Creation Myth

Thirty-five years ago, a Chicago arts collective charted new territory in black music. Now, in a three-day retrospective, Minneapolis free-jazz explorers Douglas Ewart and Carei Thomas return to that land of possibilities.

And yet whatever leaps the members of the AACM may plan next remains, after 35 years, beyond even the best-informed guesses. We know that Minneapolis pianist (and renegade AACMer) Carei Thomas has been commissioned to write and perform a piece on the opening night of the minifestival on Thursday. We even know what instruments Thomas intends to use--piano, sax, bass, and trumpet. But what side of his compositional personality will Thomas indulge? Its ruminative depths, its sprightly surfaces, or its sentimental soul?

Similarly, will the scheduled panel discussion held Friday be awash in the allusive poetic sensibilities of the AACM, gently synthesizing contradictory ideas and thick poetics? Or will the conversation gravitate toward a hard-nosed debate on the economics of improvisation--finding stages and getting paid?

As Ewart leads me away from his panoply of creations, back into his sitting room, I realize it would be particularly stupid for me to try to guess what he has in mind for his Saturday performance with his group Inventions (featuring Joseph Jarman and Wadada Leo Smith). It turns out Ewart himself might hesitate to guess what's on the bill: A few weeks before the show, he hasn't yet finished composing the piece.

Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments
Tony Nelson
Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments


Although the living room of Ewart's home is dominated by instruments, the sitting room is more of a study, arranged into what's best described as an orderly clutter--a wonder cabinet of sorts.

"Cultures have a way of letting them carry you back," Ewart explains, gesturing around the room. "Other cultures infect you--they have their own viral tendencies."

The bookshelves alone are evidence of an omnivorously curious man, its texts ranging from the novels of Ishmael Reed to The Indonesia Handbook, to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to David Halberstam's biography of Michael Jordan. ("Some of those books are Janice's," he tells me modestly, referring to his wife, arts organizer and KFAI DJ Janice Lane-Ewart). On the walls are masks of traditional design, which Ewart--who was initially trained as a tailor at vocational school in Jamaica--has dabbled in over the years, and the room is awash in potted greenery. Commanding one half of the remaining space is a massive hand-carved gong brought back from a trip to Bali, the dream vacation for a musician as inquisitive as Ewart.

"As you can tell, I'm not interested in restricting myself to what sounds I utilize," he says. "I'm always looking to find things that create new sounds."

That playful search can produce results that may seem daunting to the uninitiated. "His early music looked a lot like Schoenberg or Webern, except that it was permeated with the flavor of the African diaspora," recalls Ewart's friend Carei Thomas, who first encountered the composer in Chicago in the late Sixties. "It was angular, but it was like if 12-tone music had originated in Kenya."

The written music for Ewart's more recent compositions is just as involved, though somewhat more fanciful. Ewart shows me the score for "Boukman II," a composition named for the Haitian revolutionary, and divided into several differently annotated sections. On one page, seven movements are set apart in bubbles, and musicians move from one to the next as they wish, as in a musical choose-your-own-adventure. Each musical segment depends on the serendipity of a group of talented improvisatory musicians: Some have symbols suggesting that horns should start up high and gradually descend, but not which notes they should play along the way. Other schematics tell the musicians either which notes to play but not how long to hold each one, or how long to hold each note, but not which ones to play.

To hear the result of such a visually abstract sketch, sample Ewart's Angels of Invention. A live recording from the mid-Nineties, the piece spotlights Ewart's eight-man Clarinet Choir, an all-star assemblage that contained AACM luminaries such as Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton, not to mention Ewart himself. Periodically, my ears can locate a delicate eight-note melody within the tumult. One clarinet rumbles in its low register, producing a pitch whose vibrations are more felt then heard. Another moans with a ghostly flutter, like the incidental music when Abbott and Costello unexpectedly stumble into some looming Universal Pictures monster. Still another clarinet attenuates the timbre of its high register to a clarion purity. Players tighten and loosen their embouchures. Keys pop and reeds buzz. The eight clarinets trade winding motifs, intermingle, answer one another squawk for squawk, disagree, and, eventually, make up, resolving on an extended, intricate chord that dissolves into silence.

This is what happens when you forget that there's a "right" way to play the clarinet. Angels of Invention is a keen exploration of what sounds this instrument can make, and a reminder that Ewart doesn't need to invent instruments to uncover unlikely noises. Even on the homely bass clarinet, often his instrument of choice, he can create unexpected results. The essence of Douglas Ewart's art is to never be so distracted by novelty that you forget the pleasures to be derived from your immediate surroundings.

"As I tell my students," Ewart explains, cleaning his clarinet with a soft gray feather, 'You've got to keep courting your art, or it will find another lover.'"

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