Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Alan Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra and the Big Box Set

Bassist, key- boardist, sometimes violinist, composer, bandleader, father-figure of the new thing, Alan Silva cannot be dismissed and will not go away. You don't like avant jazz? That's your business. But to anyone else, he's been a seminal force in the new jazz (now coming onto 50 years of age) from the very beginning, playing bass with the greats, giving the music a personal stamp on his small-group recordings, and leading off and on one of the titanic avant big bands, the Celestrial Communication Orchestra. His 1969 three-record set on BYG gives you the cream of the avant garde musicians then in Paris. They aren't just there to blow (though, man, they sure do that). Silva fabricates for them a compositional framework that puts their music into a collective maelstrom that is ever-shifting, creating a sound like no other, though clearly Trane's Ascension, Sun Ra's conductions, some of Mingus's larger band collectivities, and Ornette's Free jazz were and are important forerunners.

Sun Ra will always be remembered for what he did for the big band. Alan Silva should be too.

So we come to the box set released some time ago on Eremite HR 57 I-IV (Catalog number 039-042). In many ways this is an extension of the 1969 set in approach. Directed collective freedom.... The box itself is OOP but the four individual CDs can still be had, sans box. I've spent some time immersing myself in this huge body of music. I emerge to report in.

The music was recorded live in four lengthy sets at Poschiavo, Switzerland in 2001. Some 23 of the finest avant improvisers of today assembled for the music, and collectively they raise the rafters. Alan is on synth and conducts the proceedings. There's O. Thomas, Borca, Allen, Mateen, Carter, F. Wong, Jordan, Parran, Few, J. Bauer, J. Bowie, Swell, B. Lowe, J. Daley, Carroll, Campbell, Oki, W. Parker, J. Krall, W. Morris, W. Smith, and Ijeoma Thomas on vocals. Now that is a heady gathering. Maestro Silva puts them through their paces with arranged/written material, conduction, group collective improvisation and solo-background situations.

Ijeoma Thomas sometimes improvises with (what I believe are) the words of a US Govt resolution honoring jazz music. She introduces the band with a musical backdrop on each set. Now I think what she is doing is very creative. But I did end up with the feeling that by the nature of the attention we give to the human voice (probably it's in our genes) the times she is wordily present she dominates in ways that I think take something away from the impact the master improvisers have on their own. Now that doesn't mean she is not good. I just don't hear her fitting in as well as a Jeannie Lee would have. That may be something personal with me, I do not know. She commands a lot of the attention with an improvised declamatory style. (Of course this is quite desirable when she introduces the band, less so with the resolution recitation-improvisation). When she fits in as another voice among voices (wordlessly) things go better.

This is in all a vibrant, exalting, exuberant, flaming conflagration of voices, a gathering of the free tribe, a melding of the many ultra-individual voices into a massively powerful whole. The compositional-conductional element brings cohesion and structure points into what otherwise could have been chaos. And the elements do so in ways that are pure Alan Silva. Brilliant.

I liked the last volume the best. There is so much music here that it is best experienced a disk at a time. Even after five listens to the set I know there is much more to experience here, more ways the music can and will grow inside me.

That's what Alan Silva's big-band music is all about. Maximalism. A wealth of detail.

If you are a serious student of the avant arts, you owe it to yourself to study (and enjoy) what Alan and the master musicians are up to here. It's a monumental achievement. Whether it's a monument as well time will decide. One thing is sure. Alan Silva must be heard. He is a critical musical voice of his generation. So listen!

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