Culture Rover

#80 - Jazz Through the Needle's Eye

Wallace Roney Sextet at the Green Mill, Chicago, Late August 2005 and Mystical (High Note, 2005)

The turntable. Outdated yet still futuristic. Analog yet revolving into the digital age. Nineteen-fifties martini-lounge hi-fi meets nineteen-eighties hip-hop wheels of steel, scratching forward into a cross-fade future. History diced up with the slice of a diamond stylus, retrofitted for new adventures.

On Wallace Roney's album Mystical and in concert, the turntable takes a spin with a post-Miles Davis jazz group. And the question becomes: how does turntablism fit with this kind of jazz?

After all, in the best of ways, Roney picks up where Miles left off -- exploring the intersections of jazz traditions and rock, funk, and synth-pop sonorities. Turns out that the turntable is not just a visitor to this party, but has a home in jazztopia.

The reason is density. In Roney's sextet, Val Jeanty fits turntable scratches and snippets of dialogue in right at the edge of rhythm and melody. Re-presenting music as sound, the turntable thickens this space where the bass of Matt Garrison (on the album) or Clarence Seay (in concert), the electric keyboards of Adam Holzman and Geri Allen (album) or Robert Irving III (concert) and the drums of Eric Allen (album and concert) collide with the melodic explorations of Roney on trumpet and brother Antoine Roney on saxophones and bass clarinet (not to mention Allen and Irving's piano solos). This space is one where the mechanical and the bodily meet, in the click of valves and the very human touch of fingertips on electric phonograph grooves. Machine and body; mind not over, but in matter.

What is so thrilling about Roney's work with Jeanty on the turntable is that it moves past juxtaposition. No more, "hey look at how the jazz cats are hip to what the young kids are doing." No more, "look at how the hip-hop generation honors their elders." Instead of juxtaposition, there is a sense of integration, of synthesis.

Hip-hop's use of the turntable -- usually distanced from jazz due to the privileging of a falsely pure sense of what "America's classical music" should sound like -- might be better understood as coming out of a long cultural process: the African-American confrontation with the machines of modernity.* Just as the Western technologies of the trumpet, the saxophone, and other marching band instruments could be turned to new ends (often drawing upon the traces of African musical and sonic practices), so too the turntable held untapped resources for expression.

Turntablism proclaimed that the record did not have to amplify one frozen, insistent musical announcement. It did not have to spin monologically, in one direction, precisely as its makers intended. If you took chances, reversed directions, risked a few scratches, tried to peer through the eye of the needle, there were other mysteries, other messages, deep down in those pressed-vinyl grooves. Just as the parlor-room piano could trill out a very different figure, just as the reed of the sax could bend in new winds, just as the trumpet's blast could welcome new angels, so too, the turntable held new possibilities for sound and soul in its seemingly monotonous rotations.

Roney's songs take us to "Atlantis" where a voice from Jeanty's turntable whispers, "There is a black messiah coming...all people will be set free!" We "Stargaze" and get "Mystikal," cry out "Hey Young World" over a reggae lilt and a powerful Antoine Roney solo, and feel "Poetic" as we sense our "Baby's Breath" on our skin.

Throughout the music, there is a back-and-forth between human timbres and machine vibrations. The bass on "Stargaze" rattles the speakers, while the Roney brothers' trumpet and sax float over the pulsations peacefully, like observers in the moonlit clouds gliding over streetlamp cityscapes of tricked-out cars with pumped-up bass.

Roney also performs a moving deconstruction of the Motown classic "Just My Imagination," which feels ethereal -- slowed down and full of space as the piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer, and bass dab in colors and rhythms around Roney's muted clarion-call melody. But the more you listen to it, as the turntable starts to add to the density alongside the bass clarinet's growl, the song reveals the grit underneath the sheen of this dreamy pop song.

Roney's jazz may be just his imagination, but in a mechanized and increasingly computerized, synthesized world where wireless broadcasts encase our bodies in their technological webs, imagination can count for a lot.

"I am mesmerized by the essence of all this beauty." Instrumental music is the transformation of the machine into creative expressivity. It is, in fact, the de-instrumentalizing of instruments. From practicality into pointlessness, which turns out -- especially in jazz -- to be one of the most pointed, practical gestures you can make. "Just what is it that you want to do?" a disembodied voice from Jeanty's turntable asks in the song "Stargaze" -- "You want to be fr-fr-free. You want to be free!"

For more on Wallace Roney, see the Wallace Roney unofficial website.

*For more on the African-American confrontation with the machines of modernity, see Joel Dinerstein's Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture Between the World Wars (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

11 November 2005

Back to #79

Go to #81