Photo of Earl Hines by William P. Gottlieb, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

[Editorial note: This piece features a previously unpublished interview with Earl Hines at The Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club in Montréal on May 27, 1980. The archival material – including an audio clip of Earl Hines speaking to Paul Serralheiro – is now available to the public for the first time since it was recorded more than forty years ago.]

 

 

As a fledgling reporter in the late 1970s for the Sir George Williams Campus student newspaper, The Georgian, I used to attend the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club on Ste. Catherine St., run by Rouè-Doudou Boicel.

Doudou, as people called him, was a Guyana-born Montréal impresario who invited outstanding musical artists the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Milt Jackson, to name a few, for week-long residencies… and I was there as often as I could for the opening Tuesday night show to prepare a review for our Friday morning edition.

Doudou, who passed away on March 10, 2020, liked that I wrote the reviews, because they helped bring in people for the weekend shows. In exchange I got press privileges: free admission and 50% off drinks.

At the Rising Sun I got to casually speak to and occasionally interview the artists. One night I brought along a portable silver-faced Panasonic cassette tape recorder and sat down with Earl “Fatha” Hines, the legendary pianist from Duquesne, Pennsylvania. “Fatha” had played with Louis Armstrong and had led one of the swingingest bands in Chicago at the Grand Terrace Café in the 1930s. He was a major jazz piano stylist whose touring band included people like Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan and whose influence extended to nearly every jazz pianist who came after him. Until the COVID-19 shutdown in March of 2020, this 1980 interview conducted upstairs at Boicel’s club lay untouched in a box on an audiotape cassette.

At the time of the interview (May 27, 1980), Hines had been back on the scene for a while after cutting out during the post-bop years. Although his sound was an essential part of the fabric of classics like “West End Blues” and many other Armstrong Hot Five recordings, his name was not a household word. He and Louis Armstrong were friends and collaborators, yet Hines was in some ways the unsung hero of jazz. In a film aired on the British ATV network in 1975 (see the video clip at the end), “Fatha” even quipped about being told by a fan that he wasn’t Hines, that Hines was dead. Despite a stark fall to obscurity after the bright lights of his heyday, then 76-year-old Earl “Fatha” Hines still played with as much inventive fire as ever, and he spoke about his life in music in a way that was as soulful and wise as his playing.

Listening to the conversation after 40 years, what struck me most was the patience of this great artist in answer to the sometimes gauche questions of the eager but green journalist I was then. I find it to be touching evidence of Hines’s deep and beautiful nature.

What follows is a piece that incorporates the interview and tells the story of the encounter.

 

Excerpt of the author’s interview with Earl Hines at The Rising Sun, May 27, 1980 © Paul Serralheiro

 

In the red-lit brilliance of the smoke-soaked Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club, Earl “Fatha” Hines sat digging in at the piano, puffing on his cigar while a white boy with burning chops blew on his tenor. An attractive older dark-skinned woman started singing, her voice hugging the crowd amid the clinking of glasses, her sparkling vowels widening like palpable ripples on the surface of a quiet lake at midnight, while drums and bass lay down a luscious bottom.

I was striving in the profession of the scribe, trying to get down what was transpiring from one moment to the next, trying to ride the lovely flow of the vibe with words blown across my mind’s page like bits of ink whisking out in dark darts from my 49-cent disposable BIC pen. Just like the music that wasn’t in Hines’s fingers but passing through them to the wood and metal of the piano he was sitting at, I vaguely remember thinking.

“Here is our last selection for now, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Hines drawled with his resonant industrial-strength voice, while striking some right-hand chords, sprinkled with the melodies of many an old chestnut, “Memories of You” or “Butter and Egg Man,” or some other tune Louis would sing. But then his left hand started a slow boogie figure spun out of the matrix of the blues, swinging so low and sweet that it had the power to redeem even the darkest minds.

That’s why I went there. To be redeemed. And I brought a tape recorder to document it. At intermission, over the machine’s primitive rumble on the table, I sat down with Earl “Fatha” Hines, a 76-year-old gentleman nattily dressed in a black suit with speckled motives of white and some indescribable shade of purple—it could have been an emblem of the blues itself—his long-fingered hands resting on the table, the hands that had shaped the sounds of an era and had sown seeds in the collective unconscious of the world’s musical mind that were still germinating.

