Perfect Sound Forever


by Phil Freeman (November 2001)

ED NOTE: This is a chapter from New York Is Now! The New Wave of Free Jazz
(The Telegraph Company, © 2001)

New York's subway stations aren't the most hospitable environment for musical expression. Despite the vast array of musicians down there--saxophonists competing with violinists, acoustic guitar strummers, the occasional full electric rock band and even traditional Chinese musicians playing ancient instruments--amid the squawking of track announcements, the crash and roar of trains arriving and departing, and the head-down, eyes-front, gruff demeanor necessary to fend off repeated requests for alms from the City's least fortunate, who's got time or attention to spare for music?

The members of Test are convinced that Manhattan's harried commuters do have the time. In fact, they're convinced that the people of New York need their subterranean music. They are quite certain, individually and as a quartet, that what they offer is something the City, and the Earth, needs. For more than five years, the quartet has been bashing out their brand of fully improvised free jazz on the platforms of New York's subway stations, week in and week out, with only occasional breaks to go on tour, or for the Vision or Fire In The Valley festivals. Or, as happened recently, to open a show for rock performers like Sonic Youth and Mike Watt.

Test, if such a profoundly collective ensemble can be labeled one man's idea, was the inspiration of its drummer, Tom Bruno. Bruno was performing solo, and doing occasional duos with other musicians, in the subways as part of the City's Music Under New York program. Musicians who participate in the program are assigned locations by the MUNY administrators, and are provided with subway tokens and occasional help finding other bookings. "I was in the program," Bruno told me, "and Daniel Carter was doing solo stuff. I saw him in the office, and thought I wanted to work with him. So after a trip I took to Berlin, I contacted him and we formed a trio with a bassist, Dan O'Brien." This group played together for a short time, but O'Brien soon departed. Enter new bassist Matt Heyner, and saxophonist Sabir Mateen. The lineup hasn't changed since.

When I first heard about Test, I was convinced I knew what it would sound like. A quartet featuring two saxophonists, a bassist and a drummer, performing on subway platforms. They had to sound like a duel between Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, with a rhythm section whomping away behind them at full throttle and top volume. I couldn't have been more wrong. When I heard Test's self-titled CD on Aum Fidelity late in 1999, I couldn't believe this was the group I'd been hearing about. Test's music is shockingly introspective and exploratory, and reveals almost nothing about the circumstances of its creation and incubation. Or maybe, in some roundabout, oppositional way, it does. Bruno believes that working in the subway has very much informed the quartet's sound. When playing amidst the chaos of a train platform, "you have to be influenced by the commotion, and surmount the negativity of everything around," he told me. "By playing in the street, you become stronger. It's good for you, as a working situation." Bruno's attitude transcends any and all limitations. The minimal kit he works with underground (a 16" floor tom, a snare drum, a hi-hat and a cymbal) is, to him, an inspiration rather than a restraining force. "With a kit that size, you have to use your imagination, and stretch a bit," he says.

Test is as interesting to watch as to hear. Their sound may be about collective effort and communication between the members of the band, but their stances and postures don't reflect that at all. Bruno works his kit for all its worth; even when he's using brushes, it still sounds like he's using sticks. Bassist Matt Heyner, the youngest member of the group by at least 20 years, stares into space, plucking and occasionally bowing the strings in a trance-like state. It's clear from the angle of his head that he's paying close attention to everybody else. (Bruno says the group has been a tremendous learning experience for Heyner, who formerly played in the No Neck Blues Band. "He came in and took time to find his place," says Bruno, "and his solos are beautifully strong now.")

The two saxophonists, Sabir Mateen and Daniel Carter, face straight ahead when they play. Carter has a wide range of R&B honker stage moves; he tilts himself forward, leaning towards the floor like he's playing "Tequila" or a King Curtis composition, occasionally leaning back in particularly ecstatic moments. Mateen works in a similar manner. The one thing the two hornmen don't do, though, is look at each other while they're playing--at least not much. Each is totally lost in his own musical moment, never so much as throwing a glance at Bruno or Heyner, let alone the other saxophonist. For an observer used to the close, face-to-face football-huddle-like interplay of the David S. Ware quartet, or to the deep stares between Matthew Shipp and William Parker while they play, it's slightly disconcerting to see Test work in such a disconnected manner.

