Keyboardist Anthony Coleman has cranked out driving montunos with guitarist Marc Ribot, injected feverish energy into the music of Yiddish composer Mordechai Gebirtig, played long-form, large-ensemble John Zorn compositions on albums like Spillane and The Big Gundown, and written somber chamber music for his own groups—and he can draw on any or all of those styles as an improviser, which is first and foremost what he is. On the recent solo piano record Freakish, however, Coleman tackles the post-ragtime proto-jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, playing it with the precision and zeal of a passionate preservationist.
In his liner notes he refers to the Jorge Luis Borges story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," about a fictional 20th-century author who immerses himself in Cervantes's novel in an attempt to write it again, word for word. Borges calls Menard's version "infinitely richer," by dint of both the 400 years of history that separate it from the original and the effort required to write in the language of another time. Coleman quotes the story as a way to reflect on his own project: "more ambiguous, his detractors will say; but ambiguity is a richness." Coleman does indeed add some ambiguity to the songs—slightly reharmonizing a melody here, gently funking up a left-hand pattern there—and these changes are hardly inadvertent. "I have steeped myself in '20s jazz practice," he writes, "but when an anachronistic sonority, line or groove emerges I subject it to intense questioning." But this questioning appears to have eliminated most of the updates that it might've occurred to him to make, because by and large he plays Morton's rigorous tunes straight, with a penetrating sobriety. (Freakish is dedicated to the memory of pianist Jaki Byard, who died in 1999; he was a mentor to Coleman, and few musicians have transported ideas from ragtime and stride into the postbop world as successfully as he did.)
History-minded pianists like Butch Thompson and Dick Hyman have already recorded exquisite tributes to Morton's music, but it's a little surprising to see Coleman doing so—he's a contrarian, hard to pin down, and when he inhabits a specific style he tends to subvert or at least reframe the material. He most certainly doesn't do that to Morton's songs, even with his occasional thoughtful tweaks. He seems content simply to give his audience another opportunity to bask in the dynamic rhythmic complexity of the compositions, which place less emphasis on the soloist than on the tunes themselves. Morton imbued the melodies of classics like "The Pearls," "Mr. Jelly Lord," and "King Porter Stomp" with the sophistication of ragtime and the raw, slippery energy of the blues, and hearing Coleman bang out their interlocking, syncopated left- and right-hand figures is like watching a fleet-footed couple light up a dance floor.
MICHAEL HURLEY & IDA
Ida Con Snock
Michael Hurley is an American treasure, a veteran songster and dyed-in-the-wool eccentric who's concocted a sound all his own from bluegrass, blues, country, boogie-woogie, Tin Pan Alley pop, and a host of extinct or endangered regional folk styles. He's absorbed his sources into his bloodstream—he has a knack for vocal trumpet imitations a la the Mills Brothers, for instance, and his sawing double-stop fiddle on "Hog of the Forsaken" splits the difference between Cajun and old-time music—and in the process he's intermingled them so thoroughly that there's not a lick of preservationism in his approach.
Most of the songs in his quirky repertoire are his own, and he doesn't sound quite like anybody else: his wonderfully cracked voice and casual, ambling delivery work a unique alchemy on his warm and insinuating melodies. His studio career began in 1964 with an LP for Moses Asch's Folkways label, and since then he's made albums irregularly, often revisiting material he's previously recorded. They're never elaborate productions, and most feel like the products of momentary whims, captured by chance when he happened to stop into a studio at just the right time—an impression reinforced by Hurley's indifference to the usual protocol of touring to support a new release and his tendency to fly under the radar for long stretches.
