"Songs of Nature and Love" was recorded on a Yamaha grand piano in one of the Wesleyan University Music Department studios, engineered by fellow musician and ethnomusicologist Peter Hadley. Drummer Pheeroan ak-Laff and bassist Joe Fonda were Heffley’s fellow Braxton-bandmates at the time; ak-Laff taught drums on campus, and Fonda, a pillar of the New Haven/New York nexus of the music, lived nearby and played there frequently too. They were the perfect support voices to this venture, Heffley’s first as a pianist-singer in a conventional trio doing conventional material so unconventionally.
a. Newcomer (Don Pullen; lyrics Mike Heffley)
What is so unconventional about it? Its opening notes and phrases seem true to the tradition, and that truth pervades throughout-—heads are stated, lyrics sung, choruses taken--but they also lead quickly into a free float above anything one might construe as “groove,” or “swing,” never to be sucked back down to same. While each tune is rendered faithfully from beginning to end, in order, the pianist ignores metrical regularity; he stretches one bar out into whatever phrase he’s pleased to spontaneously utter, condenses the next two or three into a couple of quick gestures on his whim, and generally reads and recites every song’s form so.
This isn’t to say all pulse is gone; the three seasoned players in fact imply groove and swing as clearly as they avoid overtly growing same. The form is used as a series of doors opening out onto freedom of creative expression, rather than a house with one way in and the same one way out. The piano “shadows” the voice, dialogues with it, parallels it; the voice is no bel canto, but no belly-cant flop either. Originality in conformance...
Heffley’s lyrics paint a picture of revolutionary evolution’s point man, the archetypal primal primate who took his species’ first leap out of the trees and onto the ground to start walking upright. It’s a lyric saluting the figure of what Heffley’s mentor Braxton famously dubbed “the restructuralist,” the one man or woman—-Albert Einstein, Charlie Parker, Hildegard of Bingen, J.S. Bach, Billie Holiday-—who comes along, seizes a paradigm with enough mastery and control to shift and change it.
b. Speak No Evil (Wayne Shorter)
Here the piano speaks alone for the most part, bowing back briefly each time (twice) its player speaks in to exhort it—himself, his hearers—to
“speak (know) Eve ill, scene (o, weave all), due-no evil...”
We thus get a sense of what kind of rhythmic drive emerges from the trio playing free of the influence of its fourth, the singer. The pulse is still that of free declamation (again, Braxton’s “active existential rhythm”), not metered verse...but that freedom, free from the vocal interruptions, snowballs in the hands of the three musicians into a patterned rhythm-quilt made of unmeasured patches—something wilder and also less the float, more the drive, than the songs more sung.
The simple refrain, repeated once, serves as something like a Hippocratic oath for that crazy hominid who just jumped down from the trees and started walking on his own two feet: don’t make your newfound and irrevocable freedom your license to kill.
c. Wildflower (Wayne Shorter)
In a climate of fearless, intrepid repair
and a time out of earshot and rapid despair;
high on its stalk, rooted deep in the ground by a rock,
still as emotion willing shock;
fast by the willow stream bed at last in a rest,
slowly it opens its petals bright as the best:
wild flower bloom, let me breathe your perfume;
let us breathe...
Wildflower blossom redder than blood on the moon.
Cut to said primate's offspring, a generation or more later. The daughter walks alone out into the woods; the music is soft, meandering, peaceful...uneventfully pretty. It could go on this way forever, and heaven would be it. Yet suddenly there is more: a brilliant flower, its color exploding out of the blue-green-brown earth-water-skytones like their one drop of blood, pinprick-bright. Meeting it transforms her into the healer-shaman she never knew she was, never would have known, meeting the plant that would cure all ills she never knew were ills. It turns her into the drug addict she never knew she could be...and it dares her not to be. It is a ballad played not slowly but gingerly, not quickly but with intense swells. Fonda bows it through and out the best (he generally gives all the songs their best endings)...
d. Up with the Lark (Jerome Kern)
Out in the meadow, transfixed by the songbirds, I find myself
crying “up with the lark!” My little buddy, so perky and plucky,
Chirpin’ and dancin’ although the day is dark.
