Alex Coke on listening and the possibility of sound
Austin jazz player makes new aural landscapes 'It's Possible'
By Brad Buchholz
Monday, October 06, 2008
While living in Amsterdam in the 1990s, Austin jazz musician Alex Coke was constantly pedaling around the city on his three-speed bicycle. But as much as he loved music, Coke could never understand why so many people on the street were plugged into Walkman players. What could be more beautiful, he thought, than the exotic music of the streets, the sounds of the city?
"It was the coolest thing, hearing everything with a Doppler effect as you moved along on the bike," says Coke, one of Texas' most distinguished flute and saxophone players. "You hear this kind of hissing as you move through the environment, along a busy street, past a canal. You hear a boat horn, a car horn, another bike bell, the snatch of a conversation. I just loved that. It's organized sound.
"You can make a case that it's art. Or that it isn't. But the experience is very John Cage, in that it makes you open up and hear things. To truly listen."
Coke's love of sound ã and the exotic blending of sounds ã is most evident on "It's Possible," a new album of acoustic improvisational music (on the Voxlox label) featuring Austin vocalist Tina Marsh and renowned African-style percussionist Steve Feld in duo and trio settings. Coke refers to it as an "art" record (as opposed to a "commercial" one), and for good reason. "It's Possible" colors way, way outside the lines in the way it blends world music textures with avant garde sensibilities, bounces back and forth between the literal and the abstract, accentuates the display of sounds as it eschews traditional soloing. And yes, it even allows Coke to crash a voice-and-flute party on one cut with his impressive array of whistles and squeaky toys.
"When (the Web site) CD Baby asked me to list a genre for 'It's Possible,' I said something like 'free improvised world music jazz ã or something ã with vocals,' " says Coke, who comes across like a hip and happy, free-thinking professor of creativity, his tousled hair streaked with gray. "I think the label they chose was 'jazz vocalese.' And that's kind of true, just as you wouldn't be wrong to call it small group jazz ... or avant garde jazz ... or atonal ... "
In many ways, "It's Possible" replicates the sensation of stepping off the bus in a foreign land where you are surrounded by a swirl of exotic sounds and cadences. It can be disorienting at first. But in time, you begin to recognize a certain beauty in that confluence of sounds and cadences, begin to appreciate certain patterns in them, or maybe find yourself humming to new music you hear in them ã even while acknowledging that you don't always understand the sounds.
On the album's opening cut, Marsh sings lyrics improvised from Antonio Machado poetry as Feld creates loping, savannah-style soundscapes on a "bass box" ã an African thumb piano that sometimes (as Townes Van Zandt might say) sounds like tuned "rain on a conga drum" or an exotic stand-up bass. Meanwhile, Coke plays swirling passages on flute that at certain moments suggest wildness and open sky. Then a new song comes ã and things really get wild.
"It's Possible" often suggests climates, environments: wind, humidity, the buzz of insects, the moan of the earth, the human moan of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." Coke wanted a concise feeling to the 15 compositions; none is longer than five minutes. On several songs, the musicians improvise in the studio as they listen to environmental source material ã say, the buzz of a rainforest or the call of frogs or a tolling bell. For the finished album, the original tapes of the frogs and forest have been removed, leaving only the three musicians (vocal, reed, percussion) playing together in a fashion that sometimes suggests free-jazz chamber music.
"We've been working a lot, when the time comes to solo, on the idea that we play together ã that we all solo together," says Coke, who is clearly fascinated by diminishing or reinterpreting the notion of "foreground" and "background" in jazz playing. "I'm trying not always to be in the foreground all the time, but to be a part of the music."
"It's Possible" ... but is it jazz? Maybe. Maybe not. It's certainly not bebop, or background music. Engaged listening is virtually required. "It's Possible" is in many respects its own musical art gallery ã a sequence of installations or paintings that invite listeners to interact with it and project their own narratives onto it. It's hard to imagine all but three or four cuts (such as the exquisite "Secret Love," which presents the American standard beneath shimmering African starlight) standing a chance on most jazz or noncommercial stations; the strength of the album is in the whole of its vision. And for all its organic and acoustic soul, for all the play and puns within the music and on the CD cover, it will be for many an acquired taste.
"I'm not interested in being a preservation society," Coke likes to say, suggesting it's hard to honor the spirit of jazz by holding too fast to its tradition or in trying too hard to emulate its most popular formulas. "The tradition I'm trying to hold down is to express myself. John Coltrane was never a copy. Neither was Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster or Ella Fitzgerald. All of them were expressing themselves, for better or for worse. Whether people like the music or not, there's really nothing else you can do."
Our own Austin Chronicle thanks to longtime supporter Jay Tractenberg.
