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The State Of Moksha

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Dusted's Marc Medwin interprets Paul Dunmall's latest big band project I Wish You Peace, with a little help from the maestro himself.

The State Of Moksha

“Moksha is neither a mass of consciousness nor self consciousness. It is the very life and order of the universe, ever-present, unchanging. It transcends even the sense of immortality. … It is a supreme force, knowledge and bliss, without motion or mind.” – Swami Sivananda (as read by Paul Dunmall on The State of Moksha, Duns Limited Edition 022)

The voice on the other end of the phone line was laconic, sometimes even slightly reticent. There were frequent pauses, mildly exasperated exhalations, and the words often came in brief staccato bursts. British saxophonist Paul Dunmall entertained each of my questions with obvious care and insight, but my impression is that for him, words have long ceased to be sufficient, especially when they concern him and his music. It is not that he’s unwilling to speak or disinterested in expressing his opinions. He is only hesitant to categorize, to theorize, seemingly not wanting to demean the inexpressible with excess verbiage.

“Listen, you name it, I’ve been compared to it. I say OK, fine, if that’s how you hear it. It’s only in the last few years that people have recognized that I’m my own voice. … If you keep at it long enough, they can’t keep saying that you’re sounding like someone else.”

Moksha is at the heart of Dunmall’s musical and spiritual aesthetic, succinctly defined by him as “a Hindu concept meaning supreme liberation of the soul.” Similar to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, it can be glimpsed from moment to moment and almost captured only to become instantaneously elusive again, each manifestation becoming clearer over a lifetime of awakening. It seemed unlikely that, when Dunmall took up classical clarinet at age 12 on a whim, Moksha would lead him to collaborate with the likes of Alice Coltrane, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Keith Tippett among many others.

For Dunmall’s 50th birthday in 2003, the BBC gave him an opportunity to compose and record music for a 14-piece big band, featuring many of the top British improvisers, which he named the Moksha Big Band. The word “big” has a special resonance for Dunmall. In one of the few comments he made on his own playing, he referred to slowing down the mind and “stopping it from working, then finding the deeper thing that’s bigger than the mind.” Long hours of practice and many years of meditation – sometimes in combination – have allowed him to cultivate a non-linear approach to playing and composing.

Such sentiments and pursuits also go a long way toward explaining how Dunmall deploys larger forces. Anyone looking for a conventional “arranged” big band disc, where winds brass and rhythm section are pitted against each other in Bassie fashion, will be sorely disappointed. Dunmall’s devotion to the music of John Coltrane is well documented, and Peace certainly owes a debt to Ascension and to the huge sonic wash that typifies the 1966 Trane quintet’s Live in Japan; however, Dunmall’s big band work is closest in spirit to Keith Tippett’s criminally underrated Septober Energy, the sole release from his early ’70s 50-piece ensemble Centipede. That Fripp-produced four-part composition blurs the boundaries between jazz, rock and “non-idiomatic” free improvisation, perspective shifting cinematically, sometimes almost imperceptibly, from delicate small group interaction to passages of composed music for larger and more dynamically intense instrumental combinations. Similarly, I Wish you Peace seeks to liberate the individual voice in a constantly shifting group dynamic. The egalitarian nature of the project forced Dunmall into a half-hearted apology for what might be perceived as a blatant harkening back to traditional jazz hierarchy.

“I said to my big band ‘Look guys, it’s my 50th birthday, I’m going to be playing a lot, sorry. (Laughs) I’ll play on your 50th birthday record and I’ll play the parts for you.’”

Even though Dunmall solos more prominently on this session than do his compatriots, a sense of musical camaraderie pervades the proceedings from the start. This is a birthday celebration amidst many old friends and newly discovered kindred spirits. The three-part composition itself also reflects these past associations. Dunmall opens the performance with a tambura drone similar to that found on his piece “The State of Moksha,” released on his own CD-R label. Immediately eschewing the rhetorically “Indian” gestalt, Philip Gibbs’ autoharp provides a more middle Eastern flavor, giving the work’s title an urgently political relevance. The other musicians enter softly at first, Paul Rogers’ glissing bass and Keith Tippett’s trademark prepared piano lending a translucent backdrop to Dunmall’s opening tenor gestures. In fact, after these opening moments of serenity, peace is difficult to hear in this music. It swells slowly, chatters and breathes with huge vibrant moans, all dialogically underpinning Dunmall’s increasingly frenetic improvisations.

While such comparisons are a bane to him, Dunmall’s playing might best be described as containing the fluidity of 1960’s Sam Rivers and the terse self-replicating motivic germs of late period Coltrane. There are no sheets of sound here in the Giant Steps tradition and, as in Beethoven’s last works, Dunmall favors a language of gestured phrasing rather than giving the listener direct glimpses into the craftsman’s workshop. His tones float effortlessly above the polyphonic fray, but as intensity builds, he begins to emit short squawks amidst the blues licks, bebop runs and melodic fragments that comprise his improvisational arsenal. Eerily composed unison passages, expertly conducted by Brian Irvine, complicate matters for those seeking a stereotypically “free jazz” experience.

The introductory section’s eclecticism and slow build serves as a blueprint for the other two movements. “Part II”’s first half invokes the sound of Mujician – a quartet featuring Dunmall, Tippett, bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Tony Levin – while the second half brings to mind sessions for Duns with Mark Sanders and John Adams. All manner of musical procedures – Latin, traditional swing, world music--are referenced only to dissolve into the miasma again. after another inexorable climb toward frenzy, the work concludes with an apocalyptic blast of sound, all forces blowing frantically, and the effect is harrowing, majestic and symphonic. As is often the case in Dunmall’s smaller group discs for Cuneiform, Paul Rogers provides stunning bowed bass work, and it is refreshing to hear Paul Rutherford, Chris Bridges and Hillary Jeffery engage in the pointillistically modern but historically rhetorical trombone interplay that opens the second movement. Even Dunmall’s April 2004 BBC concert, where he improvised as Irvine conducted a full orchestra, does not eclipse Peace’s textural and chromatic innovations.

It seemed logical that such a mixture of freedom and rigor demanded a lot of rehearsal time. Here, I got another laugh from Dunmall. “We didn’t have any rehearsal time. We set up in the studio, we quickly ran through a few bits and pieces and we did it.” Such adept musicianship and sympathetic collaboration explains the success of the venture. It is a summation of Dunmall’s career, a stirring celebration of longevity, maturing vision and execution; it is a brilliant landmark on the road to musical liberation.

By Marc Medwin

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