NOTES ON LEO SMITH AND BOB HELSON by WILL MENTER ARISING FROM A CONCERT
The concert takes place on 28 May 1979, in Bristol. It starts with three solo improvisations by Leo Smith using trumpet, flugelhorn, thumb piano and flute. Even before he plays, it is clear that he is going to confront the problem boldly. He stands near the audience facing them squarely; feet slightly apart and the trumpet pointing directly towards the back of the concert hall.
During the first few minutes, we learn much:
Two staccato notes with space between them - middle C# up to G# - and then a long high F breaking into a complex multiphonic with spit and vibration combining. A short, low E answering the first note and then a flowing chromatic phrase in the middle register hinting at a triplet rhythm. Down, then up, then down again. Silence.
The extremes have already been defined within the first half minute of the piece. Short notes, long notes, fast notes, silence, high, low. It is effectively a gathering together of materials and we infer that the improvisation will consist of a development and elaboration of these materials.
The same multiphonic based on high F, soon resolving to E then D and Eb. A split note staccato on middle Eb, a long round tone on D, slurred to a shorter C. Short silence. Staccato low F#, D, middle F#. Another chromatic phrase, longer this time, and in a lower, richer area of the horn. Starts on middle A, down to the lowest register and ending again on middle F#.
All the sounds to be made during this improvisation will be purposefully beautiful.
New melodic material is now introduced. Top A slurred to Bb, breath, A (D) G G# - played very definitely, on beat and with no particular rhythmic inflection. D# (cracked), C# ; C, A# . Then, surprisingly, the first quiet notes - low A# , A, Upbeat to Eb, D, C, Bb, A--, G--, C#--. Middle Bb to A with grace notes and alternation then Bb, C--. Cadential silence. End of first section.
The introduction of quiet notes and song-like, lyrical melodies makes an unexpected contrast to the other material and suggests a wider emotional span.
A series of 9 staccato notes in two similarly shaped groups, but with a light moving rhythm to them, not yet heard. A long, high G# . Descending chromatic phrase of about 16 notes to low E. (D) Eb, D. Staccato F# , then another chromatic phrase. . . .
The notes are gradually given a more subtle rhythmic inflection, the runs become more devious and several new elements are introduced. A rapid slurring from high notes to low notes. A fluttering sort of movement on some shorter phrases. The music moves in sections of one to two minutes, each section ending and beginning with a cadential silence. The basic elements are given a different emphasis in each section.
There is no overall linear development in the piece, no climax (no meaning in the sense of European classical music) and no continuing swing or pulse (no meaning in the sense of African-American classical music).
The meaning actually comes from the way the different melodic and rhythmic ideas are juxtaposed; sometimes flowing into each other, sometimes making abrupt contrasts on either side of a silence. Certain elements, such as the long flowing chromatic phrases and the asymmetrical groups of 4 staccato notes form linking structures in the piece and serve as a sort of reassurance to the listener, a reference point for the fresh ideas that are introduced throughout the piece. And yet they are actually more than this, because the way in which they are combined, increasingly closely as the piece progresses, is often the seed for new material to emerge. Towards the end of the piece (it lasts for 13 minutes), there is an increasing feeling of resolution in the melodic phrases; movement towards a place of rest is implied. But before this place is reached, there is an acceleration in the flow of ideas - short two note phrases are followed by very fast runs and the piece finishes before the idea of resolution can be developed.
The meaning actually comes from the sound. Strong, round, brassy. Low, deep, direct. Occasionally mellowed with a reduced loudness or slight vibrato. Sometimes broken into its separate parts or accompanied by a sympathetic buzzing as with many African instruments. A warm sound, one of the warmest I have heard.
The end of the piece is greeted with warm applause by the audience.
The duet with percussionist Bob Helson, comes in the second half of the concert. For this, Leo plays a Ghanaian end-blown flute. He uses the natural scale of the instrument and starts by playing an attractive tune on it. His flute playing is more decorative than his trumpet playing; he makes use of trills, grace notes and slides between notes, and most of his phrases have song-like quality to them. Bob responds tentatively at first by playing quiet rolls on the drums, taps on the edge of cymbals, bells, balaphone, gong; small noises and clicks. He relates to the decoration in Leo's playing more than to the melodic line itself. As first, it seems that Bob is finding it difficult to play. His problem is how to make a positive and independent contribution to the piece without actually destroying the very delicate mood that has been established by Leo's flute playing. But as the piece continues, the relationships begin to change. The interaction at the microstructural, decorative level continues but at the same time Bob begins to play more directly with Leo. Occasionally, he picks up the rhythm of phrases being played by Leo and at one point there is a hint of a call and response, conversational relationship between the two. Leo responds to one of Bob's sudden silences by playing a long note which he breaks up into a slurred, rhythmic phrase, using the contrast between the overblown and natural ranges of his flute and then develops this into a restatement of the theme. Bob continues to improvise (he has probably only half-recognised the theme) and is still introducing fresh material, so the piece doesn't actually resolve or have any simple formal structure. They end together (the piece has lasted for 6 minutes).
