The sound of blood on the gums. Listening for when to run. Quietness begets deception. It makes space for plotting, for leaving in the middle of the night, for the crisp, crushed traces turning to ashes and daylight, consecrated formlessness. Hush makes space for devouring the nothingness of limbo and captivity as if it’s the cannibal, slaying the ghosts of sorrow with some blinding ecstatic resolve. There is ecstatic muteness. There is a level of attentive listening that is akin to running away, to leaving, to being gone, to upheaval, to the clandestiny that is exile, to being already there in an elsewhere beyond circumstance, a listening both paranoiac and propelled by certainty, clarity, and risk.
This inevitable clairaudience is situated in the Black body like knots of speaker system under the skin or what are in Sanskrit called nadi, energy centres that both absorb and emit frequency and vibration and translate into lifeforce. Both individually and collectively our whole bodies are always listening for our cue to leave or arrive or resurrect something haunting us and lay some treachery or trauma to rest through that confrontation with the unseen but always heard and felt. We become the site of our own exile and return, autonomous carbon territories arranging the environment with our sound even as it pretends hostility and indifference to our survival in it. We move through the world in and as sound, ours is an acoustic condition where humanity is redeemed in close and joyous listening, and fugitive sounds are those that move ahead on this reluctant path to an unknown elsewhere, or forfeit resonance for escape. Fugitive sounds are attacking sounds and retreating sounds. And fugitive listening is our carving out of these intimate sounds from the nagging din of the mundane, or how we construct new dynamics between sounds and therefore new music, Black music to stay with and run away with. Collective improvisation is fugitive listening. If you can’t improvise you can’t listen. If you cannot listen you will not know when it’s time, what time it is, what timeless grasp on the possible and impossible we have when we know our sound well, when we dwell and revel in our sound, when our sound is our first skin.
John Coltrane explains that to achieve his vastness of tone and timing on the saxophone, the sound grammar is, start in the middle of a sentence and move in either direction at once. This shredding Coltrane gathered in decisive ambivalence allowed him to both indulge and withhold definitions or anything definitive that might encroach on the sheer existence of his timbre, anything so sure as to become rigidity, any fixity, any rule that inhabited the urges of that unkempt movement/range/rage. Somewhere in the ambivalence was an exit door and the part of him that needed to see beyond earth sounds outran the part that wanted to be bound by the limits of earthly audience. Coltrane’s sound prepared his way out, it was declarative, had it been more obedient he might have quarantined himself here in an empty loop of ‘justice’ or revenge, been ravaged into the silence that rigidity is, and trapped there in one burdened register. To hear him is to hear freedom becoming itself. You begin to get ideas about where to go next because he is carving roads with his tone and never telling us which one to travel, just go.
Listening to Coltrane becomes a form of running and leave-taking that also does some of the running for us, we end up somewhere else, somewhere new and somewhere ancient at the same time. We multiply ourselves, the song clones us but also regenerates us and we develop a power beyond the singularity we possessed and held tightly before the song began. This mercy carries no grammar, but yes, and free jazz music promises to destroy language in both directions at once one day. To silence it all and to make it change while also ensuring its chatters and trembles. Black limbo needs this nowhere to expose the grammar’s burden and dismiss it. You listen like you’ve got somewhere to be and Coltrane is giving directions at the fuel station and the fuel is star and air, nadi and ain’t no way.
There’s little difference between hearing and overhearing things and making music. Sound you invent is really sound you collect, things you hear that are present but not audible or visible to others. This presence that music requires, this black vessel that hears the invisible and inaudible, begets a trajectory of fugitive listening from Plantation Blues to Sun Ra to mumble rap to whisper R&B. If you’re afraid of where the song is going it’s important to let it go there, to ride it either into oblivion or renewal. Either side of the pendulum inspires eternal return, return to make sure you heard the slurred cataclysm correctly in the event of oblivion, and return to attune to the regenerative when the joy of renewal is promised in music.
The return to solitude and the return to the crowd, alternating. The best songs and albums become incidents. Things that have happened to us, events in our lives, and when life is treacherous they displace or soothe some trauma, and when life floats such songs inject the rise with butterflies and flutter, the nerves of too good to be true but happening. And the music becomes a nervous system to supplant years of training ourselves to expect the wrong things. Music trains us to trust what we conjure when under duress, to know that in fury we summon angels.
Let’s say that the railroad underground is concert hall or phonograph and what’s playing this escape? What ruins of tapes of vinyl and tongue bits and moan omen have brought us through, have brought me through to this paradise of ruins where repair is possible and happening.