Part of this can be linked to the fact that Sabir Mateen, at least, has a strong individual identity outside the confines of the quartet. He has a trio album, Divine Mad Love (Eremite), and has worked for over twenty years as a sideman in groups like the Pan African People's Arkestra in the 1970's, the Raphe Malik Quartet, and the One World Ensemble (which also features Carter), among many others. Mateen and Tom Bruno have released a live duo CD, Getting Away With Murder (also Eremite), which was recorded in Grand Central Station; behind the music, it is possible to hear Bruno thanking commuters who tip as they pass by, and track announcements for trains arriving and departing, oblivious to the music. Another interesting Mateen release is his recent duo CD with drummer Sunny Murray, We Are Not At The Opera (again on Eremite). This concert, recorded at the Unitarian Meetinghouse in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1998, is credited not as a duo but to Murray with Mateen, and that's the way it sounds. Mateen begins the album blowing soft spirals of notes on a flute, as Murray slowly ascends from delicate cymbal washes and rumbles of kick-drum to what will become, over the course of the album, an awe-inspiring and breathtaking drum solo. Mateen, even when he begins playing alto and tenor saxophones later in the performance, can often do little but keep pace with the drummer's titanic earthquakes of sound. Murray shows clearly on this album that he has lost little of his power, and none of his sense of rhythm and dexterity, since he first appeared on legendary albums like Cecil Taylor's Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come and Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity. Indeed, We Are Not At The Opera is but one in a recent trilogy of duo efforts by Murray. The others are Illuminators (Audible Hiss), featuring Charles Gayle, and Dawn Of A New Vibration (Fractal), with Arthur Doyle. On both of these releases, the horn players (Gayle plays piano for the first half of Illuminators) find themselves in the same position as Mateen, holding their own but certainly never stealing the spotlight from the massive, roiling storm that is the drumming of Sunny Murray.

The album Getting Away With Murder is slightly more delicate than the Murray duo, but it's just as vital and gripping a performance. Consisting of a single 45-minute piece, Mateen plays alto sax the entire time. Bruno plays his usual minimalist kit, using only brushes. The two musicians seem to be working together sometimes, and to be playing completely separate songs at other times. It's an interesting record, punctuated as it is by occasional murmurs of 'thank you' as Bruno acknowledges a tip. These vocal interjections can sometimes be quite funny, coming in the middle of particularly loud, hurricane-strength passages from Mateen. One wonders what the commuter must have been thinking as he dropped change, or perhaps a dollar bill, into the box.

Much of the aggression found in Mateen's duo discs is downplayed in his work with Test. This is, of course, due to his having to share the spotlight with Daniel Carter, a saxophonist who has his own highly individualistic ideas about expression. Carter, a tall, balding man, is fascinating to talk with, or--more accurately--listen to. When he gets going, it's hard to slow him down. His mind seems to move in a dozen directions at once. In conversation, he'll often begin discoursing on a subject and within five minutes, he'll be three tangents away from where he began. He winds his way back... eventually. In the meantime, the listener has learned about five or six different subjects, much more than they'd have picked up if Carter had simply answered the original question. This omnivorous, generous and casual intellectualism is also the perfect metaphor for his playing style. Carter, like Mateen, switches back and forth between multiple instruments. During the course of a single piece by Test, or his other main group Other Dimensions In Music, he will play tenor sax, alto sax, clarinet, flute, trumpet, or any combination of these.

Surprisingly, as he's primarily known as a saxophonist, Carter's first instrument was the clarinet. "I went for a saxophone at first," he says, "and we just about had it purchased, and then it seemed like somehow somebody made a U-turn, either my mother or my father found out something or the guy that was selling it to us alerted us to the fact that it was a C-melody saxophone instead of an E-flat or a B-flat." Carter couldn't find a use for a C-melody saxophone in his school band, so he picked up the clarinet instead. "The C-melody just became outmoded or something," he says. "Not that it didn't play, but they weren't writing music for it or anything." The C-melody, which is constructed like an alto but plays in a higher range, is indeed one of the weird, forgotten offshoots of the saxophone tree. Not many people play it, other than Peter Brotzmann (who plays virtually every reed instrument, including the Japanese tarogato), and Jim Sauter of the upstate New York power-jazz-improv trio Borbetomagus.

