its aftermath.
In the upper bunk bed on the night train to Stockholm, I was thinking about avant-garde jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who lived in Sweden during the 1970’s with his Swedish wife Moki. They bought an old schoolhouse in Tågarp, near Malmö, trying to build an utopian music commune, the »Organic Music Society«. That dream lasted until the end of the decade.
Back home, a lost live recording of Don Cherry with electro-acoustic composer Jean Schwarz formed my home office ambience for the remainder of the week. And then I discovered another superb record that felt connected, forcing me to break my self-imposed rule of writing about one album (or piece of music) per newsletter. Anyway…
(Transversales Disques, 2023)
»Roundtrip« was recorded live in 1977, but never officially released until just recently. The concert had taken place at a Paris festival organized by G.R.M. (Groupe de Recherches Musicales), an institution founded by musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer. For 45 years, the recording had been sitting in G.R.M. composer Jean Schwarz’s private archives.
Don Cherry has always been a trailblazer at heart, from playing in Ornette Coleman’s and Sonny Rollins’ groups to co-writing the soundtrack to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s »The Holy Mountain« to founding a commune in Sweden to releasing some of the most exciting fusion music with Codona.
For this concert, Cherry and Schwarz formed a quintet with saxophonist Michel Portal, bassist J.F. Jenny-Clark and percussionist Naná Vasconcelos. Besides his standard pocket trumpet, Cherry played the doussn'gouni (»hunter’s harp«), a Malian string instrument. Schwarz utilized tapes and synthesizers, as well as »treatments«.
There’s a strong rhythmic backbone to this music, with Cherry, Clark and Vasconcelos weaving a dense tapestry of polyrhythms. The electronic sounds provided by Schwarz build a strange, otherworldly atmosphere. Intense improvisations by Cherry and Portal round off the trip, with Cherry chanting in some of the most transcendent moments of the concert.
It surely helped that Cherry had already played with minimalist Terry Riley in 1975, that Schwarz had been a jazz drummer before joining the G.R.M., and that Jenny-Clark was no stranger to the music of Cage, Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez as well, performing their pieces as part of Ensemble Musique Vivante. This recording marks one of the rare moments where avant-garde jazz and contemporary avant-garde music collided, creating something greater than just the sum of its parts.
(Axiom, 1994 / Zehra, 2019)
17 years after Don Cherry picked up the Malian hunter’s harp in Paris, jazz bassist and producer Bill Laswell embarked on a journey to record the exceptional musician Mahmoud Guinia in Morocco. Guinia’s title »Maleem«, or rather »Maâllem«, actually means »master of Gnawa music«.
The Gnawa people are an ethnic minority in Morocco, descended from West African slaves. They are Sufis, which explains their deep love of mystic trance music. Guinia’s ancestors were migrants from Mali, and his music was reportedly considered dark even by Gnawa standards.
Laswell had another very good idea – to bring Pharoah Sanders along with him. The saxophonist had played with John Coltrane in the 1960’s and later with his widow Alice. He produced a run of influential solo albums, starting with »Tauhid« in 1967, the year Coltrane died, and lasting until the mid 1970’s. »Karma« and »Thembi« are classics of what is today referred to as spiritual jazz. Sanders was a strong collaborator and improviser, and he had been interested in African and Arabic music for a long time.
Visiting Guinia in his hometown of Essaouira, Laswell recorded him and Sanders over three days in a private house in the city’s old town. Guinia played his trademark sintir – a three-stringed, camel-skin-covered lute, relatively similar to Don Cherry’s ngoni – and sang lead vocals. Sanders improvised on the spot. The two musicians were accompanied by a group of family members, chanting and playing various traditional instruments.
»The Trance Of Seven Colors« contains 80 minutes of outstanding ecstatic music, and all of its qualities are exemplified in the 11-minute opener, »La Allah Dayim Moulenah«. It is a hypnotic, spellbinding piece. After a solo intro by Sanders, Ghania starts playing a repetitive, bassline-like pattern, and then opens a passionate call-and-response chant with various family members. Sanders takes the backseat, adding just some melodic colour to the rhythmic structure.
According to Val Wilmer, Sanders always had an »atonal approach« to his music. Influenced by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, he used »growling« and shrill overtones, a technique that Wilmer traces back to »one-voice chording«, which connects African-American musicians like Sanders to West African musicians like Guinia.
»Eventually, the saxophonist was to achieve an almost trance-like state through his music, employing techniques that owed as much to his own spiritual resources as technical ones, the music itself gradually becoming simpler. (…) Pharoah Sanders took the hypnotic process even further, establishing a rapport with the land whence their ancestors has been transported.«
This explains why it was so important for Sanders to go to Africa and work with African musicians in the first place. Reaching a higher state of consciousness through music, that goal united him with Guinia, whether through free jazz or Gnawa music.
Released by Bill Laswell’s own, Island Records-distributed Axiom label on CD and cassette in 1994, »The Trance Of Seven Colors« has been re-issued on vinyl by Berlin-based label Zehra in 2019. You can still get a copy on Bandcamp.
One more thing
Doing research for this newsletter, I randomly stumbled across this haunting performance of Pharoah Sanders’ piece »Kazuko (Peace Child)«, filmed in an abandoned tunnel in Marin Headlands, north of San Francisco. It was recorded in July 1982, two years after the release of his album »Journey To The One«, which had included a studio version of the song. Paul Arslanian joins Sanders on harmonium for the performance.
This is a lesson in circular breathing, resulting in a transcendent, mystical sound. A Youtube commenter hits the nail on its head:
»He is playing to the Gods right here. We are not his audience.«
Human recommendation systems
Shout out to Chicago experimental musician Lia Kohl. I discovered »The Trance Of Seven Colors« in the February issue of her newsletter. Thank you!
Thanks, again, to Martin Brugger (co-founder of the experimental jazz label Squama) who made me aware of the Don Cherry & Jean Schwarz release. Sending positive vibes to Munich!
© 2023 Stephan Kunze