“There was Ragtime before I started,” he said. “There was Ragtime before Modern Jazz.”

“I don’t know much about Ragtime,” I said.

“You’re too young,” he said, looking me over and placing me at about 23.

“Yeah.”

“And a lot of grownups don’t even know about that.”

“Has your style changed that much since you started?” I naively ventured.

“You improve all the time, no matter what you’re doing… you’re bound to. A man makes a table… I don’t mind how simple the table is, he’s going to find something else to do with it.”

I asked, “Have any of the new players that have been coming up given you new ideas about jazz at all?”

“I’m playing with youngsters. You’ve seen the youngsters in the band. Music is a language and the more you hang around people who are speaking the language, the more you’re going to learn about that language.”

I blurted out innocently enough, “Your piano playing hasn’t changed much.”

“I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve proven myself. I don’t have to prove myself,” Hines replied, mildly stung by the naïveté of the comment.

Trying to save face and show some poise, I added, “Your band has a real structure to it. It’s very nice to see,” to which Hines, good-naturedly returning my weak lob, calmly said: “We work together. We have arrangements that we learn and we play together. You follow me and that’s what we do.”

“You have some new tunes, “ I observed. “I don’t know the titles of them but they sound really contemporary.”

“Yes, we play tunes of today. As I made the announcement, we play tunes of yesteryear up to the present day. Uh, ‘Memories of You,’ ‘Shiny Stockings,’ tunes of that order,” Mr. Hines answered politely, looking into my eyes with touching warmth.

“You played ‘Stardust.’ That’s the first time I ever heard that song live… ’cause nobody ever plays that anymore,” I blurted.

“Yeah, that’s for the tenor player,” Hines said.

In a non sequitur provoked by my nervousness when I realized how awkward the last part of my last statement had been, I asked, “Charlie Parker was in your band. Did he learn in your band? Did he sort of get a start in your band?” This didn’t sound much better.

“No, no,” Hines said. “He started with Jay McShann. He got his feature work in my band. When he started the bebop, he started in my band. Charlie Parker and Budd Johnson.”

“I won’t ask you too much about Charlie Parker…” I said.

“Well we don’t have the time,” he succinctly observed.

“You’ve seen jazz grow from like Ragtime and Dixieland to the stuff that you have now,” I said, taking another approach. “What do you think of all this change that jazz has gone through? Now you have jazz that is influenced by classical music, by all kinds of experiments….”

He looked at me and said, “It’s what the public wants,” and leaned forward like he had something important to say to address the tone of my question. “It’s the idea of a man, starting out, like Bill Evans… Bill Evans has a style of his own. Oscar Peterson has a style of his own. Errol Garner has a style of his own. They all have a style. And if the public likes what they’re doing, that’s when you hear of them, so they must have something to offer. So there’s no one particular person standing out there. Everybody’s got their own style.  Horace Silver’s got a style of his own. George Shearing. So, who knows?”

Drawing on my book-learned ideas about jazz, I asked, “Do you think that it’s part of the evolution of jazz to incorporate different types of music?”

“Well I don’t know. See, I’m in a situation all by myself,” he said, his voice modulating downward, as he was getting down to brass tacks.  “I’m sort of an ambassador for the United States; I’m traveling around the world. We’re just coming off a terrific tour. We were in Australia, we were in the Scandinavian countries, Berne, Switzerland, and Italy.”

After a pause, I shot out, “You prefer playing in clubs to concert halls?”

He shot back, “If you’ve got something to offer, it doesn’t make any difference at all where you’re playing.”

Another pause, then “Are there any new records that you’re working on?” I asked – probably not a question Hines wanted to hear, judging from the sad tone of what followed.

“Now, no. There’s nothing happening. I’ve been recording, Duke and I and Basie, for years… (but) nothing instrumental. It’s all been vocal. Single piano recordings, duets, trios, big band, many of them. Not making any more now. It’s foolish, ’cause nobody works on them. Today you don’t know what the world’s going to do as far as music is concerned. You don’t have an outstanding rock singer. You don’t have an outstanding disco singer. You don’t have no outstanding people anymore. It’s at a level now you don’t know which way it’s going to go. Jazz is always going to be there… now what’s going to come out of it is what we want to know.”

