Writings About Music

Reconstructing Ratzo's Reflexivity

Ratzo Harris and Michael Robinson meeting by chance at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan years later.


"A musical reflexivity exists between genre and locale, a fact supported by concepts like: “Chicago” versus [Mississippi] “Delta” blues or “West Coast” versus “East Coast” jazz. In this paradigm, musicians can act as a nexus of many stylistic affectations that might be realized in a unique artistic voice that the listener might find exotic.” - Ratzo Harris. This is a profoundly provocative concept that may actually sum up the entire history of music throughout the world, and it engenders a profusion of thoughts and memories.

It brought back, vividly, the hours long, in-depth conversations on music I shared with pianist Michael McCandless during my brief yet fruitful stay at CalArts, where but one unforgettable experience was hearing a then unknown string quartet play a work by Morton Feldman that planted the seeds for a later appreciation of Indian classical music. This was the Kronos Quartet playing very slow, melodic, and gentle sounds that consciously or unconsciously, on the part of Feldman the composer, shared important linkages with the alap form of Hindustani music.

And it was Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury (Ravi Shankar), primed by an extensive and intensive exposure to the pedagogical genius of Allauddin Khan, who melded sarod techniques to the sitar, thrived on unconventional talas, and dispensed with much of the drone-keeping responsibilities found in sitar forbears to forge a new dawn of music that was to have trenchant repercussions, including liberating the role of tabla and rhythm, placing the exquisitely wondrous tamboura in the forefront, and inspiring fresh musical hybrids across oceans found in musics that include John Coltrane, jazz in general, The Doors, and rock in general, not to mention more local Hindustani and Karnatic artists such as santoorist Shivkumar Sharma, bansurist Hariprasad Chaurasia, and double violinist Shankar. The sound stream of Hindustani music-Ravi Shankar-John Coltrane is also the pervasive, underlying musical context that spawned the diverse yet releated output of composers like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass..

Probably, it is individual artists or groups that somehow find the key to coalescing a multitude of nurturing sounds into a fresh amalgam that attracts with substantial nectar so transformative as to obscure the original ingredients.

With Catharine Buchanan, my guess is that she was unable to find the actual time required to hone her art before she left us, and those circumstances have left us thirsting for more of her unique possibilities. Nonetheless, songs like Sharp Angel and Sidewalk Talk, and perhaps others that may come to light, are worthy of being newly interpreted by present and future artists.

Trumpet playing is a thrillingly intrinsic element of jazz close to my heart because I began playing the instrument as a child. In fact, it was in third grade that Ben DiDia, the elementary school bandleader who played clarinet, decided that this would be my instrument after examining the size of my hands following the passing of a musical aptitude test. After that, some of my favorite teachers and friends were trumpeters, including Rollan Masciarelli and Charlie Colin.

I enjoyed learning in Culture Counter Culture, Pt 3 more about the great Freddie Hubbard, whose favorite recorded performances of mine are found on Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth album, and John Coltrane's Ole Coltrane album.

The trumpeters who have emerged as my personal favorites are Donald Byrd, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and Dizzy Gillespie. It is frustrating that Fats Navarro is so underrepresented in recordings because he, arguably, is as great as anyone.

What I still find unbelievable, is how someone like Donald Byrd could follow John Coltrane’s solo on Lush Life without any diminution of the musical discourse, kinda like one baseball player following a grand slam with another grand slam in the next inning. The same thing goes for Lee Morgan following Coltrane’s solo on Moments Notice, and Jackie McLean’s solo on Jack DeJohnette’s Climax, or Dizzy Gillespie following Charlie Parker’s solo on Hot House, and Chet Baker following Paul Desmond’s solo on Jim Hall’s Concierto. In each of these instances, the trumpet builds musical substance and interest, something like Dwayne Wade reminding us that in his prime he could blow away anyone on the basketball court.

- Michael Robinson, October 2013, Los Angeles


© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).