I’ve always found the word daddy tacky and infantilising. Maybe because mine is a dignified ghost and because so much of my youth was spent in the silence of that reluctant precocity/precarity. Maybe I knew that to call a man daddy is to give him a strange power over you and a power I do not cede even to my blood. Was this a kind of patricide? His voice hides a treehouse, a speaker system, and hand in hay and cotton ground, a wrist in gold and god bent over picking crip rose up, singing. Shield all around me he screams, your love is like a shield all around me.
And I wanna ride in singing those words, Billie Holiday once agreed. Women rarely write about music because part of the hedonism here is contingent upon us remaining its muses, it mutes. This mutiny is for you, daddy.
Sheeeeeeee done worked a root. This means sorry to this man but she had to put a curse on you, had to send you dealing with the myth. Had to bend your diffidence toward a bottoming out. In the name of love and war. D’angelo seduces me into the midnight forest for refuge. I listened to this album so much in the early 2000s that it grew eyes and became a kind of surrogate value system and vigilantism, waiting to see if I would cultivate my powers or just lend them to the song. There’s some deceit in the smooth beauty of this album, it forces you to embrace your shadow side, to examine what you might do for love and why roots are sometimes hexes and the helix smile when a spell becomes a song. This is an archive of warning cries. I love you/ I’ll ruin you if you violate it.
This is my paradise of ruins.
The cover of this album is an audible/vulnerable collage featuring black and white photographs of the band members positioned everywhere from the stage to the beach. A candid radiance makes them seem like family and the bond extends beyond the skin of the album to all listeners, it’s like being invited into their chorus of motives to begin again with them. This album came into my life around 2008, the heyday for jazz blogs that would upload private press and out-of-print or just hard to find LPs as MP3 files for those who knew where to look, to download and revel in. I spend that year as a student of those carefully maintained blogs, digging on the Internet and buying records when they were available, finally music lovers didn’t have to also be obsessed with the material acquisition of product, and work that would otherwise never be heard was resurrected. It was invigorating and forever altered the frequency of my lived experience, to have this relatively casual and immediate access to previously undisclosed intensities within the universe of Black music. I’d always loved jazz and listened and collected avidly, but this sub-genre that is deemed ‘spiritual jazz’ veers toward and past poetry with an ethereal choral approach to storytelling that allows for layers of meaning and feeling that are not present anywhere else. These were collectives.
The Beginning of a New Birth crescendos with song aptly titled ‘The Prayer’, silk skulls tilted skyward chanting a melody of ahhhhs in devastating unison for fifteen minutes straight. I listened over and over until it entered my bloodstream, this is some of the most beautiful choral jazz that exists, and its beauty endures in part because there are too many players and singers on the album to make it an exercise in making one artist famous. Another true Black Orchestra, like Sun Ra’s but not as sophisticated and much more anonymous. The album was recorded in the summer of 1975 but it is one of the rare timeless and beyond-time pieces of music we have, because it troubles genre. I discovered it when I most needed or maybe craved that troubling of forms and possibilities and it functioned for me like a gather of palms holding me up to some bright, bright light until I could withstand its glare, until I found it obvious and regular, mundane. It changed my sense of the range of song and poem and speech and listening can access, and it allowed me to float on an intimate skin of mood with no sense that I was under the kind of surveillance that one is under when listening to jazz that is known to be iconic.
I did not have the weight of its reputation in my body while listening, and that means a kind of freedom and refuge from any gaze. The patriarchal trivia tones that mostly men use to discuss and possess jazz with jargon and over-intellectualising of what is at base, play and improvisation, are always looming when listening to iconic albums. The lesser known jazz LP is a space of frolic and childlike joy. Encountering what is flatly labeled ‘spiritual jazz’ for the first time, through this album, was a rebirth for me. Between authority and authenticity in listening, there’s an unspoken chasm where we pretend that ‘good taste’ is always visceral, knowing that it is often adopted or stolen, like the music itself, to help listeners perform class and elitism. Relatively unknown but beautiful Black music is runaway music, it escapes the blasé fetishising of mostly white ‘collectors,’ escapes their accumulation strategy identities, escapes their definitions and critics and oppressive praise and fame-making, another way they attempt to take ownership over Black production, it escapes their phony doting, it escapes them. Listening to this music allowed me to learn what it feels like to engage with Black sound that hadn’t been completely adulterated by the white gaze, and how to keep making and upholding work like it in spite of that gaze’s near ubiquity, in form and in mind. This album marked my debut as a true fugitive listener in search of a new sonic territory which would be a new land.
The first law of this new land is, let it be a Black ruins, a dug up mass grave, let it say no to white modes of discovery with its landscape of runaways and runways, let it feel abandoned and eternally fertile and reckless and possessed with the gift of our collective chant transmuted into evidence of its power.
Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, archivist, director, and the author of four collections of poetry, Negro League Baseball, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues, Hollywood Forever, and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.