Graham Haynes: Electric Dreams
Roughly speaking, jazz fans tend to admire two sorts of brass players: those who impress us with their virtuosity and those who impress with their modernity. Suffice to say, cornetist Graham Haynes belongs with the latter group—an illustrious circle of imagineers whose most prominent members would include Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, Lester Bowie, Olu Dara, Jon Hassel, Butch Morris and Dave Douglas.
These are all musicians we praise as much for the snug, visionary environments they design around their horns as for their horn prowess itself. They are also all musicians who almost perversely enjoy nestling on the inner fringes of the jazz avant garde and the outer reaches of the jazz mainstream. As a group, such trumpeters would seem to constitute modern jazz’s most rugged individualists, reckless iconoclasts and stalwart inventors. For them, the horn seems to be an instrument built for interrogating the nature of jazz, its meaning and limits, its forms and boundaries.
As a rule, these lodge brothers tend to be eclectic and nomadic, not just musically but geographically. Long before Pulp Fiction and Sam Jackson emancipating himself from the burden of urban cool to “walk this earth,” Cherry had already covered the globe living, if not inventing, the gospel of multiculturalism. Bowie famously bounced to Jamaica and Nigeria to do residencies with King Tubby and Fela Kuti. Hassel learned raga vocal technique from Indian masters and Morris performs his conductions with all Turkish and Japanese ensembles as often as he can.
True to this globetrotting tradition, Haynes moved to Paris for three years in 1990 just to break bread with the city’s banquet table of African, Arabic and South Asian players. “I’d gotten tired of New York because it seemed to me that a lot of what was happening in music was done to please critics. As a bandleader I was trying to create something else and it was also difficult then to find people who could play in odd time signatures.”
Later, extended stays in North and West Africa expanded his sonic vision quest. After 1990’s ¿What Time It Be!, the fruits of Haynes’ wanderings can be heard on his second album, Nocturne Parisian (Muse) and the follow-up, The Griots Footsteps (Verve Antilles), where African and Asian born instrumentalists fluidly sustain a polyrhythmic weave with Haynes and British tenor saxophonist Steve Williamson. His fourth, Transition, saw him combine what he’d learned about Third World rhythm in the City of Lights with DJ Logic’s turntable scratches, Vernon Reid’s Mahavishnu-mad guitar licks and the Coltrane melody that gave the album its title. His last, Tones for the 21st Century, for some the most bewildering disc on Haynes’ resume, displayed a fervor for quietude and ambient haze matched only by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and On Land. Haynes’ current release, BPM, finds him adroitly smearing pigments extracted from Wagner and drum ’n’ bass onto his palette like it’s nobody’s business if he do. If you call it electronica, Haynes, who believes “the jazz era is over,” will not be mad at you.
Haynes first came to renown in the mid-’80s as a member of Steve Coleman’s group Five Elements and as part of the inner circle Coleman convened for his musicians collective/think tank, M-BASE. This studious and largely Brooklyn-based bunch of hip hop-friendly heads practically defines the expansion wing of African-American jazz today. Just consider the roll call: Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Robin Eubanks, Kelvyn Bell, Geri Allen and, not to be perverse, even Tonight Show defectors Kevin Eubanks and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Though the M-BASE massive has been a presence on the jazz front for over 15 years, they have only in the past five years begun to make music as memorable as that theoretical acronym.
In more traditional jazz narrative, Haynes would read as Gillespie to Coleman’s Parker, Cherry to his Coleman, but unlike bop or free jazz, M-BASE was not an instantaneously world-shattering jazz revolution that forever fixed Coleman’s and Haynes’ stars in the jazz virtuoso firmament. The significance of M-BASE has been slow to evolve and emerge. Perhaps the most promising aspect of the thing is how paradoxically embryonic it still seems. By default M-BASE came to be seen among journalists as a counterproposal to the hegemony of Wynton Marsalis. Yet, given the divergent paths Wilson, Coleman, Haynes, Allen, Bell and Osby have taken since those early days, M-BASE is clearly not a school, a style or even a sound, per se.
Upon talking to Haynes, you realize the real intent was polyrhythmic research: a thoughtful and scholarly reconsideration of the architectonic role syncopation can play in composing music for jazz improvisation. For this reason, some of Coleman and Haynes’ most fruitful work together was probably done not on stage but with their library cards. “There was a period where we used to take a lot of African stuff from the library and analyze it and try to play it on our horns and that was the period where I really learned to compose music. Steve and I used to listen to a James Brown record and then a Charlie Parker and then a Louis Armstrong Hot Five record and realize they were all based around this very multi-layered and quilted African thing with all these little telepathic pockets of syncopation and call and response going on. Steve based all of his music around that concept.’’
When Haynes ventured to Paris in pursuit of African syncopaters, he discovered he was actually bringing them full circle. “Quite a few of those cats knew about the M-BASE thing. What’s really interesting is that what we were trying to do with M-BASE was an African thing. For African musicians who were into M-BASE, playing with me was a lot like coming back into their own thing. Pretty funny.”
