Here’s a question for you: why isn’t jazz universally popular, on the level of rock, hip-hop, or pop? What has it been doing wrong all these decades to bar it from producing a household name equal in currency to a Michael Jackson, John Lennon, or Kurt Cobain? I guess there may be a few of you sitting behind your screens right now thinking, “Because it’s meandering wank” or “‘Because it has barely changed an eyelash since The Shape of Jazz to Come.” I’m not going to claim that there isn’t some truth to these common riffs, and neither am I going to argue that jazz deserves to sit at the highest level of the musical pantheon. No, what I’m going to do is in fact list some of the reasons for the comparative marginalization of the genre, all of them embodied by Life in the Sugar Candle Mines, the debut album from NYC’s Black Host. But before any jazzophobe out there starts to flutter in excitement, it should be warned that the following index of “flaws” is just as much a list of virtues, and that even if it consisted purely in deficiencies, this list is already compromised in its impact, since none of these failings are purely musical.
Firstly, Life in the Sugar Candle Mines/jazz abounds in controlled disharmony: this is not “disharmony” in a strictly tonal sense, but rather an independence of each player and instrument. The result is the fractious Babel of marathon opener “Hover” and of sequel “Ayler Children,” where manic piano convulsions jut against the oblivious serenity of Darius Jones’ saxophone and the accelerated popping of Brandon Seabrook’s jagged guitar. This disconnection and mutual disregard of separate musical threads is to a lesser extent featured in almost all of the album’s tracks, and its effect is very often to imply the powerlessness and solipsism of each individual musician and, by extension, of the individual herself, insofar as it seems that none of these players can succeed in attracting the cooperation and communion of their cohorts. Consequently, half the LP is spent amid warring sonic clutter and agitated dissonance, and the self-important men and women on the street are turned off by this, not because it’s a rampant “mess,” but because it furtively chips away at the sense that they speak the same language, that they work towards the same goals, and that they can ever have “control” over each other.
And what moments of harmony and melody there are in Life in the Sugar Candle Mines/jazz are unpredictable in their occurrence: this is another way of saying that its songs don’t adhere to or replicate anything approaching a traditional or dependable structure, with the upshot here being that the almost hummable refrain of the aforementioned “Hover,” as well as the oblique horn sweeps of the stuttering “Test-Sunday,” arise with little in the way of obviousness or forewarning, before frittering away with just as little ceremony. At their most reassuringly calculable, such numbers insert their blustery apexes after passages of concerted quickening and agglomeration, the band’s five members often colliding and condensing to ignite a volatile, skewed crescendo. We see this during “Gromek” (one of the LP’s highlights), where on the incitement of a seasick, delirious dance from Jones’ sax the piece launches into barreling drum-work and a whirling guitar torrent that have more akin with noise or post-rock than anything stereotypically “jazz.” Yet even with these forceful ructions and outbursts, there is nonetheless an engineered illogicality to the album, an inchoate jumble of its bursts, meaning that the “average” listener is deprived of the comforts and reassurances of verse-chorus forms that parallel and reinforce the notion that the world itself and the people who inhabit it are similarly patterned and comprehensible in their behaviors. In other words, neither Black Host nor jazz itself has any time for the myth that people generally know what the fuck is going on.
Allied to this destructuration is the absence in Life in the Sugar Candle Mines/jazz of any fixed hierarchy to the performances and their performers: maybe this more than anything else is the crime that would sour people on the album and on jazz as a whole. Over its nearly 80 minutes, the five conspirators anarchically shift responsibility in leading the band, and as insinuated above, they don’t so often “lead” the quintet as shriek, squall, and bray desperately while the other four wannabe kings do their own thing according to their own laws. For example, during “Amsterdam/Frames” the reeds exhale a kind of noirish lament that in other contexts might’ve furnished the centerpiece around which the other instruments would’ve assembled and moved, but instead its gusts and breezes are ousted by the halting judders of piano and then by the ruptured spasms of over-driven guitar. In the appropriately titled “Wrestling,” a similar transfer of power occurs, although this time it’s the twitches and oscillations of a nervy synthesizer that are eventually supplanted by saxophonic troublemaking and in turn by the incipient stalking of drums and pointed guitar. Because of all these unscheduled reversals in leadership and superiority, we’re deprived of any stable conviction that one single person is definitely in charge, and at its figurative bottom, this is a deprivation that rubs against the wider desire — of the less independent among us — for some “inspirational” political figure, a figure who would guide us to “salvation,” show us how to live, and save us from the tiresome burden of having to think and act for ourselves. It also effectively constitutes another decentering of the self, away from the illusion that he or she could ever reliably gain ascendency over the rest of the world and have it largely or wholly organized in complicity with his or her whims and diktats.
Life in the Sugar Candle Mines/jazz is often pure energy and (e)motion, severed from the stipulation that these depend on appropriate vessels (i.e., melody and harmony) to be generated: there is little in the way of a marketable tune in the album, and save the urbane yet staggered motif of “Hover” and the extended aeriform meditations of closer “May Be Home,” Black Host predominantly jettison any kind of orthodox melodics and focus instead on the caprices of tone and texture, on a mercurial zeal that “irrationally” values immediate gratification over the modest discipline required to repeat a melody for several bars. Even when they slow things down, they adhere militantly to this policy, with a track like “Citizen Rose” featuring washes of doleful sax and torpid guitar reverb that together simply drift towards their own eventual dissipation. It must be admitted that here they become less engaging as an outfit and more diffusely “atmospheric,” yet of course I want to proffer a more tenuous and convoluted reason for why their anti-tunefulness might subconsciously deter an audience. It’s no stretch to say that a tune is often regarded as the “face” or “personality” of a song or piece of music, the component that distinguishes it and provides it with an “identity.” Hence, it often symbolizes and preserves (a certain view of) the self, with the implication here being that, in eschewing melody and shooting directly for mood, Black Host are potentially confronting us with the dispensability of our selves, with how identity is only a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and with how the pretensions of “soul”/personality can and perhaps should be effortlessly discarded if a more economical device for survival is ever uncovered. In the high-strung piano showers and restive saxophone vamps of “Ayler Children” and in the bruised, full-throated wailing that raises “Gromek” to a discordant pitch, the band imply the superfluity of what is often deemed an individual’s essence, and conceivably there are those who don’t find this especially validating.
But these speculations have all gone too far, and the bottom line is that Life in the Sugar Candle Mines is a very good jazz record, and a very good jazz debut. Depending on your standpoint, this makes it either a very good record pure and simple, or a good record that occasionally lapses into the odd passage of wanton excess or inoffensive ambience. And in case there’s still a resistance to its unfettered dynamism, it should be reiterated that it sporadically goes beyond the incestuous parameters of its parent genre into areas more reminiscent of post-punk, noise, and Krautrock. So, even if it allegedly undermines some of the comforting fictions we like to repeat to ourselves, and even if it belongs to a genre that seems to frame itself precisely as a self-conscious rejection of the hallowed fixities and conventions of pop, it does much to keep the floating carcass of jazz alive.