SH: Listening to so much jazz has forced me to go back and check out Beyond Creation‘s release from last year, Earthborn Evolution.
NC: I’m kind of glad you brought that up, because I’d like to bring this back into the realm of metal and the other music we spend so much time talking about. It’s clear that Ornette played an incredibly important role in pushing jazz forward into what we consider “modern” jazz. I really think every genre of music needs that person or people to push the genre out of people’s comfort zones and in the process get them (listeners and other musicians) to see sonic possibilities they might be overlooking. What may seem “avant-garde” at the time may be significantly less so later on. Do you all think there’s anyone really in metal, either older or more modern, who has been able to serve a similar role?
SH: Dan Swano (ex-Edge of Sanity) and Dominic LaPointe (ex-Beyond Creation) come to mind, but they’re also the first jazzy musicians I think of in the metal scene, so that could be why. I don’t remember his name, but the guy who’s behind Ephel Duath is an incredible avant-garde musician in the metal scene. He constantly seems to be pushing one boundary or another.
AH: The one band that immediately springs to mind is Swans – their later work in particular – though I’m not sure they really fit the metal label.
SH: I would say Gorguts also comes to mind, and, although their sound is fairly standard, The Zenith Passage
If I had to pick a single figure in the modern metal scene, though, who I thought was a Coleman-esque figure in their presence, I would probably have to pick Christian Muenzner (ex-Necrophagist, Spawn of Posession, Alkaloid).
AH: Gorguts for sure. Lots of their material is very non-standard, even for tech death. Despite Obscura being hailed by a lot of the community as a masterpiece, I’ve also seen some pretty harsh criticisms of it.
SM: Personally, that artist for me is Deathspell Omega. They started out as a standard black metal band, and then flirted with a much vaster, chaotic style with Si monvmentvm reqvires, circvmspice. But the first time that I heard Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum, the concept of what black metal could be was completely blown away for me. BM – like jazz – has such a universal, stanard core that can be experimented with endlessly to produce vastly different results.
SH: I would say that metal is an incredibly similar genre to jazz in quite a lot of ways, not only in terms of virtuosity but in terms of the lines of thinking that drive the artists to write what they do and be who they are.
AH: And also in terms of how big shifts in sound are often met with plenty of derision, though it speaks to the two genres’ similarities in that metal also allows for this level of experimentation.
SM: What mainly drove Coleman was a desire to portray an eclectic range of emotions in a genuine way, something that I feel metal does extremely well across its multiple subgenres.
SH: Yeah, different forms of metal, especially the farther away you get from standard heavy metal, are really good at portraying a wide and varied range of emotions.
AH: In addition, metal as a genre also tends to favour musical motifs over lyrical ones when portraying emotion.
SH: I’m still listening to Beyond Creation and the more I delve into this post-jazz-listening, the more I find this to show itself as a conversation between the instruments in the way Nick and Scott brought up earlier
NC: I think part of what helps connect the two genres as well is the fact that, as time has gone on, it’s become increasingly difficult to commercialize and monetize them. Like jazz, relatively few metal musicians these days get into the game with the thought they’re going to hit it big and make a ton of money. In a way, that option not even being realistic offers a kind of freedom to explore and experiment.
AH: That’s a great point, Nick, and brings to mind the Alkaloid record that was released earlier this year. No label wanted to pick up the band’s debut because of its highly experimental and ambitious nature, and they had to crowdfund the record’s recording and release. And yet it received rave reviews, and I would argue metal as a genre is better off for such a forward-thinking album’s existence.
SM: I think what Nick said is part of what made me so sad to see Coleman die. Jazz legends like him who are still alive and making music have a much easier time getting their music heard and appreciated, whereas lesser known artists do not have nearly as much name recognition. This not only affects individual bands/artists, but the genre as a whole.
SH: The flipside of that is that as the greats leave us, it leaves the genre ripe for a resurgence of young talent.
NC: The more I think about it, the more I’m honestly amazed that labels were so willing to put out Ornette’s music to begin with. Because you’re right, Scott. I really can’t imagine anyone doing something that ballsy now in jazz being able to get signed to anything whatsoever.