Leo has handled this piece more traditionally than his solo. He restated the theme at the end and used a more common method of improvising in the middle, building up to climaxes of pitch and speed. However, Bob has all but ignored this structure; he echoed it in places, but overall his playing was in response to the details and not the large form. By the end of the piece it is clear that Bob has built up his contribution through the microstructure, through a particular coherence of detail, a persistent subtlety; and this has actually proved more positive than simply following the rise and fall of the piece. It has made for a greater richness in the music. It was almost as if Bob had got up from his drums which were set up behind Leo and played beside them, quietly re-defining his supposed role of accompanist.
A superficial listening might have considered Bob to be merely scratching the surface.
Partly because I know both men personally, this music raised questions to me about the nature and purpose of musical activity. To what extent are our ideas about good and bad music influenced by our ideas about how people ought to act in society? To what extent does a commitment to a particular way of presenting music (in this case the formal concert) affect our judgement of the nature and relative success of the musical communication? How does a particular way of seeing the world stand up when in close proximity to an alternative?
These questions are inherent in all music, but they become particularly prominent in ad hoc improvisation groups, where there is an 'a priori' equality amongst individuals and no comfortable reciprocating rules have been made. In this particular concert, the 'a priori' equality was contradicted by the leader's status imposed on Leo Smith by the fact that the concert was set up as "Leo Smith (visiting international musician) plus supporting musicians". It is in this context that the different definitions of self and group operate.
What are these definitions?
The fundamental difference which is communicated in a careful listening to Leo' s music and Bob's music is that Leo's music says: "I AM THIS, EXACTLY THIS", and Bob's doesn't.
Bob's says: "I am what I am'.
Leo Smith: "the concept that i employ in my music is to consider each performer as a complete unit with each having his or her own centre from which each performs independently of any other, and with this respect of autonomy, the independent centre of the improvisation is continuously changing depending on the force created by individual centres at any instance from any of the units, the idea is that each improvisor creates as an element of the whole, only responding to that which he is creating within himself instead of responding to the total creative energy of the different units, this attitude frees the sound-rhythm elements in an improvisation from being realised through dependent re-action."
Bob Helson: "I feel happiest when things just seem to happen without being thought about; when they just seem to grow."
To say "I AM THIS" also implies the question "What are you?" This is exactly what Bob's music doesn't answer and was the source of the uneasiness at the beginning of the duet. These differences in concepts of identity and self relate to differences in culture and personal history and thus have strong social-political implications.
Consider the two men's life histories:
LEO SMITH: African-American. Born in Leland, Mississippi in 1941. Travelled with blues bands and then spent 5 years in the US Army in the USA and Europe. Spent the late 60's in Chicago as part of the Black Musicians' collective, the AACM. Went to live in Paris to spread the music and find audiences. Two residencies in Europe and then settled in West Haven, Connecticut. Has published his own books and records. His life has been one of constant choice and positive action. He settled in West Haven because "the metropolis is not necessary for this music."
BOB HELSON: Working class, English. Born in Bristol in 1949 and has lived there all his life. After leaving school he worked as a photographer's assistant, then a claimant, then a technician in a school, all the time pursuing music as a part-time activity. He has been involved with the Bristol Musicians' Co-op since 1975 when it started, and has published one record with his regular group. Until recently, when he gave up his day job he had made no major decisions because it was part of his philosophy that he thought he shouldn't have to make decisions. His anti-metropolitan beliefs prevent him from going to London.
So their cultural situations are very different. As a Black American, one assumes that Leo has been surrounded by other people's definitions of himself and so to survive, it has been imperative for him to stand up and say "I AM NOT THAT. I AM THIS." But Bob has had no direct experience of racial or class struggle; his experience of the world has been of bureaucracy, stupidity, ignorance, but not deliberate and malicious hostility. No-one has said to him "YOU ARE THAT" and so he has had no need to respond in that way.
And so it comes about that Bob's understanding of group improvisation becomes a microcosm of what he thinks an ideal society would be, based on his experience within the present society. For Bob, this would be an anarchistic society where there are no power relationships and no-one's definitions would carry more weight than anyone else's. Consequently, it would not be necessary to say who you are because no-one else is telling you you aren't. Music is the one area of Bob's life where he can act as if this situation already existed - and he is only really happy with the music if the other musicians are operating with a similar definition. So if some members of the group seem to be defining themselves as individuals first and as group members second, Bob considers it a limiting factor on the music and he can't play at his best. He understands a strong statement of personal identity as implying a power-relationship which he thinks shouldn't exist. (Whereas for Leo, it would be more a case of accepting the existence of power relationships and trying to redress the balance. Only ultimately to transcend them). Bob actually has very little concept of his own identity except as part of the group. Of course, in our present society, this course of action is defined as weak and naive since it doesn't provide any means to achieve the desired society. Similarly, Bob's playing at the concert could be defined as weak and naive since we normally expect a very strong statement of identity from a concert performance. (One could even imagine the question: "Why bother to do a concert if you don't want to project a strong identity?"). Given the dominance of the accepted modes of individualism at present, it certainly is naive of Bob to expect to establish this kind of relationship instantly since it is one where a high degree of mutual trust and understanding is required.
