Friday, November 13, 2015

Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil---Jazz Beyond Jazz: A Review by Kirpal Gordon


Miles Ornette Cecil---Jazz Beyond Jazz celebrates a brilliant marriage of form (you-are-there journalism) & content (free jazz). Reading Howard Mandel’s Faulkneresque sentences---& laughing aloud cheering scoffing making connections re-membering)---is so much like listening to the music he’s writing about. One feels one’s own initiation into a new way of listening as if one’s mind-skin could stretch to absorb every nuance. Like his three subjects, Mandel knows how to improvise & stand under the understanding at the gates of Eden.
As a young turk he honed his writing chops working the graveyard shift at Chicago’s Daily News, a gig that helped him develop his sinewy sentence style.  Like a horn player ‘shedding on long tones, this extra lung strengthened his many tiered thoughts on the New Thing & beyond. Even more so: by aligning his vision/mission as a critic/advocate with theirs as composers, he has created an open form with which to respond to an open form. By contrast, those of the more button-down rhetorical persuasion venture into the realm of free jazz with their just-the-facts-ma’am journalism & it’s all outside the event looking in. After all, what happens in a “composition” of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or even the later Miles Davis is up for grabs. They don’t “do it on the paper.” At times there may be a lead sheet, but the music is truly being composed as it is being played & it is being played by everyone all at once. This, of course, requires extreme confidence & a sense of presence in the performers; it’s high risk. To deliver it to readers, therefore, requires a reviewer willing to risk his own ego in the service of the music.
Whether he’s being charmed or chumped out of his own biases, Mandel brings to his thirty-plus-year relationship with the Big Three a beginner’s mind & a zesty participation mystique in the event. The autobiographical element is disarming, funny, reader-friendly & context-evoking. The result: a level of personal engagement with a trio of unique talents often misunderstood & certainly enigmatic but not inscrutable. Mandel reveals them to us as hard-core urban black tribal lore, the survival code of rule breakers who confront a “rule beyond rule,” & to reveal their “jazz beyond jazz” he delivers a “crit beyond crit,” fully qualified for the task. Mandel is the awe-struck kid with a backstage pass.  As Nat Hentoff wrote, “It's really reporting, as well as listening. This is jazz from the inside---an essential book, not only for new listeners but for historians of jazz now, & in the future. We hear the musicians speak, informing the author---& us---thereby adding to how much more of the music we come to hear.”
Like the living jazz tradition (not the dead packaged product long time passing), Mandel sits inside the music “with no direction home.” Rather than a definitive account encrypted on the head of a pin, he takes us down the rabbit hole in a realm of intuition & spirit talk, underground, down here where we belong.  Mandel brings to the tea party a wide range of cultural interests & the changes of mind he has made along the way. George Kanzler noted in JazzTimes that “Mandel assumes many roles here---elucidating critic & devoted fan, knowledgeable listener & Boswellian acolyte, evangelist & champion of the avant garde---all taken on with infectious enthusiasm.”
This sense of infection is the final reason to shout about this publication. Deeply versed in the American grain, Mandel summons an encyclopedic knowledge of show biz, vaudeville, pop, classical, funk, soul, rock, hip hop, world beat, blues urban & country as he weaves together assorted streams on the art of critique, race relations, American history & the political & spiritual overtones of the music of Davis, Coleman & Taylor. For those who know little of free jazz, these pages serve as an excellent primer. For those who wonder why Miles, a commercial superstar, gets included as a major influence & for those who never grokked Ornette’s harmolodics or the wild madcap genius of Cecil, Mandel is a trustworthy guide. 
One may find oneself re-reading it cover-to-cover & playing the music mentioned over-&-over & hearing it finally as if for the first time. This book delivered that gift for this reviewer. Mandel’s love of our music shines through the turning pages, an invitation to join the ongoing event, thereby becoming part of the community he makes. Because Mandel can handle “the cloud of unknowing” without sweating how far-out or in-close his take, willing to be what he is, a fool for free jazz, he’s restorative for us all, even the feinschmeckers who think they know better. 
Referencing H. L. Menken’s “Criticism Of Criticism Of Criticism” in the front matter---“he makes the work of art live for the spectator”---Mandel gives us new ears to cohere the beyond that Miles, Ornette & Cecil continue to establish. Now that his blog is up & running we won’t have to wait for his next book; we can surf along as he continues to do what not enough music critics do these days: hit the clubs, halls & street corners to go ride the music & come back & tell us what happened. 
Miles Ornette Cecil---Jazz Beyond Jazz is available on Amazon. Follow Howard Mandel’s posts at An earlier version of this review appeared in Big Bridge.