Haynes grew up in a musical family. His father is jazz drumming legend Roy Haynes, his older brother, Craig, was a saxophonist who did a substantial stint with Sun Ra. Haynes’ formal studies include two years at Queens College in a rigorous program where his goal was to become a proficient jazz and symphonic trumpeter. He credits Wynton Marsalis with ripping that dream to shreds. “When I heard Wynton and realized how much technique he had and the amount of dedication and time it would take to achieve that, I decided I couldn’t play both jazz and classical from a performance aspect.”
Haynes left the school upon suspecting that racism lurked behind its then pro-classical pedagogy, but acknowledges how the program encouraged and fortified his analytical bent. “They had a program that was based more around composition than performance, so I learned a lot about how to transcribe symphonic scores and Bach chorales. I left school because I had to make a choice—if I wanted to play jazz I had to become a gigging musician. Then I met Steve and started hanging out and playing in the clubs almost nightly.”
Hearing Haynes and Coleman play together in the early days of Five Elements brought to mind Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter more than any other trumpet-saxophone match up. Haynes and Coleman both favored an approach to melodic phrasing and syncopation that didn’t dive headlong into the rhythmic sea but erected floating, angular plateaus. The effect suggested topographic architectural drawings: intricate, hard-edged and beyond the reach of gravity. The way their lines levitated, probed and orbited around the beat implied that the rhythm section in their heads was more buoyant than the one they were sharing the bandstand with.
On the bass-less and trap drummer-less Parisian Nocturne, Haynes began distancing himself from jazz as we know it—but his love for the jazz tradition remains unflagging and without a hint of ambivalence. “That’s usually all I’m listening to in my car,” the upstate New York resident says. Like many of us, however, his issues with today’s jazz are more with the stodginess of young musicians than with the art form. “I’ve never been somebody who wanted to perfect what somebody else has done. Even if I was interested in playing what cats are playing today, I could only play in the style of Miles Davis, Freddy Hubbard, Woody Shaw or Lee Morgan. After that there’s really no place to go because of how the music is set up. One thing you could do that I haven’t heard any trumpet player do is bring more of an Indian, more a non-Western sound into it, playing ragas over jazz changes. Only you’d still have to play runs and the thing about jazz that’s finished, for me, is the whole concept of soloing. What I try to do is play melodies. Like the other day, [producer] Bill Laswell asked me to play fluegelhorn on a remix for Sting. I always try to edit when I play and create a texture that fits inside of the music rather than sits on top of it. The advent of sampling has definitely affected the way I play—knowing that my phrases are going to be edited, looped, moved around and maybe even changed in pitch.”
What distinguishes Haynes from his M-BASE buddies and most accomplished jazz instrumentalists, even those in the avant garde and the Knitting Factory scene, is his Hendrixian passion for electronics and improvisation—though the origins may lie in Haynes’ hearing Sly Stone’s wah-wah vocal feature “Sex Machine” at a tender age. Haynes has already ventured deeper into this realm than even Miles Davis and Eddie Henderson went in the ’70s. Though possessed of a gorgeous buttery tone unamplified, he eschews the vanity of acoustic purity afflicting most accomplished players, allowing his sensuous horn sound to be distorted, drowned and even disappeared in a digital wash, should his muse so dictate.
He has also simplified the linear elements in his playing as he has moved closer to electronica—dance-oriented digital composition—and further and further away from standard jazz formats. The ample array of signal processors, samplers and delays he regularly uses these days easily fills the trunk of his car. But at the root of Haynes’ sound painting is still the M-BASE imperative of musical research rather than a trendy exploitation of something the kids like. He feels that because “musicians speak an older language and have the ability to analyze music from the inside we can bring certain insights to the next phase of digital music’s development.”
Haynes possesses a complex musicological worldview that not only encompasses jazz and Africa, but Western music before and after Bach. The question of how much non-Western information about rhythm and tonality the African-American paradigm can absorb is a big one for him. “I think we have to move out of this four-bar, two-bar thing rhythmically and recognize what it means when a master sitarist or some of the microtonal composers tell you about the 16 notes between E and F. When it comes to tonality, I think we need to recognize that before Bach everything was non-tempered. He created the tempered clavicle; before that it was all microtones. After Bach, pitch got more refined, neater and neater. I think that what’s happened since Bach has been an attempt to get back to that unevenness. That’s why all the composers since then, the cats in the German, French and Russian schools have been taking harmonies and dissonance as far as they can take them. The problem is that we can’t go back because we’ve all been fixed into that [Bach] system. We’re stuck inside of a box, but unless you realize you’re stuck, you won’t get out of it.”
