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Published: 2001/08/20
by Jesse Jarnow

Head Jazz – various artists

Label M 495734
Somebody recently pointed out to me that, in the grand scheme of things, The
Beatles and Nirvana will both be considered part of the same musical period.
Thirty years may seem like a long time, but – all things told – it’s not.
Though the pieces on Joel and Adam Dorn’s "Head Jazz" compilation span from
1959 to 1973, it is not time that is important. For all that matters, all of
these pieces could have been recorded on the same day.
"Head Jazz" is a mix tape that articulates one musical idea, a common
thought, through jazz. Is an abstract idea that takes form in a shared
sound. Whether or not these musicians were working from the same creative
impulse is unknown, though most of them clearly had the spark of producer
Joel Dorn under their asses. All but three of the disc’s 13 tracks were
co-birthed by the Label M founder. In a way, this collection might be
considered a notebook of Dorn’s – a vanity release, in some ways – highlighting this particular strand of his own thinking.
The musical idea of a drone is one that was common to much improvised rock
music of the late ’60s as well as a good deal of modern electronica. It is a
tie on most of these tracks, as well. The album is not arranged
chronologically, nor should it be, but it does suffer from a lack of a
defined narrative. Dorn could have emphasized two organizational schemes on
the disc: the movement of traditional jazz towards the drone, or a movement
from drone towards structured jazz. Ultimately, he chose neither, and the
album suffers for it. Regardless of history, it would give the ear a sense
of motion.
The fact that there is a central idea worth expressing at all is highlighted
nicely by the three tracks not produced by Dorn. Clumped together near the
middle of the album, the non-Dorn tracks seem to find safety in numbers. The
first of them, Ornette Coleman’s Ramblin’ could have easily been
picked for the availability of the license coupled with Coleman’s name
recognition. The music is jarringly out of place. The difference in feel
might be compared to the difference between The Grateful Dead and The Velvet
Underground.
When the Coleman piece begins, the gist of the previous songs immediately
becomes clear. The tune has a similar feel to the Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s
Island Cry, which immediately precedes it. The difference, though, is
in the rhythmic attack. On almost every song on the compilation, the rhythm
works in conjunction with the melody, sliding gracefully in and out of it,
creating a sense of musical dislocation and, subsequently, drone. On
Ramblin’, though, the rhythm seems to act as its own element,
separate from the harmony.
A bass solo by Charlie Haden near the end of Ramblin’ slips briefly
into the territory covered elsewhere on the album. The major difference,
though, comes with what the bass solo leads to: the song’s ending. Almost
every other song on the album ends gracefully. Most of them move gently into
a lilting space as they fade into the tracks that follow. Coleman goes for
the big rock and roll ending, as it were, crashing and banging to a musical
peak before stopping.
The rest of the disc – ie. the Dorn-produced tracks – are extremely
interesting. In many cases, one still gets the sense that this musical idea
is little more than a novelty that the musicians don’t feel entirely
comfortable with. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul doesn’t seem to know how to react
to the drone on his The Soul of a Village, Part 2, unwilling to
commit to the modernity of the whole situation. The thrust of the drone is
patience, and it’s awfully hard to get a musician to solo at a glacial pace,
especially jazz cats.
The last track on the album, Yusef Lateef’s In A Little Spanish Town,
is positively sublime, however. On it, Lateef improvises along with an old
record playing a wonderfully nostalgic Brazil-like pop song. It is a
pre-pomo sample with its own character. The vinyl provides its own drone,
which gives the thing a unified feel. Lateef solos gently over it, a
lullaby. At a certain point, though, Lateef should have stopped and let the
song deliver its own message, let the drone speak for itself.

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