I asked him what he thought of pianist-composer Chick Corea, and Hines said “Who?… You must realize that the world is full of piano players. Full of them.”

I told him he’d played with Sarah Vaughan.

“I found Sarah. I started Sarah. I started Sarah… No, I don’t get a chance to see different people. When I’m working, they’re working. Same hours. The only time I get a chance is when I’m on a vacation or some place where I’m at.”

“You’ve been playing a long time,” I bluntly stated the obvious. “How do you feel about the life you’ve led as a musician?”

“The what?”

“The life you’ve led as a musician.”

“The life I’ve led?”

“The life you’re leading as a musician,” I corrected, noting the past-tense faux pas.

“I don’t know. We’re just like everybody else. You see, the story people don’t realize is, we didn’t know we were making history. So we’re just ordinary like everybody else.”

I protested with, “It’s a different type of work. It’s entertainment. It’s a different type of work, don’t you find?” But Hines stayed on track: “My profession is like a doctor. He has his own profession, and everybody in their own profession tries to perfect what they like best about their profession. And I like this best. I don’t see no difference. We’re all running together, just like a group of medical kids are running together; they’ve all got their own ideas of science, what have you. It’s no different.”

Curious about the financial aspect of the work, I asked, “In the early days was it very difficult for you to start off, playing professionally?”

Hines took his time drawing out his patient and wise answer. “No matter what profession, you’re always going to struggle. There’s always someone in front of you, someone who’s done those things you’ve done before. And if you can find someone to help you in that particular profession, you’re great. If you don’t, you have to do a lot of things, like in the other professions… (there are) shyster lawyers, quack doctors.  ’Cause they don’t want to go too far or can’t go too far, and that’s it.  And if you’ve got something that the public wants, they’ll bring you out. I never did want to be a soloist. But the public made me that. The public kept asking me to play piano solo. I always wanted a big band.”

I inquired, “The people you play with, how do you choose them?”

“When we’re traveling, we hear of each other,” Hines responded simply. “If the man I’m playing with has marital troubles or family troubles and can’t stay any longer, they put me in touch with someone who can. That’s where that is. We keep it going among ourselves.”

I suddenly realized that it would be nice to let Mr. Hines have a few minutes to himself before getting back to work, so I cut things short. Mr. Hines had graciously given of his time. He hadn’t touched his cigar, which lay on the edge of the glass ashtray on the table this whole time. The sax player had begun running some scales, warming up in the green room.

“I’d like to thank you for your time,” I said.

“The pleasure is mine. Let me shake your hand,” he said warmly, standing up, a tall and dignified man, holding out a hand which I took hold of, not yet as fully aware as I am today that I had just spoken to a great artist – who not only helped shape the African American art form we know and love, but who was also a very generous and decent human being.

 

1975 ATV interview with Earl “Fatha” Hines

 

 

 

 

 

Lewis Braden and Andy Williams – Photo © Tony Revoy

 

The history of music is all about borrowing and building on the work of predecessors, whether it be Griots keeping old stories alive and telling the stories of their time, or Johann Sebastian Bach traveling to hear Buxtehude’s organ playing and transcribing Vivaldi, or jazz musicians of the 21st century learning from mid-century 20th recordings by Clifford Brown or Charlie Parker. Additionally, musicians have used their instruments to tell their stories, whether it be voice, drum, kora, saxophone or symphony orchestra. Not surprisingly, the long-playing vinyl recording itself has become an instrument of choice for musicians of the 21st century who have inherited the art of mixing from predecessors as illustrious as DJ Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash, not to mention the many lesser known DJs out there spinning discs on turntables in the house parties and dance halls of the world.

One local act that centres on this most post-modern of musical arts where pastiche is king and time travel a given, but with a decidedly fresh approach, is Jazz Amnesty Sound System (J.A.S.S.). Deejays Andy Williams and Lewis Braden (aka DJ Sweet Daddy Luv) are the duo at the turntables, spinning jazz tracks from their colossal collections. Moving their mixing art further, they are currently finishing a 2-LP release called An Afro-Cuban Excursion, featuring the music of the Cuban-born eclectic jazz pianist Omar Sosa.

