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Music Review: Joseph Jarman

The chaos theory suggests that any and all actions will have a reaction somewhere in the world. One of the most frequent suggestions you hear is that a butterfly's wings flapping in Japan will cause a hurricane to occur somewhere else. How much validity there is to that statement is debateable, but I think it is used as an extreme example to demonstrate the idea of the interconnectedness of all things.

Now you can believe what you want about butterflies and their wings but the idea of the chaos theory makes a lot of sense when you listen to Joseph Jarman's 1968 recording of As If It Were The Seasons. It's just been re-released and digitally re mastered by Delmark Records allowing a whole new generation to take flight along side the men and one woman who recorded the two pieces of music performed on this recording.

Referring to this music as Jazz is not a good idea. The word Jazz immediately brings to mind a definition, and an expectation of what it is you are about to hear. While it's true many of the same instruments are utilized in the performance of this work as are employed in the music known as Jazz. But then again both Rembrandt and Jackson Pollack used paint and canvass to create their art and there are some noticeable differences between the finished work of each man.

I don't know how much Jazz music any of you know but if you're familiar with the music of Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and the later work of John Coltrane you'll know there was quite a change in styles from the first two men to the third. Well I think it is probably safe to say that it is at least an equivalent jump from Coltrane to the music that Jarman was performing in 1968.
Joseph Jarman.jpg
Although chronologically the latter three men were roughly contemporary, and some of Coltrane's soloing was moving in a similar direction, Jarman and company were musically on a different plane of existence. Does that sound unnecessarily spacey and trippy to you? Well perhaps it is, but in some ways it's the truth.

In spite of earning a deserved reputation for wild improvisations on his tenor saxophone, Coltrane was still working within the structure of a recognizable tune. Much like a classical composer or musician he would do variations on a theme and have that as his foundation. A friend of mine once said, " you can't help but respect a man who took a song as nauseating as "A Few Of My Favourite Things" and turned it into something interesting". He was brilliant at improvising around something and creating magic, but there was mostly always a tune. (I qualified that statement because I've not heard all of Coltrane's music so I can't be 100% of the statement)

But when you listen to Joseph Jarman and his band you know that's not the case. On the first pass through of the first track "As If It Were The Seasons" and "Song To Make The Sun Come Up" it appears to be complete chaos – no tune, no theme, and definitely no structure. Listen a second time and you start to get an inkling of what could be happening here but you might not be listening in the right way.

Instead of trying to hear a song – or a tune, hear the sensations or the feelings that are being generated by the music. "As If It Were The Seasons" begins with what could be the sounds of spring. The soft piping sounds from flutes and whistles could easily be the voices of birds on a morning. At least that's a first impression when listening to the disc on headphones while walking on a bright spring day.

But you could also feel it like the turning of the wheel of the seasons of a life. From the gentleness of the first beginnings and when the sounds begin to pick up speed and rise to tempestuous it’s like moving into the frenetic beyond infancy and childhood. Work, and the hustle and bustle of adult life, can be heard moving through the sounds of the various instruments.

Gradually you realize that one of the sounds is a woman's voice singing, or perhaps the better word would be vocalizing, because she's not singing lyrics. Every so often you pick it out of the various sounds and it becomes more and more noticeable. As the sound builds her voice ascends a scale until it is almost no longer recognisable as human.

Just when you begin to think that you may not be able to take the aural assault any more quietness starts to appear around the edges – life is beginning to slow down again – wind down towards whatever comes next. At least that was the feeling I got from listening to it. Maybe you'll hear something else.

In my mind this type of music has to be some of the hardest to play – to create a sense of chaos without actually descending into chaos requires the finest of ears and the lightest of touches on an instrument. When Jackson Pollack created one of his splatter canvasses he wasn't just throwing paint haphazardly with nothing in mind. It may have appeared that way to some but he never could have achieved his desired effect, the abstraction of the feeling that he was trying to find way of expressing.

When Joseph Jarman and the musicians he works with create with their instruments they are doing the same thing. As If It Were The Seasons is one of the finest examples of abstraction that I've ever heard. There is a method and a purpose to their seeming madness. It is beautiful, upsetting, disquieting, scary, annoying, and pretty much all the other things that go into a life. What more could you want from art?


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