Hurley's 21st album, Ida con Snock, was cut at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, New York, with the indie folk-pop group Ida, so I'm guessing it wasn't entirely spontaneous. I didn't have the highest of hopes for this record, since Ida have never much impressed me on their own and Hurley's idiosyncratic timing and phrasing are inimical to collaboration. But the band does a fantastic job, sticking close but not too close to his laid-back singing. They add gorgeous vocal harmonies and complement his basic guitar strumming with harmonium drones, woozy steel guitar, gentle drumming, and scratchy violin harmonics (which are especially effective on a new spin through his classic "Wildegeeses").
Hurley, as usual, brings a sense of wonder to everything, whether he's resurrecting shopworn standards like "Loch Lomond" and "Molly Malone" or tapping into 50s pop for "Going Steady," which has the simple grace and romance of two teenagers locked in a swaying slow dance. And he refreshes his own old tunes, much the same way a jazz musician can stretch a familiar standard without rendering it unrecognizable. Hurley's way of inhabiting a song like he's lived in it all his life means he never needs to oversell a performance, and even when he seems to be coasting he's still so connected to the music that he can hold your full attention—it's this level of investment that makes every one of his records feel like an event, no matter how low-key it is.
Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007)
Mike McGonigal, who compiled this stunning three-disc set, writes in his liner notes that he originally planned to collect songs by artists descended from the "street corner evangelist and 'sanctified blues' traditions" of the 1920s and '30s. But as he worked it dawned on him that his scope was too narrow. His solution wasn't to broaden his criteria but to ditch most of them altogether—there's no focus on style, region, or era. What the recordings here have in common, as the title says, is that they're raw and rare. Even Bob Marovich, the Chicago record collector and gospel historian who runs theblackgospelblog.com, calls most of McGonigal's selections "obscure."
Gospel compilations that reach back to the postwar golden era usually focus on solo vocal recordings and jubilee quartets, and the vast majority of the material they collect originally came out on established labels. The 80 tracks on Fire in My Bones, by contrast, were by and large released on tiny vanity labels or no label at all, and they belong to dozens of musical traditions, many of which will be totally new to nonspecialist ears. The set serves as a sort of alternative history of African-American gospel.
There are a few familiar names: blind New Orleans songster Snooks Eaglin turns "Down By the Riverside" into a tightly coiled rave-up, electric-guitar evangelist Reverend Utah Smith rips though "God's Mighty Hand," and Los Angeles lap-steel ace Reverend Lonnie Farris plays an instrumental version of "Peace in the Valley" in his distinctively ghostly and lyrical style. But the majority of the singers, preachers, musicians, and congregations represented here made only one or two records. Most of the songs date from no later than the mid-70s, but McGonigal has located some relatively recent offerings too: John Boswell & the True Sounding Boswellettes' "The Very Last Mile," whose vocal melody shimmies over weirdly flanged guitar accompaniment, was taped off an AM radio broadcast in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989, and there's a track from 2007 by Reverend John Wilkins, son of brilliant blues singer Robert Wilkins.
The collection jumps erratically from one style to the next, which helps keep things lively. A song by Elder Roma Wilson and his three sons, cut as a test by a Detroit record-shop owner in 1948 and released on a Gotham Records 78 without the artists' knowledge, combines the father's fervent exhortations with an overheated tangle of four simultaneous harmonica parts and nothing else. And Elder Beck, on his 1956 track "Rock and Roll Sermon," condemns the deviancy encouraged by rock 'n' roll over a ragged, guitar-driven beat that can only be called rock 'n' roll.
Elsewhere on Fire in My Bones there's fife-and-drum gospel from the Georgia Fife & Drum Band, a post-Rosetta Tharpe throwdown by Sister Mathews, vaguely psychedelic gospel rock from the Amazing Farmer Singers of Chicago, and the sacred steel guitar of Brother Willie Eason. Some of the music may strike listeners as novel, but the fierce conviction in the performances makes it impossible to experience it as mere novelty. This compilation is like a window into a lost world, forgotten to all but a few—and because so many of the artists represented were trying to please only God and their congregations, not the record-buying public, that world was richer and more varied than outsiders ever could have imagined.