But perhaps in the world community of improvising musicians, something like this trust has begun to develop.
Leo's music also implies an opposition to the way our society is organised, but it speaks of an honourable way of acting within the society rather than of acting as one would in an ideal society. Because of this, it is concerned with beauty, with extracting the beauty from the society and displaying it, to indicate the possibilities for change. In Bob's music, the concept of beauty is irrelevant. It is not just a matter of making a new standard of beauty (as in some artistic innovations) but of doing away with the concept altogether. Everything is equally beautiful or un-beautiful. In Leo's music beauty is essential, and he is able to construct beauty even in a setting which is not ideal. It thus has more potential to provide a meaningful and fulfilled life for the musician, whereas Bob's music ultimately implies frustration.
But only ultimately. It is here that we come to a discussion about how men and women ought to live, about the value of an individual's life. Should one act purely and wait for the society to change, or should one engage in a direct dialogue with the society in order to make it change? The choice is a political one and can only be made in specific situations. It's meaning has no universal significance outside specific situations.
(So far there is no answer)
Consider the two cultures of Britain and the USA. In the USA, it has been one of the characteristics of the entire jazz tradition that players should work at producing a highly personal, instantly recognisable style. In a music to which collective creation has been essential at all times, a particularly American form of individualism has also been important. Dave Holland, an English musician who now lives in New York and plays with Americans, had this to say about his first gig with Miles Davis:
"The intensity of the music I'd never experienced. I felt that almost American violence in the music which was something I'd never experienced in Europe. At first I felt it in a negative way; I felt that the musicians were attacking each other in a sense. But I realised it was just another way of people relating musically. Each person having their own role and stating it independently of the others, and clearly. Although each was working towards a whole or totality, there was much individuality happening. It wasn't so much reliant on the next person and the next person. There wasn't the waiting for somebody to do something. Everybody was much more sure of their part. They were doing what they were doing. You'd better listen! You'd better take! It was that kind of attitude. At first I said "Well, this is strange you know," but then I started to see it really added a dimension to the music that was incredibly strong and vital."
For Americans, White and Black, the 60's were a time when major choices were made over Vietnam and civil rights. People were able to make their own characters by making these choices. In Britain there has been no choice such as these for many years.
John Berger wrote in 1967: "Since the war, during the last twenty years, we have lived through a period which must be reckoned as an exact and prolonged antithesis to a moment of truth. We have exercised no choice at all. Certain fundamental political decisions have been taken in our name - without ever being presented to us as a matter of choice."
Of course, individual people have made choices, but there has been no issue so important that everyone must take sides. Several times in the last few years, it has seemed that such an issue was emerging; for instance the "Who rules?" crisis of Heath's government, but none has come to this. For Black Americans, civil rights has always been an issue of this nature.
Dave Holland: It's what it is originally - it's a statement of freedom, expression of: "Look, whatever you do to us, you can't take this away, this is what I feel, my music." And that's felt, no matter in what way, that spirit comes across.
This leads to a belief in the power of music to communicate a human essence across cultural barriers.
I think the music's message is a universal one really - that's why it transcends national barriers and boundaries. It communicates to everybody - it's an international language.
That this music can transcend national barriers is undeniable. How else would it have drawn Dave Holland the 3000 miles from Wolverhampton to New York? But given the cultural differences that I have described, it is difficult to see how it could ever become the mainstream of music in England since although it has the means to communicate internationally, the actual message as described by Dave Holland is a specific one.
However, the potential for a very complex communication is present in the form as I have tried to show in discussing this concert. There is the possibility of widely different world views to be presented side by side without being compromised or weakened. For the listener there is the chance of allowing the music to enrich and elaborate our world view rather than simply confirm beliefs.
I make no special claims for these particular musicians - I believe any music could be discussed in a similar way and more importantly that ideas such as these are actually communicated by a sensitive listening to any music, whether they be explicitly analysed or not.
NOTE: The quote from Leo Smith is from his book "Notes (8 pieces) source a new world music: creative music" (1973). The quote from John Berger is from " A Fortunate Man" (1967). The quotes from Bob Helson and Dave Holland are from private conversations in 1976 and 1978 respectively.