a column by
Stuart Broomer


The following piece appeared in Portuguese as a programme note for a special performance at Culturgest in Lisbon, on October 29, in the middle of a 17-day European tour of Rodrigo Amado’s This Is Our Language Quartet with Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler and Chris Corsano. The performance was distinguished by the large-scale projection of Rodrigo’s photographs. It was a time shadowed by mortality. Rodrigo’s father, the painter Manuel Amado had passed away on October 14th, shortly before the tour began; José Mário Branco, the singer-songwriter and activist who meant so much to Portuguese music and culture and from whom Rodrigo had drawn the epigram that graces both the group’s second recording and the Culturgest event, died on November 19th.

Histories of Nothing

“We have to start all over again, once more, and start from what is near, from what is below, on the ground. It’s much more a process drawn from biological and animal issues, from survival, from fear, from pleasure, from primal concerns.”
José Mário Branco

In 2017, Rodrigo Amado toured America on what would be a two-pronged project. One was a tour with Yells at Eels, the great Texas trumpeter Dennis González’ band with his sons, bassist Aaron and drummer Stefan. At the same time, Rodrigo was following his other muse, on a journey for images with fellow photographer António Júlio Duarte, exploring America’s wastelands and badlands, its monumental deserts and sparsely populated open spaces. On yet another American journey, conducted at home in Europe a couple of months before, he had reassembled the band now referred to as This Is Our Language Quartet for another European tour, a band in which he plays with some of America’s finest free jazz musicians: a jazz elder, saxophonist/trumpeter Joe McPhee, the foundational bassist Kent Kessler and the quicksilver drummer Chris Corsano. Along the way, they would record a CD called A History of Nothing. The photos from the Southwest trip, now ready for exhibition, are also called A History of Nothing. We have two profound journeys signed under a single inscrutable rubric.

I think about that title, play with the idea; I form two distinct patterns, a history of things too subtle, too close for language, another of things too terrible; I invent or imagine a relationship, then I ask Rodrigo. He responds:

“I gave them the same title because both the music from the last album and the images were done in the same period and came out of the same energy: a strong will to go back to the roots, to the primal energy, to the organic basic elements of life.

“For me, A History of Nothing is related to the depth that you can find in the most simple, organic and primordial elements, like sky, earth, sea, wind, dust, clouds, plants ... or, on a different scale, a wall, a piece of wool, a bench, a book ... and how grand these elements can be, compared with our superfluous and fleeting passage through the planet.

“So, of course, A History of Nothing can often show us everything. I think, in a way, it represents the source artists go to for inspiration. A vibration or emotional energy that doesn’t have to do with the present, with politics or politicians, with gentrification, war, business, racism or hate. It only has to do with this timeless continuum that saves us everyday, connecting humanity past and future and independent from it.”

It’s that sense of the fullness of the moment, encapsulating time in the immediate, the existential sense of the instant, that ties these things together, the music of a quartet in time, the instant of recognition and capture in a photograph. These are contrasting arts with a singular relationship.

What makes a Dreamtime a dreamtime, whether it’s the ancestral memory of aboriginal Australians or the photograph of an abandoned Drive-In? Perhaps it’s the sense of something simultaneously inaccessible and essential, something both immediately before us and unknowable. What was the image, what was the sound?

Let me insert a short history of jazz, a history of nothing, an outsider music, embodied in an idea that is This Is Our Language, an epic of generations of nothing, the historically repressed, discarded, misunderstood, an American institution granted far too little significance. The quartet is a generational saga, a musician in his 70s [since 80], born on the briefest far side of bebop, one in his 60s, one in his 50s, one in his 40s, together a special combination of different witnessings and learnings.

What will connect these images to these sounds? It’s an existential connection, rooted in both individual and collective sensibilities, histories of time and space, unknowable but also a form of knowledge, an intuition, two complementary dimensions of that history of nothing, that formidable erasure, here a way of entering into knowing something that cannot be known, relationships among the otherwise unrelated, a history of nothing, a language of self-erasing proposals, theorems and signals.

Free jazz is a sacred form ... the nearest thing to time itself, ideally occupying the absolute time of its making absolutely. What are its antecedents? It is a form both pure and synthetic, kin to similar forms, perhaps even a wedding of, blues and abstract expressionism, but an allowance made for the kind of blues, not absolutely country (Charley Patton) or classic (Bessie Smith), maybe holy history blues (Blind Willie Johnson), definitely the manic city blues of bop, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, both tipping towards free jazz in the rush to a pure untrammelled expression that would conquer time. It is the “remembering song” of Sidney Bechet contemplating a slave ancestor and the gestural freedom of Jackson Pollock.

When Dizzy and Bird reduced meaning to a meaningless “Salt Peanuts,” the Alamagordo, New Mexico test of the first atomic bomb was two months away. Free jazz was born in a precipitous moment, the late 1950s and early 1960s, when antagonistic totalitarianisms with a surplus of nuclear weapons bickered over geographic boundaries. When a high school student squeezed under a 3/4 inch desktop to guard against a nuclear bomb during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, it was Ornette Coleman’s music that made sense, like “R.P.D.D.”, acronym for Freud’s Relation of the Poet to Day Dreaming. Or consider Joe McPhee’s later vision Sweet Freedom, a tribute to both Max Roach and a more general legacy in “Garvey’s Ghost,” “Driva’ Man,” “Singing with a Sword in my Hand” ...

But was Ornette playing “free jazz”? Or did free jazz move from its heterodox origins to its purity, the historical erasure of the tune, “thematic material,” that we can embrace in the collective speech of This Is Our Language, grateful for all the noise that this music drowns out? This is not the echo of free jazz, but its becoming.

And then the images, a benign eternity, its forebodings exhausted, withering into dream:

A desert landscape, so alien that it mocks industry, its rock formations looking like rivers of cement, arises as rivers of cement pour through cityscapes ... serpents of stone ...

Desert plants, some low-lying survivors, some sprung from codes demanding a heroic individualism, as distinct as the Hopi costumes that they inspired ... whether bizarre forms or sudden bursts of purple flowers ...

Photographs of a drive-in screen, its supporting structure visible in some shots, as if the screen itself has been staged, like paintings of people seen from behind as shaped canvases in communal groups (as in the anxiety rendered serene in the paintings of Manuel Amado) ... imagine the images on that drive-in square against the Milky Way-spangled night sky, Roswell visitors and Alamagordo vibrations hatching nearby ...

Versus? A history of people who have been gamed by histories, pasts, presents, futures, even imaginary histories, all histories imaginary, the afterlives of histories, religious histories of the afterlife, the idealized witherings of the state ... (imagine!)

Again ... what makes a Dreamtime a dreamtime, whether it’s the ancestral memory of aboriginal Australians or the photograph of an abandoned Drive-In?

This sheltering testimony, this ancient howling, this new-born song ... the library shelf stretches in time ... A Cultural History of ... A Natural History of ... A Military History of ... A Personal Chronicle of ...

A history of nothing is an ecstasy found in delineating what it will preserve and what it will erase, the gesture versus the factory, a fidelity to the individuality of its gestures and their value to the collective act and the promise of the unknowable ...


Photographs ©Rodrigo Amado

Text ©Stuart Broomer

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