SM: And it affects it in the sense that its potential for coverage diminishes, despite the fact that a number of great jazz artists exist today, who typically receive coverage as an anomaly while the genre as a whole does not receive nearly as much attention as other genres…which is kind of exactly the problem that metal has. Other than Deafheaven, Pallbearer, Mastodon, Baroness and a few others, not a lot of metal acts receive crossover recognition in the critical conversation. They may appear on a “Best of Metal” list, but not an overall “Best Albums” list, again, a problem that jazz has as well.
SH: Yeah, the only places where jazz is actually received fully into a critical conversation is in places like theneedledrop or similar niche critics.
NC: I will say though that I’ve seen a lot more increased coverage of metal from sites that primarily cover “indie” stuff over the past few years. Pitchfork has hopped on the train, Stereogum absolutely has (our buddy Doug Moore with Pyrrhon is doing a great job there), Brooklyn Vegan covers a lot of metal these days. I don’t know if that’s an indication of the music gaining more popular acceptance or of “indie” culture simply trying to re-appropriate the “underground” nature of the music as they’ve seen indie turn into a commercial juggernaut in its own right.
SH: Pyrrhon is a perfect band to bring up in a conversation about pushing the limits of aural possibilities as well.
SM: Things are absolutely getting better, for sure. While the acclaim and accolades may not be at Sunbather level all the time, overall coverage has without a doubt been on an incline.
AH: I imagine the internet and comparative over-saturation of bands kind of makes today’s market harder to break into as well. Though this leaves me wondering how many potential jazz greats also lived around Ornette’s time and just weren’t able to get their music heard.
NC: It’s a double-edged sword. The problem is that at one point or another, both jazz and metal were considered “popular” music. That has not been the case for either for a long time now, and there’s inevitably going to be kind of a push-pull conflict between wanting to do more to gain more popular recognition but also not compromising on the things that the real fans of the genre love about it.
SM: That reminds me of an excellent quote from The Roots‘ Things Fall Apart:
SH: My personal thinking is that artists should, first and foremost, make themselves happy, but this isn’t the time for a discussion about economics.
NC: Ultimately they should make themselves happy. Most of the best music comes out of that.
AH: To steer this back to Ornette – it doesn’t take much to tell his music made him happy, or, at the very least, was a powerful emotional release. There is a very raw honesty about it both in terms of the music itself and the history surrounding it.
SH: Yeah, Ornette knew what was up. It really does feel like he’s not trying to really impress or call out towards any particular group. Which, again, is something extremely rare in that level of virtuoso playing.
SM: I wanted to wrap things up with another great quote, this time from an interview that Ben Ratliff conducted with Coleman in 2006 that was published in his 2008 book The Jazz Ear – Conversations Over Music:
“He told a childhood story about his mother…After he received his first saxophone, he would come to her after learning how to play something by ear. ‘I’d be saying. ‘listen to this!…You know what she’d tell me? ‘ Junior, I know who you are. You don’t have to tell me.”‘
I feel that this sums up his playing very well. For me, listening to a Coleman record is very much a means of having a conversation with him as a person.
AH: That is one powerful quote.
SH: Wow. That line really does an incredible job of encapsulating his essence as a musician into a small blurb.
SM: Coleman – and free jazz in general – speaks to me so greatly due its keen ability to say extemporaneously (cannot believe I spelled that correctly on my first go) what cannot be planned out. It is the epitome of improvisation that comes from an indescribable place. I am not a religious person, but for me, that is the closest definition to the soul that I can imagine existing: dialogue from within that reveals who one is.
AH: It’s interesting that you described it as ‘having a conversation’ with him rather than just listening to what he had to say through his music, and I wholeheartedly agree. Despite the seemingly one sided relationship between musician and listener, his sax playing builds off the very emotions it induces.
NC: I feel the same way about much of Coltrane’s later output, which was undoubtedly influenced by Ornette. It’s pure emotion and passion speaking through and inviting you to listen and bring your own self into it.
AH: Exactly – it’s a conversation in a language that allows one to attach their own thoughts and feelings to what they’re hearing, and the end result is downright cathartic.
SH: I agree on all accounts. To sum up how I feel about Coleman, his musical genius comes from the fact that he is so able to express himself through his instrument. It takes a true musician, not just a player of an instrument, to be able to send a message through their music, and to be able to receive them back and build a dialogue is one of a kind. Ornette’s success comes from his ability to turn his saxophone into a set of plastic vocal chords.
-SM, NC, SH & AH