Positive Knowledge, Henry Grimes & the River

Henry Grimes

At last week's free-jazz Vision Fest in Brooklyn, I had the pleasure of hearing the group Positive Knowledge, featuring Oluyemi Thomas on reeds, his wife Ijeomi Thomas, words and voice, Michael Wimberly, drums, and Henry Grimes on bass. Listening, I understand more than ever before that avant-garde jazz -- that is, forward looking jazz, one which creates new precedents -- is not just about what lies ahead. I have long known that the tag line for the Art Ensemble of Chicago is "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future." But last week this concept of bringing the past into the present and beyond became less abstract or intellectual for me; it became visceral and even literal.

At one point, as Oluyemi Thomas was holding forth on bass clarinet I perceived that his squalling lines, noisy as they were, were creating a sort of meditational, vibrational field in which the spirits of our ancestors were able to join us -- really, not metaphorically -- in celebration of turbulent, generative humanity. Thomas's lines and the whole group sound functioned as a fierce incantation that placed us in a dream outside of time; or maybe into a place where time and space had been collapsed: Jazz improvisation as twenty-first century aesthetic shamanism.

Then, during a bass solo by Henry Grimes, I noticed that I wasn't hearing notes anymore, but sounds and voices. At a certain point I just didn't know where the sounds were coming from. It didn't seem possible that they all emanated from his instrument, a green-colored acoustic upright bass. And then I recalled Hesse's Siddhartha, in which Siddhartha is enlightened spending time with the ferryman Vasudeva by the river.

"Isn't it so, oh friend, the river has many voices, very many voices? Hasn't it the voice of a king, and of a warrior, and of a bull, and of a bird of the night, and of a woman giving birth, and of a sighing man, and a thousand other voices more?"

"So it is," Vasudeva nodded, "all voices of the creatures are in its voice."

And I thought of Langston Hughes, "The Negroe Speaks of Rivers":

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

And I was grateful to have spent time in the river of life, love, and furious creativity conjured that night by the group Positive Knowledge.


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