a column by
Stuart Broomer

Some records have a significant hold on our imaginations decades after our first hearing, so it’s opportune when a reissue program provides convenient occasion to talk about them. It’s even better when one of those recordings feels as close to the contemporary pulse as it did decades ago. New York Eye and Ear Control, originally on ESP-Disk, has recently been reissued on ezz-thetics. The word “Revisited” has been added to the title, in reference, presumably, to the remastering; originally credited on the front cover to Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray, Ayler’s name is now much more conspicuous on the cover and alone on the spine; there’s a close-up of Ayler from Michael Snow’s film New York Eye and Ear Control where once there had been a series of exterior long shots from the film. Paul Haines’ original recording job is more vivid with the CD mastering by Michael Brandii. If I were responsible for the credits, I’d likely enlarge the typeface on Michael Snow’s name and his role in the work: it was he who specified no tunes, no solos, collective improvisation, then a rather demanding form of license and a musical code that Snow himself has since practiced for over 57 years.

I’ve long viewed New York Eye and Ear Control as one of the most significant recordings in the history of jazz and improvised music, in its own historical period, certainly, but even more so for its resonances with the early years of jazz a century ago and, as well, its connection to the music’s developments in the 55 years since its release. For me it’s long been a kind of Canadian record, too, specifically a Toronto one, both for Michael Snow’s role as its initiator and for the way in which it resonates with Toronto jazz culture before, and certainly after, its release. The key elements are the prominence of traditional New Orleans polyphony in Toronto and the relationship between free jazz and Toronto’s own chapter of Abstract Expressionism.

The first thing to emphasize about the record is the circumstances of its making. As Snow (musician, painter, filmmaker, perennial Torontonian) describes it in Brian Olewnick’s current liner essay, “This unique ensemble was gathered especially to record the soundtrack for my film New York Eye and Ear Control (1964). I asked for improvised ensemble playing with no solos and no pre-arranged tunes.”

So the key link between NYEAEC and Toronto is, of course, Mike Snow, who engaged the band to improvise without tunes and solos, a collectively improvised music, without formal constraints, characteristics that will connect the music in some ways to early polyphonic jazz on the one hand and the soon-to-emerge European Free Music on the other.

For me the connection to the Toronto musical milieu in which I grew up is strong, for in many ways, Toronto as a jazz city was an English city, many of its most intense supporters recent immigrants and adherents of the most traditional jazz forms, whether New Orleans or swing, finding there a match for the collectivist spirit of English socialism, utterly alien to the cliche of American individualism. The other kind of jazz that was prominent in Toronto was a kind of Caspar Milquetoast West Coast jazz, a side effect of Toronto as the broadcasting and jingle capital of Canada, the fledgling offshoot of New York or Los Angeles, product of the world’s longest undefended border. It was a style of light, tightly arranged music with a strong economic base that extended from the studios to the clubs. Its signature: “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues.”

There’s a photo on the internet from 1959 of Mike White’s Imperial Jazz Band – a Dixieland-to-swing band prominent in Toronto throughout that decade and on into the early ‘60s. At the extreme left of the photo is the band’s guest star, likely for the week, a common practice in jazz in the era of jazz clubs. It’s Buck Clayton, master swing trumpeter, member of the great Basie bands of the 1930s, and a regular guest or member of bands that played themes in a New Orleans polyphonic style in a music that might be otherwise characterized as small group swing. At the extreme right of the photo is the band’s regular piano player, Mike Snow.

In America in the 1960s, traditional New Orleans jazz and “Dixieland” tended to reside in two very different places. If traditional Afro-American New Orleans stalwarts like clarinetist George Lewis (the first George Lewis to gain acclaim playing jazz, and the first George Lewis in a working title I have long held dear, A History of Jazz from George Lewis to George Lewis) and trombonist Big Jim Robinson, musicians who had emerged in the 1940s with the discovery of Bunk Johnson, still performed and traveled, they weren’t famous. They were valued by a small coterie as representatives of the origins of a unique art form. Those almost occult origins made for interesting meetings: there’s a photo of Paul Haines (poet and recording engineer of New York Eye And Ear Control, the person who introduced Mike Snow to the music of Albert Ayler), visiting George Lewis at his New Orleans home in the early 1950s; in the 1940s, Merce Cunningham arranged and performed a duet with the pioneer New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds.