His eyes are so wide, feathers so bright, the songbirds are dumbstruck.
Keep up with the lark, he hits the silent mark.
Why doesn’t he try to sing a thing?
Is he shy? Why doesn’t he stay up with me?
Out of the meadow, back down to the valley, I hear all the songbirds
bid me farewell;
while right up above me, in single formation
the lark took flight in a loopy, silent arc.
From botany to ornithology, the tree-leaving, do-gooder, shamanistic healer lineage makes its way through time and gender to look up from its intensive earth studies to check out the sky. It meets there its match, not in every bird, but in One more than all Others. Thus is born (silently, still-small-vocally) Father God from Mother Earth. This song has the same tone and feel of heartbreaking yearning and love unrequited as its millennium-earlier ancestral counterpart (recall the final song from the last paired CDs, about the lark exultant...)
e. Fall (Wayne Shorter)
Follow high, calling alliances down,
round the square, sharing the pie through the town.
Winter, spring, summer, and finally Fall
down, all done!
The simple message in these lyrics is that justice is always in season, on earth and above it. Crashing weather gets to happen here without measure...in BLOCK CHORDS dropped like BOMBS from the LEFT HAND, ON POINT. We begin to get a sense of this piano style as more organic, bodily, bottom-up, than rationally planned and imposed from BrainSky to EarthBound.
f. Black Narcissus (Joe Henderson)
Black narcissus might as well be a white one;
snow-white kisses might as well be as dark as night.
Would they miss us if we made a better target,
or dismiss us if we ran away to fight again to win
nothing, when the battle lines are drawn so black and white.
One thing this is is a thing unlike all others;
any bliss is canny like a mother’s daughter’s son.
Listen to me, I’m telling you now, listen.
Another flower. The words are multivalent, multilayered...the music too...their three verses and players bring out the CLIMB-AXE in the trio (especially via ak-Laff, here). A Cecil Taylor energy and sensibility insinuates itself narratively, tonally, and percussively; the whole piece alternates between swing, float, and DOWN BEAT. Abbey Lincoln slips into the singer’s voice somewhere; the first verse is best, clearest in every way; the other two seem to sense that fact and rise to and above the occasion of the lack they self-perceive, to let the music sustain and surpass what they can’t maintain or reclaim in words. Yeah!
g. All the Things You Are (solo)
This solo rendition of the challenging jazz standard sounds as a precursor to the solo style developed in later CDs (Lazy Ampliano 1,2, & 3 and Double Bill Heavens) around American songbook and Bill Evans repertory sung and played alone. It’s a real burst of easy and idiosyncratic virtuosity...
h. All the Things You Are (trio; Jerome Kern; lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein)
...which segues back into, contrasts and compares interestingly with, the trio version here. All three players know this tune like the backs of each others’ hands, and are accordingly batting and slapping it back and forth in ways unknown to anyone, themselves included, prior to their performance here. Interestingly, it’s the one American songbook tune amidst this later-jazz playlist—the most conventional form and harmonies—and is arguably the wildest improvisation.
The coupling of two different versions of the same song is mirrored on CD2, as we’ll see, as well as on several other CDs we will get to here. It is the aesthetic decision of an artist of improvisation, reminding the audience of that art’s flexibility and range. Nothing new—painters, musicians, actors sketch and play themes and roles repeatedly over the years of careers; odd, then, that more single collections of works (a CD, here) have not traditionally included more than one take of a piece.
a. Very Early (Bill Evans; lyrics Carol Hall)
Bowed bass in, brushed snare...very rubato float recitativalish. The whole opening savors the gorgeous chord changes, especially at their points of toniest transition. The vocal is so relaxed and deliberate—a perfect example of stopping time so as better to sculpt it.