Andy Williams is no stranger to Montréalers as a tasty spinner of jazz recordings, and Lewis Braden has joined the UK-born Williams to mount a series of projects focused on mixing jazz for the masses. Williams and Braden have worked together since 2010, but this is Williams’ 40th year in the business. He’s also in his 25th year at Montreal’s CKUT, airing a show called “The Goods.” Braden, for his part, has been a self-confessed “music industry lifer” since the 90s, working in the record distribution business, notably at Cargo records and Ninja Tune. His record collection is in the 20,000 range. (He calls it “The Record Canyon.”) Along with his involvement in JASS, Braden has a label called Totally Real Probably Not Fake, which releases his own music under the name “almost nobody,” as well as bands like Boar God, Ironic Butterfly and the mysterious 4th-dimensional band called The Graffiti People.  Following a more journalistic and scholarly bent, Williams, along with deejaying, has been a pedagogue since 1996, teaching math, science and the humanities for the first 18 years, and later black social history. He ran a series of workshops on jazz history at McGill University for 10 years and is a frequent guest lecturer on the subject at local colleges and cultural institutions.

 

Keep it Fresh

The collective goal of Jazz Amnesty Sound System is to try “to draw attention to jazz.” The instrument they use to do their work is a complex one. “My instrument,” Braden says, “is a basement full of records.”  And the art is many-layered. “It’s a selection thing. We’re not scratch DJs. It’s about the flow,” he explains, pointing out the improvisational aspect of the art that requires close listening and reading the energy of a crowd of dancers. “Your plan is, I’ve got this many records,” Braden quips.

The fact that “Jazz is so vast” is the challenge JASS rises to, via their collection. They believe that it is entirely possible to present mixes on a particular theme that can be different each time out, just like a true jazz performance, given the fact of the substantial quantity of tracks on LPs, most of which people have never heard.

“There’re so many records out there and I’ve always looked at that as a challenge,” Williams says. “My former mate in the Goods, Scott C, always said, ‘Keep it fresh.’ So in my mind it’s always there, to keep it fresh. You’d be surprised – if you have 5,000 records in your collections, you probably play 10,000 of those tracks, but there’re actually 30,000 or more of those tracks. So you can always keep it fresh.”

Lew and Andy – Photo ©Tony Revoy

The duo admit that they have “some grandiose ideas,” but this hubris is backed by a love of jazz and an encyclopedic knowledge of the discography of jazz, an aspect of their work that becomes obvious when one listens to their mixes (available at https://www.mixcloud.com/J_A_S_S/). Culled from their personal collections, the mixes are impressively varied and include masters like Duke Ellington and Randy Weston, rarities like Ahmed Abdul-Malik (the hard-bop oud-playing bassist), futuristic visionary Sun Ra, CTI jazz (1970s jazz’s most idiosyncratic label), 80s jazz, women in jazz, jazz rock experiments and much much more.

A black vinyl disc spinning under a diamond-tipped stylus on a turntable was once, of course, the standard thing for decades, but with the rise of the CD and more recently the phenomenon of streaming and digital/virtual product, things have changed dramatically to the point where DJs do their work via laptops. The trend is reversing, however. Braden found it remarkable that after this year’s International Record Store Day on April 18, Nielsen’s ratings showed sales that week that were the 3rd largest since they began listing the stats in 1991. Although the music market is still overwhelmingly digital, vinyl, like CDs, is “for those who want to buy stuff, and there’s digital for everybody else,” Braden says. “That means, roughly, that physical musical products these days are 70% vinyl and 30% CDs for those who want a physical product, and there is digital for everyone else. Even Bruce Springsteen only makes about 10,000 copies of a record,” a far cry from the heyday of the LP when sales were in the millions of units.

During the heyday of the CD, vinyl was kept alive by Heavy Metal fans and electronic music DJs, Braden claims, but also significant is the richness of the analogue sound and the fact that analogue round waves, in contrast to the step waves of the digital format, will carry bass sounds more fully. “That’s why Dub step, when it came out, was all on vinyl… the bass just sounds so much better,” Braden adds.