At the other end of the spectrum? There were the Dukes of Dixieland, a band that played at Disneyland (a fact enshrined in an LP title that conflated to The Dukes at Disneyland, fascinating exchange) and, according to Wikipedia claims, made the first stereo record, the first direct-to-disc record and the first CD, albeit as bands so unconnected that the Dukes who made the stereo record sued the other one. The Dukes were a central fact of mid-20th century American culture, much as “Is It True What They Say about Dixie?” was still a sweetly poisonous aftertaste:

 “Do they laugh, do they love, like they say in every song?
If it's true, that's where I belong.”

In Toronto, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, musicians oriented to modern jazz in their listening and playing tastes could make a living playing a form of traditional jazz, away from the recording studio and television clique. Mike White’s Imperial jazz Band possessed a trio – Mike Snow, bassist Terry Forster and drummer Larry Dubin – that got together to improvise freely when off the job. There was a stretch in the 1960s when Dubin, a brilliant musician, had a long stretch as the leader of a highly successful Dixieland band, Larry Dubin’s Big Muddy, before emerging in the 1970s as Canada’s first great free jazz drummer, in the CCMC with Snow, as well as in other bands. In the early 1960s, Snow would occasionally play with The Artists Jazz Band, a group of Toronto painters and amateur musicians united alike by Abstract Expressionism and a love of jazz that led to intense free improvisations (Snow would later become a regular member). Snow’s practice as an artist had also been informed by dada and surrealism and an emphasis on the unconscious and chance that would subvert the fixity of the idea of a theme and regular repeating structures.

The new mix of New York Eye and Ear Control on ezz-thetics sounds better than ever, though the original sound quality of the early ESP records may almost seem part of the ethos. Its finest qualities, its empathy and its multiple points of view, the balancing of divergent musical personalities, extroverts and introverts, are more apparent. I’ve always thought of it as the Albert Ayler Quartet with Don Cherry joined by the front-line of the New York Art Quartet, and it is, but there are cross allegiances, with Cherry and Tchicai similarly oblique, Ayler and Rudd more boisterous. Rudd, the only member of the group, to my knowledge, to have spent time in bands playing traditional jazz, may have a certain sense of a commentary role, the smears and eructations that first distinguished the trombone’s identity.

It’s music close to my heart, music I first heard when it was released and have loved ever since. There’s something different about a city with little claim to jazz significance that could have presented The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever, as the 1953 Massey Hall recording of “The Quintet” has come to be known, the supergroup of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. In the same spirit of civic hubris, I think of New York Eye and Ear Control as Canada’s greatest single contribution to the culture of improvised music, an act of collective improvisation, without composed themes and without emphasis on a sequence of solos. In a sense, it’s the critical mid-point between Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and John Coltrane’s Ascension in the development of large-scale free jazz, and the fact that it can be called large-scale with only six musicians is a special tribute to its methodology. It is, of course, far more radical than Ascension in the formal freedom it imposes on its participants, though the improvised ensembles of the 11-member Ascension band have an apocalyptic longing that is unique. 57 years after its recording, however, New York Eye and Ear Control seems more resonant than ever, sounding like much contemporary music.

While polyphony is now an assumed element in free jazz and improvised music, with bassists and drummers often no more “functional” than anyone else, there’s something very curious about the notion of collective improvisation in modern jazz, a style to which the musicians of New York Eye and Ear Control were born and it may be an issue of identity. Perhaps improvisation on a fixed harmonic pattern is sequentially collective among soloists, simultaneous collective invention the role of “supporting” musicians like Bud Powell, Scott LaFaro, and Philly Joe Jones, if only to cite the most obvious ones (and my personal favorites).

There’s an intriguing record that bears an odd relation to New York Eye and Ear Control and that notion of polyphony in modern jazz. It took a German orchestrator, in 1978, Heiner Stadler, to make A Tribute to Monk and Bird in which he engaged Thad Jones, George Adams, George Lewis (the composer-trombonist-historian-academic before he added the “E.” to his name, clearly distinguishing him from New Orleans’ George Lewis and compromising what I think is a great title), Stanley Cowell, Reggie Workman, and Lenny White to improvise collectively and contrapuntally on bop classics.


© 2021 Stuart Broomer

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