Notes on "Imagine the Sound"

Imagine the Sound (1981) is a collection of both live and in-studio performances punctuated by commentary by the artists: Paul Bley, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, and Cecil Taylor. The contrast in production style with the Ken Burns Jazz series is stark; the interview segments in Imagine are far more casual, with notable shots of Shepp and Bley smoking pipes and Taylor interrupting eloquent answers mid-sentence to light his cigarette, but no less illuminating and generally just more real-to-life. The majority of the film is performance footage, all of which is excellent. I remember seeing clips of Cecil Taylor performing solo from this documentary in Jazz years ago, and these performances are hard to forget not only because of the astonishing, up-close views of Taylor's physical exchanges with the instrument, but because they take place in an all-white studio space (it looks like the loading program from The Matrix).

I won't say much about the performances in the documentary, since you'd benefit much more just from listening to them yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few memorable moments from the interview commentary with the artists. Just as the musical personalities of these four artists come across unambiguously in the documentary, so too do their conversational personalities. Cecil Taylor, who opens the documentary with the assertion that music "is everything that you do," is the most mysterious of the four. He offers abstract wisdom and speaks the least on his perceptions of the past, preferring to share his approach to art as he's come to understand it over years of practice and study. He comments on the topic of contemporary trends in the music industry, specifically the way that producers encourage artists to follow formulas rather than to follow their own visions, but points out that his own uncompromising path is satisfying but not at all easy from a practical standpoint: 
"When you’re out there making art and accepting the final responsibility of knowing that your livelihood depends on it, then you go forward into it, but you also come to understand that nobody really asks you to do this!"
Taylor also surprised me with a strong statement about his perception of his own and other exploratory music, which is that not everybody is ready for it: 
“And everyone simply cannot deal with this music. There are things one must have, one must be aware of.”
Taylor and Bill Dixon offer the most compelling interviews in the documentary, but for different reasons: Taylor comes across as aloof and abstractly reflective, but Dixon comes across as almost flippant in his remarks, which you realize is just his way of being honest and enthusiastic about what he discusses, including the continuing role of race as an everyday reality and the change in attitude he observes in younger musicians. At one point, he shares his dream of having an institute for black music research, but points out:

“I think if I were white they’d love to have me do what they do. I just don’t think we live in a part of the world in this particular point where a black man can be bright and have ideas, and make the situation better for everyone. Now that may be my paranoia, but that has also been my experience.”
Toward the end of the documentary, I laughed out loud hearing his emphatic response to a seemingly hopeful off-camera question:
“Bill, can we bring back the community spirit to the music?”  
“No, absolutely no! You want to know why? Because young musicians don’t want to go through that; they all want to be famous!”
The phrase "Young Lion" doesn't appear at all in the documentary (it's still a bit too early for that), but Dixon shows that the older generations of musicians already know what's up at that point.

Archie Shepp is the most reserved of the four in conversation, although his performances are just as powerful as the others, and Paul Bley strangely enough comes across as a bit of a historian, offering the most specific observations about his own involvement with the avant-garde. He recalls meeting Ornette Coleman after two years of a regular gig at the Hillcrest Bar with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, and that he knew that (1) the music was amazing, and (2) they'd be fired very soon, so that it was time to move to the East Coast and try to bring the music there. He also talks about musical trends at the time in terms of finding new ways of improvising:
“Early on it was thought that rather than play on popular songs you might be able to play on other materials, so there was a lot of experimentation using music of different cultures as the premise for improvising. It was only upon the appearance of Ornette Coleman out of Los Angeles that the idea of playing on a theme without necessarily using harmonic material was actually proposed as the music, as opposed to a theory.”
Bley interestingly talks about the increasing freedom in improvisational parameters as occurring in two stages, beginning with harmonic innovations and then moving to rhythmic innovations:
“In the beginning, the big problem was the harmony because there’s only so many ways to play on triadic music. And so the early innovation was the compositions suggested a single tone center, and the rhythm stayed the same, but the improvisation proceeded from the tone center to take a trip. At the end of the trip the return to the tone center was all that was required as far as the harmonic aspect of the music is concerned. ”
It struck me how he chose the term "triadic music"—it recalls some of what Steve Coleman has said about older jazz musicians like Von Freeman thinking in terms of simpler structures like triads and 6th chords, rather than hyperextended 7th chords. Bley goes on to describe how bass players began to drop their strict time-keeping role and begin "playing horn lines," which I take to mean improvising with more melodic and rhythmic freedom, and says that it was only after bass players freed themselves that drummers stopped playing regular time. 

He says something really interesting here: to Bley, this was actually the moment where "the trap player sealed his doom," meaning that Bley felt it wasn't necessary to have a drummer in a situation without a regular pulse. He adds that the drums sometimes mask the tonal quality of other instruments in the band so that omitting the drums enables greater focus on pitch content. This brought to mind something Herbie Nichols mentioned in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, which is how drummers contribute rich overtones and other harmonic content to the music at hand. Not to say that either Bley or Nichols are right, but it was fascinating to see such different conceptions of the drummer's contribution to a band between these two instantly recognizable personalities.

[Additionally on the topic of drum tuning: Henry Threadgill, in an interview with Ethan Iverson, talks about the specificity with which he wrote out drum parts for his Sextett, which featured two drummers who combined could play all 12 chromatic pitches. "Everything is tuned, heavily tuned.  In Africa, the drums are tuned."]

I'm curious how the rest of the interview footage came out; the documentary is quite short (91 minutes), but at this point it doesn't seem like a director's cut is likely. The documentary's worth it for the performances alone, but the commentary from the artists is also full of noteworthy insights. Plus, it's only $12.99 to download.

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I feel like I'm constantly in a state of near-drowning from information overload these days, but this documentary and a few other finds came to my attention recently and I felt I couldn't not share. Air Song and Air Raid are also available as mp3 downloads on Amazon for less than $4.00 a piece, as well as these remastered box sets from Black Saint by artists like Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Taylor, Bley, etc.