 

Curating the Jazz Experience

Jazz is not often spun by DJs, but it is a rich vein to mine for these artists. “The idea is there’s lots to jazz,” Braden says. “Jazz dips into all kinds of different things and it’s been around for a while and it’s influenced music all the way through, so we try to touch on different aspects of it with the mixes.”

The idea for JASS came after a fortuitous event when Braden was deejaying at a wedding and the client wanted an all-jazz playlist. Braden found that people really liked it and came up to ask about the tracks. He didn’t want to embark on the project alone, so he recruited Williams due to his expertise in the genre. “I’ve learned a lot from him just hooking up with him,” Braden says,  “so we decided to start JASS.”

The focus on jazz was a natural thing for Williams: “I’ve always been involved with jazz since I was 17. So we made projects out of concepts we’d discussed, for instance the event at the Contemporary Art Museum called Living Inside Jazz, which involved mid-century furniture and music within jazz.” Braden elaborated: “Music was chosen on the basis of album covers. Every time we would play the record, we would slide the cover under a camera and the camera would project the image on a screen behind us.”

“We rented a bunch of mid-century furniture,” Williams adds, “and set up two facing living-room sets with big old TVs but the TVs had jazz images and quotes from jazz musicians.” Because of poor sight lines preventing the projection of the images to everyone’s field of vision, they went as far as setting up a projection system where images of the album cover would appear on blank covers that patrons could read to find out what they were listening to. “We also had magazines and books. I brought in Jazz Times and other things pertaining to jazz.”

For Braden, the JASS project has a large scope. “Part of what we do with this is we’re freeing jazz. We expose people to it as best we can. And because jazz is such a wide thing there are lots of different ways to go about it. So we have a lot of these different projects that are about ‘here’s another way of looking at jazz.’ That Musée d’art contemporain project was album cover art. We curated another project that was a Jazz Mass, at the Red Roof Church on President Kennedy, (where) Andy and I deejayed a set of all spiritual jazz music. And we had jazz musicians come in and just randomly start playing.”

“There was Gary Schwartz, (and) the Maha choir,” Williams says.

“We also had Bob Olivier do a Jazz Mass,” Braden adds. He was like our preacher for the night. We had Eric Lewis read something about his mother passing and John Coltrane. It was really nice. We also do this project called the Evolution of Jazz, and the concept is something that we can do over and over again. Each performance can be unique, but the general idea is we start from Quadrille from 1889 off a cylinder and then we’d play that and then the next track a few years later, and each track goes further and further along in the history of jazz, so in a set you’d hear jazz mutate, but because there’s so much jazz, you could do that journey a million different ways. And we have images to go with it so we can equate where we are… what era we’re in.”

Andy and Lew – Photo © Tony Revoy

 

Back to Vinyl

As mentioned above, the JASS project of the moment involves the music of eclectic jazz pianist Omar Sosa whom Williams met through Scott Price, Sosa’s manager and owner of Otá records. It was in 2008 in Barcelona, but Williams had always been a fan of his. “Omar bangs out an album or two a year, which is really impressive, but I realized when I was going to his shows, there were all these baby boomers, whereas this was also the most beautiful, spiritual music that younger folks and my average listeners, friends I know, would listen to – like Pharaoh Sanders and Yusef Lateef – and I thought, why can’t Omar have that kind of a setting? And I spoke to Scott Price about it and he said ‘that’s not a bad idea.’”

Braden adds, perking up, “none of his stuff was ever on vinyl, either. It was all on CDs and digital. The crux was like, why don’t we do a compilation of his Afro-Cuban stuff, put it on vinyl and use that to try to attract a larger audience? Andy had sort of worked some of this out before I got involved and I’ve been assisting him to make it actually happen. It’s called an Afro-Cuban Excursion. And Omar Sosa covers the African music diaspora. Lots of different musicians from places like Mali, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire… Andy did a really good job of choosing one track from each of these records and making a nice compilation that highlights one of the aspects of Omar’s sound.”

