Though I love a lot of the music, avant-garde jazz’s contemporary tendency to exist within the academic realm-- to be endlessly analyzed and theorized about, generally by older men-- strikes me as somewhere between a little weird and thoroughly problematic. This academicizing of jazz moves it away from what has historically made it great, i.e. being subversive, confrontational, counter-cultural. From the earliest southern jazz clubs to those in Greenwich Village in the mid-20th century and in northern Europe after that, the best jazz has been the kind that hits you not in the head but in the gut-- and, perhaps, in the pants.
It’s not the musicians’ fault for the genre’s intellectualization, nor is it always even the academics’ fault. Avant-garde jazz, in general, is complex and fascinating, prime for dissection. But to analyze chaotic avant-garde jazz music, to “interpret” it in the Susan Sontag sense of the term, largely strips it of its power and brings it into the realm of the academy-- an institution that, until semi-recently, often rejected the genre’s revolutionary advancements. Ideally jazz today-- and the criticism thereof-- would piss off even the most open-minded of the genre’s now-academic old guard.
Granted, this is incredibly difficult to do. If German sonic terrorist Peter Brötzmann, for instance, can be assimilated into the academic tradition, who, now, can make music that is confrontational and obscene enough to break free? Chicago trio Tiger Hatchery, for one, are trying their darndest-- and in certain ways, they’re succeeding. Their new record, Sun Worship, exists at a cross-section of a variety of scenes and aesthetics, both academic and not-- and as such, it doesn’t quite belong in the contemporary academic jazz milieu, or the noise milieu, or any specific milieu for that matter.
The Tiger Hatchery story, in brief, is as follows: saxophonist Mike Forbes met bassist Andrew Scott Young in Denton, TX mid-last decade, after hearing him play. Forbes asked Young a simple question: “Hey man, you ever heard of Albert Ayler?” It was kismet (even more so than the two could’ve known at the time), and they started playing together. They soon moved to Chicago and met drummer Ben Billington, forming Tiger Hatchery officially in 2009 and quickly gaining notoriety as one of Chicago’s most forceful live acts (but never widely releasing anything).
Forbes’s Ayler question indeed proved extra prescient when ESP-Disk'-- the legendary imprint that got its start, more or less, with Ayler’s stone-cold classic, Spiritual Unity-- decided to release the band’s Sun Worship, recorded in 2010 before the band went on hiatus and moved to different parts of the country. (The ESP-Disk’ affiliation could lower Tiger Hatchery’s punk cred, I suppose, seeing as the label’s fifty years old; however, even if it’s an important part of the older academic jazz generation, ESP-Disk’ is eternally cool and ahead of the curve, so I’ll cut them some slack for not being super young and sprightly.) Anyhow, though being on ESP-Disk'’s roster in itself situates Tiger Hatchery explicitly within Ayler’s legacy, the music on Sun Worship furthers the kinship, hinting often at that of Ayler and his trio. Forbes’s libidinal saxophone blurts and squawks are certainly ancestors of Ayler's (though Forbes’s force might be more Brötzmann); Young’s manic trips up and down the bass’ neck can be traced back to those of Gary Peacock; and Billington’s scattered cymbal hits and drum rolls are indeed Sunny Murray-esque. But despite Tiger Hatchery’s sonic and spiritual indebtedness to the Albert Ayler Trio, they do much more than simply rehash the sounds of the previous avant-garde. Were they to stick to Ayler-worship, they’d be right there with the hordes of contemporaries who are more at home performing at a university than a DIY shithole.
And Sun Worship breaks from that Ayler-ian tradition even more than some previous Tiger Hatchery releases. Whereas on, for instance, 2009’s Lemon Crystal Sunshine, the group kept the sax and bass tones cleaner and insisted on playing some melodies and familiar jazz idioms (as Ayler tended to do), on Sun Worship they abandon those melodic phrases, and-- except for a little on “Sonic Bloom”-- any hint of cleanliness. Yeah, Sun Worship is a profoundly scuzzy album-- grating, even, albeit in a good way. Its scuzziness is doubled by its brimming sexual energy, random and uninhibited, like Ayler. In that regard, they move across the ESP-Disk’ tradition, aligning with Ayler but also, importantly, mischievous psychedelic sleazeballs like The Fugs, who also put out music on ESP.