Carter first began playing around New York in 1970 or 1971, which was when he met William Parker; although he says his memory's fuzzy on the exact date. The two were playing in a big band led by alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc. Later, Moondoc formed Ensemble Muntu, which featured Roy Campbell on trumpet, Parker on bass, and Rashid Bakr on drums. As Carter says, "Other Dimensions In Music is Muntu without Jemeel, and Muntu is Other Dimensions without me." Moondoc has never been a widely-known performer. He still records and performs, though, and Carter still admires Moondoc greatly. "I always felt," he says, "and still do, that Jemeel is one of the most unique voices, as a player and as a human being, and I think that it's maybe not the total fault of the people out here on the planet today, particularly in the US, and in other parts of the world I think it applies too, people are being flattened and steamrolled into some flatter, less rooted [form] in the sense of ethnicity and cultural language, gesture, movement, uniqueness. [Authenticity] seems to be less desirable, unless it's a museum, or somebody from acting school is learning to play the part. We really don't want the real thing. We want to have enough of it so that we can clone it, so we can duplicate it and then the clone is under our control and won't cause problems. But the real thing is too much. [People want] just enough that it won't mess up the advertisement."

Carter worked here and there in the early to mid-1970's, but over time his highly individualistic style, the total freedom with which he approached any situation, became somewhat of a professional liability. "I was getting to a point where I was maybe a little frustrated," he says now, "because I'm always trying to find a positive, diplomatic way to say this, but in certain ways--I won't say that I was this outrageous monster, I wouldn't even say that now, in terms of how I play or whatever. But from some other people's point of view, they just naturally wouldn't call me, or they would call me less, because if I wasn't an outrageous monster, I was an aspiring anarchist. Not in the sense of disorder, everything is crazy in the street, violence, but in the sense of wanting to be myself as much as possible, and... sometimes you discover you're radically different in your procedure. You have no real desire to be radically different in your procedure, and to clash with the procedures of others or the methodologies of others, but I got to the point where I didn't want to be told what to do." Fortunately, in 1981 Other Dimensions In Music came together, and provided the perfect forum for Carter's wide-ranging instrumental journeys. Carter's in-the-moment approach could be seen as the perfect demonstration of the theory which supposedly underpins free jazz--that it's possible to snatch melody and beauty from the air without thinking about it for hours, or even minutes, beforehand. This faith in impulse and inspiration is the root of all jazz, but Test and Other Dimensions In Music are prime, perfect examples of what happens when theory, in the hands of master musicians, becomes practice.

Even though he has found what could easily be considered ideal circumstances in these two groups, both of which play fully improvised music all the time (neither Test nor Other Dimensions approach a recording session or a live performance with any idea what they're going to play, or hear from their bandmates), Carter recognizes that this isn't the path everyone chooses. "Sometimes you cover such ground," he says, "and you get into the area you want to with the people that you can really get with, and you forget that all these people you're working with, they work like that, but maybe still the vast majority of people don't work like that. But because these are the people you work with day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out, you're so fortunate to do that, that you're not even thinking about the way other people work. This is your regular life. And then you come up against something, and you're reminded, this is your regular life, but this ain't other folks' regular life. This ain't other musicians' regular life. Still, largely, today, in music, somebody gets ideas, and they compose music. They get some words, or they get a chord, or a melody, or a rhythm, and they start pinning it down, or at least remembering it, and communicating it to other musicians."