The project will mean a vinyl release of Sosa’s music packaged as a 2-LP set with original cover art from HVW8 artist and co-founder Gene Pendon, and extensive liner notes from McGill University educator and professional pianist David Rhyshpan. Originally scheduled for Montreal’s Suoni per il popolo festival this June on the same bill as free jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle, the launch has been postponed due to a cancellation by Gayle.

Sosa’s African experiments parallel William’s own as he is no stranger to African music, having been, among other things, involved in a South African project for 3 years in a row called All Roads Lead to Gugulethu, which is also scheduled for future release as a 2-LP set on the G-Three/Jazz Amnesty label.

Along with the Omar Sosa and South African projects, Williams and Braden are looking ahead to a venture focusing on free jazz, with the help of free jazz musician and record collector Eric Lewis, the goal being an interactive three-way mixing of free jazz tracks to create a new, unique soundscape, fully improvised.

For more info on the upcoming release dates of J.A.S.S.’s Omar Sosa, South African and FREE J.A.S.S. projects, and Andy Williams’ and Lewis Braden’s art of DJ mix generally, you can visit https://www.mixcloud.com/J_A_S_S/.

 

J.A.S.S. Logo © Pat Hamou

 

Hussey, Charlotte. Glossing the Spoils. Awen Publications: Stroud, England, 2017 (2nd edition), 72 pages.

 

Montréal poet and scholar Charlotte Hussey’s most recent book of poetry, published by an Irish imprint, was sparked by a quest for reconnection to the author’s root culture’s myths and legends. As she tells it in her introduction, a comment by a Cree student about why the author would want to know First People’s stories, rather than explore her own, prompted her to do just that.  The result is a series of formally structured poems that explore significant passages from ancient poems and stories from the English and Celtic traditions.

While the premise may seem somewhat academic, the results are living, breathing artful poems that speak from a present context, while echoing the past.

The sources are translations by eminent authors such as Seamus Heaney and Lady Gregory of British, Irish and Welsh legends, including Beowulf, annals of English, Irish and Welsh history and other sundry sources of that ilk.  These primary texts are mined for four-line passages that appear at the start of each of Hussey’s poems as epigrams to be glossed. The Glosa form grew out of the practice of Spanish monks during the Renaissance who would provide marginal comments (or glosses) on texts. This idea caught on with poets, including, in our own time P.K. Page, who published Hologram in 1994, a book of glosas on the work of poets Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas and others. Using the glosa form, Hussey’s poems expand on the “Spoils” of the original texts and bring the cultural past to life and affirm its on-going relevance.

Structurally, each poem begins with a four-line quote from the original source, with the poet including each line from the original at the end of each of four stanzas, essentially having each stanza move toward the final line, thereby threading the new composition through the eyelets of the lines of the old, as it were. The poet looks for a way into the glossed texts and the reader is taken along for the adventure.

Hussey has given herself some hurdles to leap over, as well as springboards of inspiration to her poetic compositions, where she is able to delve into the deepest folds of myth while articulating an expression of the concern of living in today’s world. This way her poems are like the Janus figure, looking to both the past and the present.

The poems contain four 10-line stanzas, making 40 lines (44 with the passages to be glossed). The prosody at work is an intricate rhyme and blank verse hybrid, with lines 6, 9 and 10 rhyming as a rule, and the effect is something reminiscent of Celtic scroll patterns of jewelry or illuminated manuscripts.  Sometimes the form seems to force connections to the glosses but more often than not the connections are surprising and seem the result of profound mediation on the poet’s part. This is not just an exercise of style: it is an exercise in deep image therapy, as it were.

Then there is the great phrasing, rhythmic cells of language, rather than lines and sentences, being the matrix. This makes for terse turns of phrase that delight the ear, as they communicate their imagistic and semantic content. The resulting poems are rich in vivid, sensual, at times brutal imagery, as in “Lake of the Cauldron”:

A giant within me begins to swim
out of a wilderness lake….

Big-boned knees, vigorous,
striding the bank, he shakes me up,
hungry….”