More distinguishing than the psychedelic influence, though, is the influence from the band’s more immediate surroundings: the Chicago noise and punk underground, the scene that separates Tiger Hatchery’s music from the stuff you’d hear in your college jazz class. The band were stalwarts and residents of Chicago DIY artspace, The Mopery, which existed in the late 2000s. The scene around The Mopery, as well as on Chicago’s near-West side at large, was-- and is-- rough around the edges, defined by restless experimentation with a punk backbone. Tiger Hatchery fit in firmly, often playing shows with noise and punk bands rather than jazz combos. This is painfully, beautifully evident when listening to Sun Worship, the sounds and energies of noise bands like Running or Cacaw or, in a way, psych bands like Moonrises (for which Billington also drums) perhaps even more present than those of the Albert Ayler Trio.
Sun Worship, like, say Running’s Asshole Savant (a personal favorite), is forever on the attack. Where many avant-garde jazz albums use decrescendos or even silence as moments of respite, with the negative spaces allowing for a bit of reflection, the quiet portions on Sun Worship aren’t restful at all. Rather, they’re suspenseful. The near-silent opening moments of “Grand Maul” aren’t calming, or even cosmically transcendent in an Alice Coltrane vein; no, they’re unsettling, portentous in a way. In that first minute of “Grand Maul,” it’s better to clear your mind and let your body dissect the music. By “dissect,” I mean “experience” or “feel.” In her 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag advocates for a similar reception of contemporary art in any medium. She begins, “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual.” She goes on to lambast modern day critics for trying to imbue art with “meaning,” thereby neutering it in a way, taking away from its power. “To interpret,” she says, “is to turn the world into this world.”
Sontag’s point, I think, holds true in the case of Sun Worship; each second you spend intellectualizing it is a second you miss getting hit in the stomach by one of Young’s bass stabs, or slapped in the face when Forbes suddenly deviates from an extended, repetitive sax run. When felt, as opposed explained, Sun Worship feels like something of a ritualistic experience, like you’re communing with the band; therefore, it feels like the kind of record of which Sontag would inherently approve. Those negative spaces, again, are indeed magical and best appreciated when celebrated for their form rather than their content-- or, worse, for their “intentions.”
Despite its quiet moments, Sun Worship is an undeniably loud record, marked best by its absolute sonic chaos. Opening track “Chieftain” is especially unrelenting: gritty and distorted, obliterating form and sounding like something a trio shouldn’t be able to make. Like Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun (which, let’s remember, featured eight players), “Chieftain” moves in every which way, again suggesting that the listener not think about how or why it’s doing what it’s doing but just submit. More than the other two tracks on Sun Worship, “Chieftain” should excite the noise crowd, the punk crowd-- anyone attracted to confrontation.
And that aspect of Tiger Hatchery’s appeal is what allows them to move away, at least a little, from the academic jazz of today. Some jazzbos might gripe that this is telling of that fact that Tiger Hatchery aren’t the absolute best jazz group in the world right now; the group appeals to non-jazz-types precisely because they aren’t as “jazz” as other current combos. But again, that’s what makes them so exciting. This isn’t jazz fusion or jazz-rock or anything like that (if only because calling it so would be to render it quite lame)-- this is jazz that, in appealing to a different audience and in destroying traditions in new ways, demands a different interpretation.
As Sontag concludes her essay, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” “Hermeneutics” is a fancy word whose definition doesn’t really matter-- “erotics,” though, is key. Experimental art-- great art in general, perhaps-- must necessarily involve the body, thereby creating an experiential, even magical, effect. Maybe it’s obscene, too, and confrontational. Jazz was certainly built on a foundation of those adjectives. Jazz was erotic. And then it wasn’t. Then it was, then it wasn’t. On Sun Worship, it most definitely-- defiantly, even, and crudely-- is.
Sun Worship is out today on ESP-Disk'.