"But we [Test and Other Dimensions In Music] don't work like that. Except that, however, at the same time you want to put all those words [composition, improvisation] in brackets. Like in the case of Other Dimensions In Music, if you think of some people who in one way or another, close, distant or indirect, have been acquainted with or know each other in some cases as long as 28 or 29 years and in all cases no less than 22 or 23 years--the community of musicians is small enough that when people know each other like that, even if they're not playing with each other a lot, it immediately comes to mind what that vibration is." In other words, even though the group may be improvising at full speed, in a spirit of total musical freedom, each of the four knows the others' personalities, musical and otherwise, well enough to have some idea where the music's likely to head. As though anticipating a question as to why a group might continue for as long as Other Dimensions has, in light of the risk that the players might gradually come to absolute predictability [this being the reason the improvisatory jazz-rock-noise quartet Last Exit gave for disbanding after just over three years--they didn't want it to become predictable], Carter continues, "And then not to say that it's not constantly, in some cases brutally, challenging you. I mean, God knows, if a person is awake, they're challenging themselves."

One of the most important ways in which Test challenges listener expectations is the relative quiet of their music. In some ways, it would be easier for them to simply blare at full strength and attempt to outdo the trains and track announcements and cell-phone conversations and all the other ambient noise that fills New York's subway stations. But instead, Test pieces often spiral inwards rather than rocketing outwards, and the music is all the more rewarding for it. "First Peace That Ever Was, Is, To Be," the first cut on their self-titled Ecstatic Peace album, from 1999, is a perfect example.

(Test released three CDs, and one LP, in just over 18 months. The Ecstatic Peace album was in fact recorded in 1996, though it took three years to see daylight--when it did, it was accompanied to store shelves by another self-titled CD, on Aum Fidelity. A few months later, Eremite released Live/Test, a disc recorded on the group's November 1998 US tour. Eremite's vinyl sub-label, Nowjazz/Ramwong, has released Ahead, recorded on the same tour but containing different material.)

"First Peace..." is a slow, carefully building 26-minute exploration of sound which never becomes obstreperous or even extroverted. It seems to demonstrate the four musicians delicately tiptoeing around one another in the studio, offering brief flurries of notes in turn, but the group as a whole never settling on a consensus or a specific direction. It reminds the listener of a play by Samuel Beckett, wherein one character says "I can't go on" only to be told by another "You can't stay here." It's a restless piece, the members of the quartet scuttling about as though trying to find out the limits of the space, not because they're going to do any one thing or head in any one direction--they just want to know what they're working with. The other two tracks on the disc, "Dis-Astor Place" and "A Journey into the Love, Light and Power of the Creator--Part 1," are significantly louder, the latter piece (which incorporates shouted interjections at its ecstatic peak) being, as its title might indicate, very much in the emotive, pyrotechnic vein of later Coltrane pieces like "The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost," from Meditations.

The (also self-titled) Aum Fidelity disc, which was recorded in label head Steven Joerg's apartment one afternoon, is also a somewhat scattered set of music. The primary characteristic is, again, introspection, with only the final track, "what RU going 2 due?!," being in any way aggressive. "That day," Carter recalls, "I was not as centered as I really would like to be. In a way, I could say I hardly ever am, but that day I was particularly unsettled. Maybe I was hoping that I would be able to adjust for that. At some point I don't even try to keep myself together, I say well, it seems to be about disintegration or being blown apart, so if I can put that in the microphone--but it goes back to what my mother used to say, 'Contain yourself. You have to contain yourself.' I'd interpret that as stifle yourself, but if you think about it another way, like in the barrel of a gun... in some way that energy is contained, but it's being channeled, and a bullet itself contains that which can be ignited. But that day I didn't feel at my best in those regards. But I'm sure everybody in the band had a different perception and a different goal from each other, and of course that's what really makes counterpoint. We're really not necessarily trying to do the same thing, but it is all-important... to keep the group together. It's like an atom, where you have all these differently-charged particles opposite to each other, but still holding together."

This sort of scientific analogy leaps to Carter's lips quite often when discussing the music he makes, and music in general. He is fascinated by science, particularly astronomy. The day we spoke, he had spent the previous evening watching a documentary on the origins of the universe, and it was consuming his consciousness as we conversed. "When you see it," he said, referring to a computer-animated illustration of the movements of galaxies, "and the way it moves, it's not a huge stretch to make a relationship between how this stuff moves and the way sometimes the music moves. There's so much information in it, and yet it can be what some people might call chaotic, but there's a positive sense of chaos and a negative sense, like there's a positive sense of anarchism and a negative sense. Or you have a sense of being bewildered by so much stuff that's not ordered, or structured, or you have a sense of, like, Schoenberg or Webern or Cage or Elliott Carter or Charles Ives, where even though you've got something that you can't handle all at once, you know it's together." Later in our conversation, Carter used the example of the Big Bang to tie together a theory about the many facets of the so-called "avant-garde," and how the contributions of dozens, if not hundreds, of musicians are often limited or misperceived by neophytes who know relatively little about the music, save a litany of names.