b. Voyage (Kenny Barron)
An instrumental that muscles the brand new Yamaha grand. Heffley lurches around like a Frankenstein who has moments of grace and flow in his staggers, letting the other two speak out sporadically, freely jamming in the end (it’s a voyage from nature and peace to love...)
c. No Moon at All (Reed Evans & Dave Mann)
...the love of a solo piano for sly, bluesy opening, groovy feel of stealthy cool as cobbled together from the monster’s lurchy-crashing choice of notes and rhythms in the no-time tempo, which the bass and drums just clunked along and killed off well.
d. I'm All Smiles (Michael Leonard, lyrics Herbert Martin)
Killed off...what? Nature, it seems. First we have an early rain, then no moon...then, when nature gives way to love, in this song, no rain either...as “rainbows keep filling the sky.” What nature dried out, love drove in. It’s reflected in the piano music; while it’s still more rhythmically and tonally jagged than his later Bill Evans CDs, it begins to shimmer with the drama of narrative in melody and chord progression with which Bill Evans seduced Heffley away from so many other things musical in his later years.
e. Waltz for Debby (Bill Evans; lyrics Gene Lees)
This is a tune Heffley the trombonist had played regularly throughout his pre-Braxton decades; what intimacy he’d worked out with it on his horn he now sought to expand, to embrace its whole harmonic matrix and flow in his two hands and ten fingers. It served for him, a single father of an only child, as it had for its composer, lyricist, and untold numbers of others: the bittersweet lament of the emptied nest. Time sowed nature into love, love into pregnancy and birth, birth into a brand new life and longer, bigger love. Here was a music rich and deep enough to give it all voice.
Yet, as we’ll see when we reach ahead still another decade, to its incarnations on the solo CDs of Bill’s corpus, it is halfway between the fey, wistful renditions of the young local-club gigger of the 1980s and the rock-solid resignation and surrender to its final drops of the reclusive post-Millennial pianist-monk of our current moments.
Here, the bittersweet and the rock-solid are both still lava cooling; he was still mostly playing trombone, and that in the wildest ranges of Braxton’s music, in groupings large and small, often with the other two players here. The open-ended jaggedness of that universe was touching base with the younger jazz world all three came up in, as if they each meant to show the continuum between the two their own lives embodied. The most refined, even effete sensibilities were thrown like a die with its counterpart in the most adventurous, experimental ploys.
At one point, in the final bridge out, it swings so hard into a quintessential jazz groove and climax that it feels like it’s channeling a big band, only to back off the energy the moment before it might become possessive, compulsive-obsessive, into the slow, the sweet, and finally, to end...the abstract.
f. Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers (Steve Kuhn)
This song and lyric might have been the B side on an old 78 or 45 vinyl version of “Waltz for Debby.” The piano soars into greater, if airier heights, and the lament of the emptied nest is imbued with the suggestion of some even greater sorrow, matched by some redemptive joy beyond it as outrageous as the wound was egregious (think of God’s idea of reparations for Job).
g. Crystal Silence [solo] (Chick Corea)
The whole world just woke up the moment my love returned.
I knew by the crystal silence the fire would nevermore burn.
The moment is always, it goes with me everywhere;
the music in crystal silence continues bright and fair,
and I’d love to take you where all the rushing glory and hushing story is told.
The things laid out for us to do are true beyond our wildest dreams.
The hope of the future draws closer to fact with each breath,
and I trust that my crystal silence will be undisturbed by my death.
Then, the perfect closer. The singer and player turns what soul and skill he has in this new milieu at that point in the stoic retrospect of one who’s sung all that could be sung about love of life, life in love, love’s labors lost in birth, and love alone beyond all loved ones gone: “It was beautiful, I remember it, I did it...now it’s gone, ahead only death”...and so he waits, at peace.
h. Crystal Silence [trio] (Chick Corea)
Er...(ahem)... and so he waits, at peace.
(Man, when is this crystal silence ever going to end?)
Okay, guys, enough of this solo swan song—why don’t you jump back in with me on this and tear it up a bit while we’re waiting so patiently? (Thus ends its goodness well...)