The richness of the sound combined with dazzling imagery creates an opulent and entrancing effect, as the poet looks for a way into the glossed texts.  In looking for these ways in, the poet places side by side the contemporary facts of her life with the ancient stories, characters and scenes, which serve as a portal into another dimension of understanding. Such is the power of myth, and it is this that the poet has tasked herself with: to find by means of the glossing interaction a link to the wisdom of the old stories, reclaiming their former power and the wisdom one can only attain via the imagination and its mysterious workings, here prodded by some intriguing narratives lost in the sands of time, or erased by colonial overlays of culture.

The poems are drenched with lore, including the figures of Merlin, Arthur, Perceval, Beowulf, Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, and Brigit, “a Tuatha Dé goddess worshipped both as a crone and as a spring maiden,” one of several notes at the end of the book tells us.  Sometimes the poet gets inside the myth and explores it, or she goes off on a tangent. For example, “Raven Knowledge” is a poem about Merlin and Emily Bronte, while “Devil May Care” is a frank poem about sex with very sensuous imagery, and “Brigit” is an equally potent erotic piece, presenting a woman described as “one side of her face is ugly/but the other side is very comely” and the poem’s striking imagery conveys the double-sided nature of the mythical figure:

….Her skin’s
furrowed and black as burnt bark,
her lips cracked, her lidless eyes
stare unflinching into the king’s.
Waving her arms like raptorial wings,
she takes him under her cape, dirty,
run through with burrs and thorns.

But then we get the other side, when we see her

….ripping off
the hag’s mask, throwing it over
her freckled, milky shoulder.
Touched by sunlight, her golden hair
swings free, her crown’s a flame.
The king buries himself in her soft,
full breasts….

The range of energies here derives from dichotomies’ binary electricity as we get in dreams, and the unconscious.

In “Wyvern” there is the figure of Merlin, “His blank, sandstone eyes, worn/of their painted pupils by the longtime/ rain, stare like those of the dragon,” and a zoomorphism whereby the animal-human divide is abolished and the two worlds meet. Along with human figures who embody some of this essential energy of the natural world, we also get banshees in “Matter,” trolls in “Trolls,” fairy women in “Fand, the Fairy Queen” as well as several other passages where the human world is invested with powers of the non-human.

The old ballads of course contained echoes of many of these myths and their narrative import. “Daemon Lover” offers reflections on solitary reclusion from love’s troubles and provides links to Merlin’s forgotten mother.  In “The Questing Beast” the poet juxtaposes Morte d’Arthur with “pick ups that once hauled melons and the richest 1%,” giving the ancient myth contemporary relevance.  In “Naked,” it is photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his painter wife Georgia O’Keeffe who are linked to ancient myth. In “Fortuna,” a poem dedicated to Dr. Jacqueline Kirk of Montréal, an aid worker killed in Afghanistan, the fates that appear in Arthurian legend are evoked as the martyred humanitarian confronts “Fortuna, eyes nearly blinded/by the hanks of her greasy hair, hides/behind an orchard wall, deadly/its fruit of Kalashnikovs poised/amid grapevines and pomegranates.” The poet also clearly taps into the energy of myth in “Silver Branch,” wherein “The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal” is mined for meaning. The lines to be glossed from that tale are

The branch springs from Bran’s hand
So that it is in the woman’s hand
for there is not enough strength
in Bran’s hand to hold it

and the poem contrasts the silver branches, which “indicate the sovereignty of otherworldly deities,” the author’s note tells us, with the poet’s own experience:

I cut a branch from a crab apple
deep in the wood, a silver branch,
and dream all night of how to dress it;
silver ribbons of purple and blue,
seven hawk bells dangling in a row.
I am quickly made to understand
the branch possesses a potency all its own,
calling, called to those it chooses
like the silver one from fairyland;
the branch springs from Bran’s hand.

But, the poet tells us,

Mine falls prey to other hands,
my own in this age of scientific fact.
I forget my branch on a library shelf.
Dust from the streets covers it,
clouding my desires, leaving me
to starve in spite of feasting, the wealth,
deaf to the dream-makers’ approach

I imagine the Cree student who suggested Hussey look to her own past knew, herself, the power that the old stories, the stories of her ancestors contained. The wealth of material elaborated in Glossing the Spoils and the resulting mythopoetic adventure leave this reader wanting to explore the stories of his own cultural past, if only he could find out what they are. Cultural amnesia, whatever causes may be behind it, is reversible; that is one of many lessons to be learned from Hussey’s recent work.