From the evidence presented on BPM, Haynes doesn’t want to smash open the box so much as poke a few holes in the thing, to stylishly and judiciously let a little light in from some of those other systems and sensibilities operating on spaceship Earth. While he doesn’t see electronica as a panacea for his concerns—”In DJ culture they’ve managed to get out of the rigidity of certain forms and time structures, but even in hip hop and drum ’n’ bass everything is still built on four-bar, eight-bar phrases”—Haynes does believe now that South Asians and Africans are making electronica and a revolution may be afoot.
“The Third World people can deal with our system and theirs. Like the Indian musicians I work with in London can deal with the 4/4 and with programming and with all these crazy time signatures, too. A master tabla player like Zakir Hussain can subdivide any rhythmic phrase to its least common denominator, like 1/64th and still always know exactly where the one is. And while the way Indians deal with rhythms is dense, it’s still linear. The African thing though is multi-layered. Like, you can extract any one element and it still stands, but the beauty of the thing is how it all fits together. Where we have to use this yardstick to measure time and know where the one is, for them the one could be anywhere because they don’t hear in terms of counting but in terms of sound.”
Haynes’ skills as a Western-trained composer and improviser are what paradoxically account for BPM being the most credible and musical synthesis of jazz and electronica heard to date. It is also one of the few drum ’n’ bass records produced in the U.S. to sound credible beside U.K. stuff—not a little credit going to Haynes’ collaborator, Marque Gilmore, an American-born, London-based drummer widely recognized as the foremost proponent of live drum ‘n’ bass percussion. The first time I heard BPM’s Parsifal extrapolations, “Variations on a Theme by Wagner” and “Variations Two,’’ I thought, well, this is what we’ve all been waiting for: a swinging and melodious recasting of a classic composition by an accomplished musician conversant with jazz, European concert music and electronica.
The album was recorded onto hard drive in Haynes’ house using Emagic’s Logic software. “The album took a long time to make because Logic is not an easy program to learn. Everybody told me to get Cubase and I got Logic anyway. At the time there weren’t a lot of programmers who knew it. The ones who did weren’t cheap and I had to wait for them to finish other projects. This was my first time programming drum ’n’ bass and what really helped was all the stuff I’d done composing drum parts with Steve Coleman. We were really heavily into notating drum parts. I think a lot of what they’re doing with programming drum ’n’ bass heavily relates to the M-BASE thing—the way the beats are constructed. In fact, if you talk to Marque Gilmore he’ll tell you that what Smitty Smith was playing when he was in M-BASE was drum ’n’ bass.’’
Asked to explain the why behind the boom-bastic Wagner and jungle interpolations that begin BPM, Haynes gives another thoughtful answer with trenchant musicological roots. “I don’t know if there is a connection between Wagner and drum ’n’ bass. I just know I heard that repeating tympani line and immediately heard drum ’n’ bass. But certain harmonic aspects of Wagner probably had more to do with it than anything. Wagner is the bridge between Beethoven and 20th century music; everything Schoenberg, Webern and Berg were dealing with, Wagner created the language for. I believe his polytonality was an attempt to deal with a wider chromatic palette and to return to a time when there were no rules surrounding the overtone system. Wagner was dealing with these melodies that are moving over harmonies that move in thirds. When I transcribed the score, I found out that Wagner was dealing with some of the same things Trane was dealing with in “Giant Steps”—progressions moving in thirds. What that allows me as a horn player is the option of playing one note over three chords or inverting long phrases because of the common tones that exist when you move in those intervals.”
The integrity and intellectual depth of Haynes’ musical process belies any charges of fence hopping or bandwagon jumping which may arise. BPM is a drum ’n’ bass record that only a jazz musician could have made, but only one comfortable with consigning that assignation to his past. Two and a half years ago Haynes recorded a session with his father, their first in fact, but one he thinks might have been his bebop swan song. He regretfully recalls his jazz chops not being up to the surrounding cast, Kenny Garrett and David Sanchez being chief among them. When Haynes discusses the prowess of those musicians he almost sounds like a babbling fan, albeit one quite clear on why his path had to divert dramatically from theirs. “It’s really amazing to me the way these cats can play with all that technique, knowledge and speed and so forth. But I’m someone who’s constantly trying to deal with new sounds, new structures, new technologies so I decided to grow in another way.”
I play an Olds Ambassador Cornet with a Monette mouthpiece. For my live stuff I run it thru a Lexicon PCM 41 digital delay and a Boss SE50 effects box.
D`Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)
Me’Shell NdegeOcello: Bitter (Maverick)
Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil (Meta)
“There is a new CD by Indian composer Jolly Mukerjee. It has original material by Mukerjee and remixes by people like Kingsuk and State of Bengal. It`s an incredible CD. I came across this in London. A lot of times this kind of stuff never reaches the light of day in U.S., unfortunately.
There is a new, young classical composer, Thomas Ades. He has
a new symphony that’s been recorded and it`s supposed to be a fascinating piece of music.”
Originally published in May 2000