Simone Weil Inspires Brilliant Jazz Composition

death-of-simone-weil

KATZ: The Death of Simone Weil / Rebecca Shrimpton, vocal; The Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra: Keiichi Hashimoto, Mike Peipman, tpt; David Harris, Bob Pilkington, tbn; Dirk Hillyer, Fr-hn; Jim Gray, tuba; Hiro Honshuke, fl; Matt Steckler, Jeremy Udden, a-sax; Phil Scarff, t-sax; Hans Indigo, bar-sax; Art Bailey, pn; Norm Zocher, gt; Rich Greenblatt, vib; Rick McLaughlin, bs; Harvey Wirht, dm; Warren Senders, Al Tatarunis, voc. / KATZ: Like a Wind / Rebecca Shrimpton, voc with the Abby and Norm Group / Innova 582

Sometimes, great art can arise from the strangest inspiration. Such was the case when Frederick Rzewski composed his outstanding set of piano variations on the simplistic Chilean Socialist song, The People United Shall Never Be Defeated, and such is the case here where jazz composer Darrell Katz has written stunning music to the memory of the emotionally disturbed French writer Simone Weil.

Weil (1909-1943) is described in the booklet as “an enigmatic and disturbing figure.” She was certainly that and more. Although undoubtedly bright and attracted to intellectual pursuits such as Greek literature and philosophy, history and mathematics, she was also an ardent, radical Communist but only from a distance, because she disliked people on a personal, one-to-one basis. Katz’ late wife Paula Tartunis, who wrote the words for this suite dedicated to Weil, states that “she felt a deep compassion for and identification with suffering and oppressed humanity”—but of course, only from a distance. Had any of those suffering and oppressed people wanted to get to know her, she’d have booted them off her doorstep. Sadly, this is so typical of armchair Communist and Socialist sympathizers that you wonder if all of them aren’t as sociopathic as Weil. Born a non-practicing Jew to a family of Alsatian agnostics, she became fascinated by Catholicism, specifically “the image of the crucified incarnation of the ever-absent, impossibly distant God” (like many female Catholic saints who ended up flagellating themselves or cutting holes in their hands to simulate the stigmata of Christ). Weil almost converted to Catholicism but refused baptism, preferring to remain a heretical outside observer rather than a participant. Although living safe and sound in England, Weil refused to eat more than the meager war rations allotted to French citizens, which hastened her death from tuberculosis. Yet despite her tendencies towards insanity, she was considered a great mystic and philosopher, and it is this side of her that Tatarunis greatly admired.

Tatarunis, who was a medical doctor in addition to a writer and poet, constructed an interesting text to work with. Each of the six sections opens with a quote from Weil herself, then goes into Tatarunis’ “take” on this phase of her life. Some consideration is given to Weil on account of her being racially Jewish in the anti-Semetic 1930s, her mental and emotional stress as it culminated in her fixation with the crucified Christ, and the physical stress of her TB. It’s an interesting take on Weil, although at the end I still felt she was suffering from severe mental disorders.

And interestingly, Katz’ music reflects Weil’s schizophrenic personality perfectly, moving between eerie, impressionistic passages (such as the introduction to the opening section, “Gone Now”) and somewhat more conventional melodic structures that have an underlying feeling of unease about them. Katz is also very in having the underlying instruments of the orchestra—tuba, guitar, piano and bass—“move with” the melodic structure. It’s a device that goes at least as far back in jazz as Bill Challis’ innovative arrangements for the Jean Goldkette Orchestra of 1926-27, yet not one pursued by that many jazz writers or arrangers since (Thelonious Monk, for instance, only did it on occasion, as in Four in One, and Mingus almost never did it).

Within the body of each piece, there are solos that complement the written sections, thus filling in the gaps that might otherwise exist in the music with development sections. Moreover, Katz manages to connect the different pieces so that they play continuously, with no breaks between them, giving the listener the impression of an unbroken composition with different sections rather than as a “suite” with contrasting music. He is also very clever in his use of similar thematic material which further enhances the feeling that this music is continuous. In the second piece (“Renault”) he completely switches tempo and melody around the three-minute mark, which almost makes that section of this piece sound like a different movement, but then pulls things back together later on. I’m sure there is a great deal of freedom given to the musicians within the orchestra as they play against each other, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes in canon, at other times in hocket style, throughout this suite. And yet the orchestra scarcely registers as such on the listener; rather, it almost sounds like a septet most of the time because of the judicious way Katz dispenses the instrumental forces. And all of this is achieved, more or less, within an attractive tonal style (aside from the eerie passages).

And, of course, one is constantly aware of the spoken and sung contributions of Rebecca Shrimpton, whose work I lauded so highly in Katz’ most recent release with OddSound, Jailhouse Doc With Holes in Her Socks. Without ever raising her volume above mezzo-forte—often much softer than that—Shrimpton is able to color her tones and give stress to certain words in the text without really overdoing it. She’s simply amazing in her own way.

In this suite, Katz generally employs a modern jazz style of the type that came to fruition just before the explosion of “free jazz” in the early 1960s. But this is not saying that his work is derivative; on the contrary, it is as different from the norm as was the late-‘50s work of cellist Fred Katz, whose scores for Chico Hamilton and Roger Corman impressed so many musicians while remaining outside the evolving continuum of jazz composition. In certain sections of “November 1938,” I also heard echoes of Marius Constant and Lalo Schifrin, but again in a fresh and original way—respectful but not derivative.

The filler composition on this disc, Like a Wind, is set to a text by Sherwood Anderson and features Shrimpton with the duo of guitarist Norm Zacher and Quantum Guitarbassist Abby Aronson. This has an entirely different feel to the music, conditioned by the two instruments being used, and Shrimpton, too, adapts her vocal resources accordingly, becoming even softer and more intimate in her delivery. More lyrical and less malevolent than The Death of Simone Weil, Like a Wind floats just above one’s consciousness without resorting to the lowest common denominator of “soft” or “ambient jazz.”

In whole, then, a remarkable album and one well worth seeking out.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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