BY JAY TRACHTENBERG
The new collaborative album from veteran Austin compadres Alex Coke, Tina Marsh, and Steve Feld, It's Possible (Voxlox), is fearless in its vision and certainly not for novices. Portions of this challenging set of improvised music are reminiscent of abstract sound collages from Chicago AACM pioneer Roscoe Mitchell, but reedman Coke and vocalist Marsh, who have dialogued musically for years and developed an intimate language, landmark recognizable touchstones ‚ Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," Charles Mingus' "Eclipse," and Harry T. Burleigh's "Deep River" ‚ to which they give their own unique spin. Their duos are augmented subtly by Feld's melodic and percussive ashiwa bass box, the four-tune medley "Steve Lacy Suite" a fitting tribute to an improvisational master and mentor.
JAZZ BEYOND JAZZ
HOWARD MANDEL'S FREELANCE URBAN IMPROVISATION
February 11, 2008
Topographies of the Dark, Sound Improvisations by Ghanaian instrument
inventor Nii Noi Norty and percussionist Nii Otoo Annan with Steven Feld, Alex Coke, Jefferson
"Music only native to itself, by West Africans collaborate with Creative Opportunity Orchestra
(Austin) reedsman Coke on flute, bass flute, soprano sax, Vorhees playing traps and Feld,
MacArthur Fellow ethnomusicologist of fascinating projects (forest walks and family guitar bands
of New Guinea, bells of Western Europe and the Balkans) on a rhythm box. Haunting,
ruminative, graceful even when bombastic or timbrally unusual."
From Cadence Magazine, August 2006, p.127:
The Compositions of Eric Dolphy
Bvhaast offers for our consideration a full disk devoted to the music of Eric
Dolphy, whose compositional merits too often have been taken for granted. The
seven pieces on this disk show a sensibility influenced surely by Monk and
Mingus, yet far and away some of the strongest writing of the early sixties-
especially for Dolphy's skillful combination of expanded tonality,
unforgettable melody contours and advanced changes. Although the title
credits do not cite him, the liner notes indicate that the date is under the
leadership of Willem Breuker, and that is all to the good.
The choice of compositions is intelligent, providing plenty of first-rate
structures and frameworks to blow over and into. The music spans the
startingly few years Eric was actively recording under his own name. "GW,"
"Les," and "345" originally come from the album Outward Bound (1960); "The
Prophet" and "Potsa Lotsa" from his Five Spot recordings of 1961; "Hat and
Beard" and "Something Sweet" from Out to Lunch (1964). All players are up to
the challenge of Dolphy's intricate twists and turns. Highlights include
Breuker's explosive alto solo on "Les," Coke's flute solo with the
athletically wide range and bright tone of Eric on "The Prophet" and
elsewhere; Van Bommel's hard-driving, post-Waldron piano and Breuker's
scorching soprano solo on "G.W." Further on, there is Vloeiman's loose, brassy
trumpet on "245," with bass and drums adroitly varying on the tempo (as Mingus
was fond of doing). "Hat and Beard" brings on a collective improv that is full
of fire. "Potsa Lotsa" starts in the Five Spot groove, then the rhythm section
cooks behind Vloeiman's trumpet in more of a Free-Bop manner. Breuker uses
space nicely for his soprano spot and locks in with Engels' drums in
So why get this tribute album when you can grab the orignal Dolphy recordings?
The answer is that this CD develops and expands the implications of his music
in lively and listenable terms. It also is one hell of a Dutch lineup with a
more-or-less dead serious Breuker out to fan the flames. Very much recommended.
Grego Applegate Edwards
From Jazziz Magazine, April '06, p.25:
Iraqnophobia/Wake Up Dead Man
On a more recent front, 21st-century politics have shaped a handful of jazz
works-most notably a number of pieces written to mourn, decry, and commemorate
the events of 9/11/2001...
Enter composer and saxophonist Alex Coke. His Iraqnophobia, released
last year on VoxLox Records, features two pieces commisioned and performed by
Austin's sparkling (if unheralded) Creative Opportunity Orchestra (the CO2,
for short) led by vocalist and composer Tina Marsh. The album contains two
large-scale titled pieces with button-pushing titles: "Wake Up Dead Man,"
inspired by writings about black prisoners in Texas, as well as the deeply
affecting photography of poltical activist Alan Pogue; and "Iraqnophobia,"
spurred not only by the war but also by the attacks of 9/11.
Coke thinks that the single-issue focus explains why few people make
politically inspired music-or, more to the point, why few record labels
encourage it. "It's like the way Christmas discs only really sell at
Christmas," he says. "Major labels aren't interested if it won't sell, and
jazz has a hard enough time as it is. If you talk to other musicians, they're
into the idea [of expressing political viewponts], but there's a thin line
these days. The message is that this is 'jazz,' the tradition, and not
really the 'freedom music' I heard when I was growing up listening to 'Trane
and Pharaoh Sanders and Roland Kirk."
Iraqnophobia roughly follows the progress of the conflict not only by
subject matter but also by musical design. The opening movement, "Shifting
Sands," presents a free-jam improvisation followed by more traditionally
swinging short portraits and tone poems depicting wartime events. You needn't
have taken a stand on the Iraq War to enjoy the music, but I think Coke would
prefer that you do. His music seems to suggest that even 7,000 miles away,
the war hits home. All politics is local, after all.