 

 

CD Review

Cultures around the world provide a rich heritage to draw from for practicing contemporary artists, but it’s always a thorny issue when a non-native draws on stylistic features of the practices of another culture, as care needs to be taken to avoid cultural appropriation and ensure respectful treatment of that source culture and its artists.

In this CD by the Montréal group known as Togetherness, the music of South Africa is the stylistic core, featuring tunes by composers Abdullah Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana and Mongezi Fez. The CD also includes tunes by non-African musicians inspired by the South African musical style – a joyous choral sound that is rhythmically infectious and melodically sweet and celebratory – as well as featuring some outside-the-box playing by the seminal musicians mentioned above.

In this release, five of the six musicians involved are Montrealers (Ellwood Epps, trumpet; Erik Hove, alto sax; Scott Thomson, trombone; Stéphane Diamantakiou, double bass; Louis-Vincent Hamel, drums), and they are joined on three tracks by South African saxophonist Rus Nerwich, a native Capetonian who appears to have been a catalyst in this band’s genesis. Nerwich’s presence provides an obvious authentic link to the source, but the authenticity also comes via the musicians’ approach. Their pleasure in exploring and sharing the music comes through loud and clear and is what makes this set worth listening to repeatedly.

Music aficionados are no strangers to the South African idiom. The recent death of South African flugelhornist Hugh Masekela was widely noted in the mainstream press, evidence of the esteem people had for his musicianship worldwide. Paul Simon’s use of township players and the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in his Graceland album, while controversial, nonetheless played a role in raising the profile of South African music.

Celebrated jazz artist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand) is here represented by two tracks: “Salaam” and “Blues for a Hip King. The CD features two other South African composers: Mongezi Feza, a fascinating trumpet player with the fabled South African jazz group The Blue Notes (which included Louis Moholo, Nikele Moyake, Johnny Dyani), and Dudu Pukwana, saxophonist and chief composer with The Blue Notes (“Angel Nemali”). The non-South African composers include Misha Mengelberg  (“Kwela P’Kwana”), William Parker (“Looking for Gilchrist”), Roswell Rudd (“Bamako”) and Togetherness’s trumpet player Ellwood Epps (“Homescoolin’” and “Clay”), seamlessly weaving their pieces into the whole.  All share the celebratory qualities mentioned earlier.

The first track sets the cheerful tone of the album. It is “Kwela P’Kwana” by Misha Mengelberg, New Dutch swing master, a tune that appears on the Vancouver label Songlines, in a CD with contemporary jazz artists Dave Douglas, Brad Jones and Mengelberg’s Dutch compatriot, drummer Han Bennink.  It is a parade-like anthem announcing the upbeat music to come. This buoyant tone is also a feature of Pukwana’s “Angel Nemali,” Feza’s “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me (‘Cause You Think You Know Me)” and Epp’s own “Clay.” The other two composers, William Parker (“Looking for Gilchrist”) and Roswell Rudd (“Bamako”) are Americans who are squarely in the avant-garde camp. Rudd, a trombonist who passed away last year, was one of the pioneers of free jazz, and bassist Parker is currently one of its most prominent and respected artists. The pieces reflect the free spiritedness of South African jazz.

The eight tracks taken together share characteristics of early New Orleans jazz, for the three-horn front line (a fourth horn appears on three tracks) and the perky drumming and bass lines and the feel-good effect that seems to be the ultimate redeeming and endearing quality of this release, which is thankfully respectful of the musical sources. But the band also seems devoted to the idea of celebrating the spirit of the South African musicians and their musical heritage. The arrangements are varied and the playing is inspired and polished.

Togetherness, formed in 2016, has since played more than a dozen performances, including the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Something Else! Festival and a tour of Ontario. The future looks promising for the group, judging from this CD, which is evidence that cultural borrowing can work if done respectfully, with proper recognition of the source artists and the wealth of their cultural heritage.

CD Details: Togetherness, on the Mr. E Records label (#5)

Recorded by Zach Scholes at Atobop Studio, Montréal, on October 1, 2017

http://www.ellwoodepps.ca/togetherness/