Music is the Highest Revelation

There was once a club on San Francisco’s Vallejo Street called Keystone Korner. Before it became a jazz legend, it was a topless bar and then a rock club. It lasted barely a decade as a jazz club in the 1970s and early 1980s. I stumbled into it one day in the late 1970s in the early evening to get out of the rain. A pianist was playing some very clever improvisations. A few years later my buddy Richie took me there to see Pharaoh Sanders. He was trying to get me to broaden my musical horizons. I was game. The show was mind-bending. It was later released as the album titled Heart is a Melody.

Guitarist Jerry Garcia and keyboardist Merle Saunders knew about the place long before I ever did. Indeed, a new recording released as Garcia Live #15 reveals a splendid mix of jazz, blues and fusion from a performance by the two in May 1971. Joined by drummer Bill Vitt and saxophonist Martin Fierro, the show is a prime example of the musicians’ versatility and mastery of their instruments. It is a mastery that improved each time they played (I say this having seen them in various combos from 1977 to 1984.)

Of course, by the time this performance took place, Garcia was already well known as the lead guitarist of the rock band The Grateful Dead. That fame would be his joy and scourge until he died at fifty-three. It was his side projects, though, that kept him musically humble and extended his groove. The show consists of two sets. Both sets feature lengthy jams that mix it up with a couple Garcia-Saunders takes on popular tunes of the day. As far as I’m concerned, the highlights are the version of “See That my Grave is Kept Clean” and a fusion jam titled “Mother Earth.” Called “One Kind Favor” here, the version of “See That my Grave is Kept Clean” features classic Garcia guitar playing, melting intricate yet simple lines of melody in between a most basic blues progression. The other piece is fusion at its almost finest. Garcia and his guitar do not even appear in this jam until well into the piece—after Saunders and his sax player take the listener into stratospheric corners one would expect to hear in the classic jazz venue in San Francisco. When Garcia joins in, the stratosphere expands.

I reviewed a 1971 performance of composer and trumpet player Mark Harvey earlier this year. That performance was an antiwar invocation that took place in the Old West Church in Boston. Harvey released another disc in 2020, as well. Titled Faces of Souls, this work continues the progressive political themes of that 1971 performance. Harvey’s current group is known as the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra and features the following lineup. On woodwinds are Arni Cheatham, Peter H. Bloom, Phil Scarff, Chris Rakowski, and Dan Zupan. The brass players are trumpeters KC Dunbar and Jeanne Snodgrass, trombonists Bob Pilkington, Jay Keyser, Jeff Marsanskis, and Tom Pisek and Bill Lowe on tuba and bass trombone. Richard Nelson plays guitar; Rob Bethel plays cello and John Funkhouser is on string bass and occasional piano. Rounding out the band are the drummer Harry Wellott, vocalists Jerry Edwards and Grace Hughes, with music director and composer Mark Harvey on piano. It is a lineup whose power and skills become apparent in the very first composition titled “Meltdown,” a description of out current moment in time. The second song on the disc is titled “Sisyphus.”

It serves as a reminder of the Sisyphean task required if we are to save the planet from that which humanity has subjected it to. Echoing the nature of the thoughts and emotions likely from anyone deigned to perform the task required of Sisyphus, one hears the frustration, the outpouring of physical strength, the determination to complete a task impossible to complete and even the metaphor for life the Myth of Sisyphus often seems to be. Then comes the tranquility of the piece titled “Consecration.” It is one of two works on the disc inspired by the first movement of American composer Charles Ives’ composition Three Places in New England. Ives’ composition, like Harvey’s, was inspired by the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on the Boston Commons. This sculpture by Augusta Saint-Gaudens honors the first Black regiment recruited to fight in the US Civil War. For those who have seen this piece of art, the music here seems appropriate while its occasional clashing reminds us of how much of that civil war remains unresolved. Indeed, it was from those same Commons that the people of Boston chased a rally of white supremacists a mere two years ago. It’s worth remembering that Boston is not alone in its struggles with the legacy of slavery and ongoing white supremacy.

Harvey’s music does not include strident lyrics like that of Rage Against the Machine or even Phil Ochs and David Rovics, yet it is protest music. Still, its intent seems to be the evocation of the struggle for justice and the expression of the emotions involved in that struggle. This explains why one of the works here is titled “Greta;” obviously in recognition of the inspiration provided by the young woman whose face is synonymous with the battle to reverse the human-made effects of climate change. Throughout this CD, there are the sounds of frantic determination, of people on the march, of suffering and joy, and of a determination to undo wrongs created by capitalism and its machinations. The music is mad bebop, big band jazz and a chorus of otherworldly ascensions. It is both where we are and what we can become. It is also what we might become if we do not take seriously the struggle Harvey and his Aardvark Jazz Orchestra have laid down.

Before I leave you, I want to mention one more recently released disc. If for no other reason, it is because the disc, titled Pedernal, features pedal steel playing like I have never heard before. The pedal steel player is Baltimore-based Susan Alcorn who together with guitarist Mary Halvorson, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Ryan Sawyer moves her instrument well beyond its familiar twang and into a dimension touched upon by the aforementioned Jerry Garcia in his experiments with the instrument in the early 1970s. Ethereal and transcendent, the music on Pedernal also reminds the listener of the pedal steel’s roots in western swing, country and country rock. It takes the listener to a place in the sky where sounds take on a new shape and an instrument’s music is redefined. In other words, it takes them to a place both fantastic and good.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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