"One of the interesting things about all this music that's developed since the late 1950's," he said, "like Mingus, and when Ornette Coleman came to town in 1959 or so, the development of the New York underground, is that there's such a range of people. There's far more players than seem to have gotten to the point of being highly recognizable or remembered. Now, you can just imagine--and this gets into the Big Bang thing again, all these stars, all these planets, all these galaxies--each one of them. Imagine that you're one of trillions of things that maybe look a little like you, but you're unique, there's nobody else like you, nothing else like you. So can you imagine all the different relations, affinities, disaffinities and everything in between each one of those people and traditional jazz. Here these people have been blown out the other side, through the looking glass into this whole new music. But where were they blown out from? Probably from being listeners of Max Roach, Mingus, Ellington, and so at certain points, even if it can be rebellious, or disruptive, or nostalgic, or even just recognition or acknowledgement, like say Archie Shepp. It seemed like from early on he was celebrating the older guys, consciously, even with his first emergence." Carter sees this as natural, since in order to rebel against something, particularly in music or any art form, it's necessary to understand what's being rebelled against. "If you're fighting with somebody," he says, "you're in a heightened relationship with that someone." This is a perspective that's apparently shared throughout the New York community of players, and it's made evident in albums like David Ware's Surrendered, Matthew Shipp's Pastoral Composure, and the William Parker Trio CD Painter's Spring, on which Carter plays.

Painter's Spring is a fairly simple album; the three players (Carter on saxophones and flute; Parker on bass; Hamid Drake on drums) work their way through a series of Parker compositions, Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," and the spiritual "There Is A Balm In Gilead." Carter's solos on the disc never head for the outer limits, but remain firmly grounded in the blues tradition which underpins all of jazz. In many ways, Painter's Spring is reminiscent of a quieter, more restrained jazz of the 1950's or early 1960's--the kind of record that might have come out on Prestige or Savoy. "I think that [simplicity] was part of the vision of that," Carter says about the record. "I think that maybe speaks to dimensions, and other dimensions of music. There are other dimensions of people. Other dimensions of genres. And these genres can help each other tremendously. You have people who for the most part are listening to this genre or that genre, and then they get a chance to hear something from another genre, and it doesn't discourage them, it encourages them to check it out."

Carter seems to believe that records like Painter's Spring not only expand the listeners' conception of what free jazz players can and should play, it benefits the players too, drawing them out of the (somewhat paradoxically) constrictive realm of formless, go-for-broke improvisation. "It's possible," he says, "that if people had a chance to develop what's in them in a way that was less constrained to even be avant-garde in the first place... I mean, a lot of these things probably would not have even come into being if conditions in life were much better. It creates these certain pressures where stuff has to erupt, because it couldn't be healthy, normal circulation, and exchange of ideas." And beyond the realm of pure aesthetics, there lies the much larger, and more forceful (some might say destructive) realm of market forces. "Take rock 'n' roll for example," Carter says. "Rock probably would have permeated, intermingled much more with classical, jazz, different aspects of jazz, country music, which is where it came from, different musics from around the planet, but you've got these market categories, and you've got people who want to produce you or have you perform somewhere, and they have to know what kind of stuff you're doing. And the musicians get a little concerned, and they say hey, we gotta make sure this is clearly this, and even if they like something else they say oh, I can't do that over here. Sometimes it's because of individuality, because somebody is an individual, but how do you tell? Is it the individual, or did some force, political or economic, make it that way?"

This is what makes Test, and Daniel Carter, important. By taking the music directly to the people, addressing harried commuters whether they're ready for it or not, and by offering pure, totally unrestrained expression at all times, Carter and his bandmates open a window to an expansive vision--not only of music, but of life, fully and creatively lived, in real time, all the time.

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