Jon Armstrong’s Burnt Hibiscus

Late morning, November. I stroll along one of the paths in the park. The sun is bleeding through the variegated fan of leaves which illuminates the faintest blush of last summer.  My hand goes into the pocket used for the specific purpose of a vice, to check. The cigarette money is all gone, on the pavement are the cracked lines of a map leading to all of yesterday’s dreams.

I was just killing time until the festival tonight. Alone, I walk alongside my musings as I alternated in rapid gear shifts between melancholy and exaltation.

There has always been a greater enjoyment for me in going to the cafes frequented by the locals. In patronizing such places, one feels not merely a tourist moving through the superficial strata of an area but fully in the stream of life.

There was the desire for tea but no café did it right, even when it was a quality brand. The water was always too hot and so devoid of oxygen being of muted flavor at best. I did not want coffee either but there was the desire to sit and people watch. As I worked, pen in hand no matter where I was in the world, I could not use the justification of “vacation” for so early a bout of day drinking.

Out on the sidewalk was Sidonie. She liked my accent, insisting nearly every time on me saying certain words not for what they meant but how I said them. There was the smile which I took as a sign to stop at her place and nurse a coffee anyways. All along this street too, the cafes and boutiques were preparing for tonight’s festival.

I sat down at a corner table outside and watched. It was her job to hang the fruit shaped lights from the lower branches of the trees. Even though the café was well staffed she had volunteered herself for the task.

It was not so much that she desired to be helpful but that the job allowed her to linger in front of windows, pantomiming the untangling of cords as she watched how others lived. Of course, I was simpatico.

When she could no longer linger without people knowing of her sham, she finished and cautiously climbed back down her ladder, folding it closed the way a musician would their instrument after a performance.

As she had spent so much time doing the lights she felt it only fair to go back inside, asking me to come in for a chat before I left.

My coffee was gone and the flow of people going by had reduced down to a trickle. Compulsively I ate the little chocolate covered almond which had been seated on the saucer and melted somewhat from the espressos ambient warmth.

I went in to chat. The dry voice of the radio sings a song from yesterday. Her back had been turned to me and I had heard her tonelessly sing along in her husky voice for a moment before becoming aware of my presence.

She laughed;

“Do you know this song?”

I nodded. She seemed somewhat surprised. For lack of anything new to talk about, she asked me about my taste in music.

“Mainly jazz and classical, Stravinsky, Carter, Piston, the twentieth century guys.”

The classical composers I knew would be pointless to go into with her as the names would seem a parade of babble. We talked of jazz, a favorite professor had turned her on to some of it. She wanted to know what I thought good.

I still treasured those whose names comprised my list of favorites but it got me to thinking. Music is a ritual, a place and a moment. Only the latter managing to remain completely alive as it is ever in flux, constantly shedding its skin to the song of the charmer.

An important component of all jazz is that “in the moment” element. This applies not just to the performers though but also to the sonic vernacular. When Sonny Rollins initially covered Broadway tunes such as “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” or “Mack the knife” or when forward thinking artist started embracing African and Mideastern elements, this was jazz as a living thing, still growing, expanding outwards as it pulled new things into itself.

There is still much joy to be found in hearing a Duke tune played live or a young gun tearing up “Cherokee”. However, if one is to really contemplates what is being heard then regardless of what spontaneity the soloist’s statements may constitute, it is akin to hearing a pianist conjure Schubert.

If it is to remain true to its spirit, then what we consider as jazz being created now, need not have some subgenre label slapped on almost as a caveat. Just call it all jazz. Jazz as a living thing, working off the zeitgeist would incorporate world music, modern classical and even turnbulism. The previous incarnations can still be revered but the verbiage of categorization keeps a lot of the current generation, looking to make statements not in the language of their forefathers but rather their own, marginalized and thus harder to find.

Multi-instrumentalist/band leader Jon Armstrong’s new album Burnt Hibiscus is a prime example of continued artistic evolution of the form. He eschews concern over genre label for the restless curiosity which has always served him well.

Burnt Hibiscus is for a ten-piece ensemble which includes vocals by Sheela Bringi (who also plays an eclectic selection of instruments including Celtic harp, Harmonium and Bansuri flute throughout). There are seven tracks on the album for which Jon incorporated different classical Indian ragas and scales, one for each song. This combined with the combination of the ensemble which is comprised largely of lower end brass and bass clarinets gives the work a cohesive feel and distinct cadence.

“There They Are” starts off with a solo lament from trumpet which would not sound out of place in a New Orleans dirge. It is joined by the voice of a harp, this melancholy beauty conjuring up a possible vision of a jazzman standing at the pearly gates, the trumpeter now not having to sing for his super but to reiterate why he is there.

The vocals have an ethereal quality to them, delicate and plaintive. The lyrics are put forth in a somewhat opaque manner, which is all right as there is an intimacy to them that fosters emotion. The song has the sad beautiful quality to it as if witnessing the first few petals to fall off a flower.

The songs are all various tempos. Depending upon the mood I was in, I found myself gravitating towards one over the other but there are no weak moments of execution.

“Apricot” starts off with Jon’s lone saxophone. With a laconic tone, it is the inner musing thoughts that serves as a type of prelude to weight and motion. There is a descending bass drone of tuba and the flurry of percussion over which long lines of vocals unfurl, mirrored now by the saxophone. Sonically, a feeling, denizens of the downtown sound floating upon lotus leaves. This song shows off to best effect the interesting instrumentation of the ensemble and how densely compelling a pattern they achieve.

“Flat Water”, clocking in at a little over ten minutes is the longest track. It starts off trance inducingly slow, giving the effect of something happening steadily, a little bit at a time, such as rain dripping off leaves. There is an elemental and contemplative feel to the section where reeds are introduced. This piece could be modern classical as done by someone like Lou Harrison who drew from the idiom of other cultures.

The album does not seek to be “authentic” in its use of ragas nor does it merely slap such inflections onto extended jazz numbers. It incorporates and draws inspiration from not only them but elements of 20th century classical. This is in the spirit of jazz.

Maxwell Chandler

-Midtown-

 

Not for use without permission. maxwellachandler@aol.com

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