‘You don’t make music by listening to music,’ the French-Martinican trumpeter Jacques Coursil said. ‘You must listen to the world.’
Two years ago, I asked the free jazz pianist Matthew Shipp if he would take part in a concert I was organising in remembrance of Cecil Taylor, who had just died. He said he’d be willing to give a talk, but not to perform. Taylor hadn’t influenced his work, and he didn’t want to encourage the notion that he had. I wasn’t surprised (I’ve known Shipp for more than twenty years). His feelings about Taylor were complicated, and the two men often jousted, especially on the subject of Bill Evans, whom Taylor disparaged as the great white hope of jazz piano, and Shipp reveres. Shipp had also been saddled with the ‘heir of Cecil Taylor’ label for three decades, even though the resemblances in their playing are superficial. The only comparison with Taylor that Shipp ever welcomed was made by a mutual friend, the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who told him: ‘You’re just like Cecil Taylor – you’re both bad motherfuckers.’
In the winter of 2005, I was summoned by the French journalist Jean Daniel, who was in New York to promote his new book, The Jewish Prison. I had just published an admiring essay on his work in the New York Review of Books. Over a long lunch at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, he recalled his conversations with Ben Bella, Bourguiba, Ben-Gurion, Kennedy, Castro and Mitterrand. Daniel did not hesitate to drop names, but there was no denying that he’d won the confidence of some of history’s great men (they were nearly all men). I looked at my blazer and slacks and regretted that I hadn’t worn something more formal. Daniel was dressed in a suit and tie without a crease, and spoke with a solemnity that would have been easy to ridicule had it not been so spellbinding. I had the impression of speaking to a retired ambassador or foreign minister rather than a journalist.
Lebanon has a history of taking in refugees: Armenian survivors of the genocide, Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948, Syrians fleeing the horrors of Assad and Islamic State. But on 30 December a different kind of fugitive arrived, a wealthy native son facing charges of financial wrongdoing abroad. At a press conference this afternoon, Carlos Ghosn protested his innocence and compared his arrest in Japan to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wouldn’t say how he escaped (according to one of the more fanciful rumours, he was hidden in a musical instrument case). He entered Lebanon on his French passport, one of three he carries.
By killing Soleimani, Trump has not only supplied the Islamic Republic with a powerful casus belli, he has also reinforced its longstanding narrative of martyrdom at the hands of the Great Satan, and may well help to strengthen the supreme leader’s hand at the very moment that the regime is facing popular anti-Iranian protests in Iraq and Lebanon, and reeling from a series of revolts at home in which hundreds of Iranians were killed by security forces. Not for the first time, the American government has proved an objective ally of Iran’s hardliners.
In December, Okwui Enwezor wrote to me from Munich. He had leukemia. ‘What I miss most,’ he said, ‘is the noise of life humming out there. It’s much too quiet here.’ He died last Friday, aged 55. Since then it’s felt very quiet, both for those who knew him personally, and for the many people who admired his work as a curator and writer. Okwui had a deep, booming voice, and a purposeful one. When he spoke, you listened. It’s hard to imagine not hearing it.
In an interview with a French journalist, Joseph Jarman compared the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the avant-garde jazz quintet to which he belonged, to ‘a cake made from five ingredients: remove one of the ingredients and the cake no longer exists.’ Jarman, who died earlier this month, at 81, after a long illness, was the ingredient that made the band one of the most aesthetically adventurous groups of its era: he put the 'art' in Art Ensemble.
The last set is over, and the club is almost empty. The bassist has already gone home, the drummer is walking out the door. That leaves the saxophonist and the pianist, but they decide they're not done yet. They have more ideas to exchange, more confidences to share. They begin to play again, only this time just for themselves. Do most saxophone and piano duets start out this way? Surely not, and yet the best of them could fool you, with their intimate, nocturnal ambience, their exploration of 'songs of love and regret', as the saxophonist Marion Brown and the pianist Mal Waldron called their 1986 album. On Random Dances and (A)Tonalities, the new album by the pianist Aruán Ortiz and the reedman Don Byron, the music is unapologetically cerebral, like the title.
Five years ago, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón was performing with his quartet at a club in Chicago when he was contacted by Julien Labro, a French accordionist based in Canada. Labro was in town making a record with Spektral, a Chicago-based string quartet that specialises in contemporary music. He had arranged a piece by Zenón, a racing tune called 'El Club de la Serpiente', for the session, and wanted to know if he would have any interest in recording it with them. Zenón went to the studio, and instantly clicked with the quartet. 'The guys from Spektral were really on top of the music, which made the session very fun and easy,' he told me. ('El Club de la Serpiente' appeared on Labro's 2014 album From This Point Forward.) When the Hyde Park Jazz Festival commissioned Zenón to write a work for local musicians, 'naturally I thought of Spektral.'
I’m in Europe this summer, though not in exile. I have not been driven to find sanctuary, much less thrown into a cage awaiting deportation, or forcibly separated from my child. When I fly home to New York, I will not be told that my name has 'randomly' appeared on a list, and taken aside to answer questions about the country of my ancestors, or my religious and political convictions. But for the first time in my life I'm not certain that this privilege, which ought to be simply a right, will last. By a strange twist of historical fate, people like me, Jews whose families fled to the US from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became insiders, 'white ethnics', but the racism, intolerance and sheer vindictiveness that Donald Trump has helped bring into the mainstream are volatile forces, in constant search of new targets. For Muslims, Latinos, immigrants and black people, this has been the Summer of Hatred. Now we can add journalists to the list. Trump, the inciter-in-chief, called them 'enemies of the American people'. Five were killed in Maryland last week; they are unlikely to be the last.