"The Compositions of Eric Dolphy" disc recently received a good review in the
publication Point of Departure. Here's a link to it:
From Cadence Magazine (Apr 2006)
Iraqnophobia/Wake Up Dead Man
Alex Coke-whose musical affiliations center around Amsterdam, Netherlands and
Austin, Texas-proves himself here to be not only a fine tenor saxophone
improviser but a daring conceptualist, unafraid to think in terms of long form
or to bring an explicitly political sensibility to Jazz (one which doesn't
compromise his music's effectiveness but amplifies it). Think Mingus, think
Roach, think John Carter. But filter some of the dark experimentalism of those
giants' small-group composing through an aesthetic that loves the populist
strains of a high lonesome guitar, a nasty rock gutturalism, and so forth.
This disc consists of two suites-"Wake Up, Dead Man" and "Iraqnophobia"-where
Coke marshals his many skills to create some righteously pissed-off music, the
former a meditation on imprisonment and human rights, the latter an invective
against Shrub-borne atrocities unending. Coke has teamed up with vocalist Tina
Marsh previously, and Ms. Marsh's longstanding ensemble CO2 is responsible for
the spirited, impassioned interpretation of this music (which really does brim
with the spirit of Coke's sometime employer, Willem Breuker, in addition to the
above-mentioned influences). Greasy organ and guitar kick John Mills' raunchy
bass clarinet into high gear on "Running Time." This piece, like most of those
in the first suite, features great reed and brass arrangements, the sound both
brash and measured. The use of vernacular materials (filtered through an
improviser's sensiblity) is also strongest here, particularly the use of a
banjo that captures some of the melancholy resolution of Coke's chosen themes.
Marsh's vocals are very subdued but effective, and Coke himself finally steps
to the fore on the freewheeling, headlong "Danger Line."
The second suite draws on different materials-not so much the Texas Blues and
Roots traditions as extended techniques, environmental sounds, flashes of
Middle Eastern music, and more abstract palying (not least Coke's intense flute
improvising). "Longnecks and the Shas" (splendid title, by the way) not only
references an earlier period of American investment in the Middle East but an
earlier period of large ensemble music, with its Ellingtonian exotica and its
hint of a Lacy chart (there's an excellent percussion break too). Coke deftly
breaks up the suite with numerous miniatures (such as Mohmed's guitar interlude
"Three Years Later" or Allan's raucous "The Shreik of Araby," which opens the
gnarly 7/4 blues "Straddle the Camel"). This keeps the pacing brisk and the
ideas flowing, and it's just another example of why this fine recordong stands
out from the pack. Dig in.
From JazzTimes (March '06)
Iraqnophobia/Wake Up Dead Man
Texas-based composer/saxophonist Alex Coke tackles social themes in a pair of
extended compositions for the Creative Opportunity Orchestra. The title piece
obviously references Iraq, while the other, "Wake Up Dead Man," is inspired by
the 1972 book of the same name by Bruce Jackson about African-American work
songs in Texas prisons. The CD booklet contains evocative photographs by Alan
Pogue, which are meant to accompany and augment the music. The work is
essentially a multimedia piece constricted by the limitations of the CD
format. Perhaps because of that, the music's connection to the subject matter
is ambiguous; the program is a bit hard to discern, especially in the Iraq
Divorced from the theme, the music is often quite fine. "Wake Up" is especially
effective in the way it incorporates country blues into what is essentially a
big-band format. Among the solos, trombonist Brian Allan's wild take on "The
Sheik of Araby" stands out. Soprano saxophonist Steve Vague impresses as well.
The forced Orientalisms in the Iraq piece are anachronistic and off-putting.
There's no denying, however, Coke's talent as a composer and orchestrater. All
in all, a very worthwhile effort.
Check out the Austin Chronicle feature article at:
Doug Ramsey recently reviewed IRAQNOPHOBIA in his ArtsJournal weblog "Rifftides."
It can be found at: http://www.artsjournal.com/rifftides/archives/2005/11/protest_music.html
Point of Departure writer Bill Shoemaker wrote an excellent review (with pictures) of IRAQNOPHOBIA.
Check it out at: http://www.pointofdeparture.org/archives/PoD-2/PoD-2_page_one.html
Check out this article about the innovative VoxLox Record label: http://www.xs4all.nl/~alexcoke/inthesetimes.html
There is a great review of Iraqnophobia/Wake Up Dead Man as seen in the Austin American Statesman at this link:
Three new reviews of Neil Blumofe's Moses Muses can be found at this link:
A review of Soul Prayers from the Austin Chronicle is online at:
There is a good review of the New Texas Swing CD at:
A good review of the CO2 October 20th concert and my piece, "RAIN".
***CDs are on sale at Waterloo Records and Music Mania.***