Jazz Sunday: Gruntfest and Gilman-Opalsky: Improvisations for the End of Time

John Gruntfest’s and Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s Improvisations for the End of Time sounds like an overdramatic album title, but if you have the substance to support the drama, there’s nothing pretentious about it. Instead, as in the case of this album, you might get a strong, powerful statement that needs to be heard. I believe Improvisations for the End of Time is just such an album. Yes, it is powerful and expressive like a lot of music in its milieu, but when you listen deeply, you will hear a disarmingly profound collection of improvisations that really lives up to the declarations of this title.

What does that mean? First of all, John Gruntfest is the best alto saxophonist you've never heard of. You don’t believe me? Well, Gruntfest is a musician with an incredible work biography that goes back to the 1970s. His first two albums, Live at Panagea 1 & 2, were voted “Album of the Year” in 1977 by Cadence magazine, a small Oregon publication that mainly covered improvised music. He led various free jazz ensembles (perhaps most notably the Raven Free Orchestra for decades), played on the Berlin Wall when it was demolished, and was a member of the live ensembles Tuxedomoon and Snakefinger. As a musician, organizer and activist on the San Francisco scene, he was responsible for many artistic events imbued with the uncompromising radical thinking that ran through the avant-garde of its place and time. Attached to old-school revolutionary ideas, Gruntfest combines the influences of thinkers and creators from around the world, from Charles Ives to John Coltrane, from Buddha to Marx, from Emma Goldman to Guy Debord, from Walt Whitman to Artois. Like many good old-school radicals, Gruntfest has a history in poetry and political theater, and a few years ago combined poetry, music, painting and revolutionary politics in the Future Che project, which—especially by American standards—went very far towards the celebration of the communism embodied in the figure of Che Guevara.

That Gruntfest has been an activist-minded artist for decades can be seen in the cover of this new album, which contains a photo of his manifesto composed on an old typewriter machine in 1982. His “Message to America” feels like something you might read on Reddit today, written by a frustrated young internet activist determined to shout every worthy protest in the face of power… Imagine a rant about how the US contributes to ecological disaster, condemned the southern hemisphere to death, how the system’s “hypocrisy” passes for “truth,” how its culture “suppresses tenderness and sexuality in the name of morality,” and how the government commits atrocities in the name of its “isms,” etc. Reading this message forty years later, it feels like a modern manifesto, and serves as a sad reminder that radicals have had to talk about the same checklist of problems for all that time. Most of these problems have not even begun to get solved.

Gruntfest is also a very good saxophonist. It should be repeated that the dramatic title of this album, paired with the manifesto on its front cover, are fully backed up by the music itself, which is agile, economical, full of life, big ideas, and dynamic interactions between two great musicians. All of the music is packed into short, combustive pieces of punk-like conciseness that fly in the face of highbrow contemplation about the avant-garde or any pretentious fetishization of the experimental.

Gruntfest’s teammates on this album are drummer Richard Gilman-Opalsky and tenor saxophonist (also a painter and dancer) Megan Bierman, the latter of whom is a guest player on several songs.

Let us deal first with Gilman-Opalsky, who is himself a kind of Renaissance figure. When you look at his profile on All About Jazz you find an impressive biography of a free jazz drummer who started playing at the age of eight or nine on cheap drums branded with “The Animal” from The Muppet Show, as he started out on a toy kit his parents bought him. As a kid, he took lessons from a local jazz drummer who taught him how to read music and made him play primarily on practice pads instead of on a full drum set in order to develop feeling with the sticks. Gilman-Opalsky played for years in various jazz and improv ensembles in New York City and is now a resident of downstate Illinois where he teaches political philosophy at the University of Illinois. Gilman-Opalsky is also a committed Marxist theorist and author who has written six books with titles such as The Communism of Love, Riotous Epistemology, and Spectacular Capitalism. I mean, when you look at this guy’s academic credentials, you wonder when the man finds time to play the drums. However, when you hear Improvisations for the End of Time, you wonder how the hell Gilman-Opalsky finds time to write so many books when he plays the drums so well.

The duo’s mutual interests in radical politics and artistic and activist movements is a natural link between the two musicians, but that alone would not guarantee they could play good music. But they do. Improvisations for the End of Time is an album full of excellent improvisations in which two jazz musicians play easily, quickly, wittily, energetically, and with a lot of soul too. The radical ideas they are prone to present in the packaging are presented throughout the music too, sometimes with humor, almost on the verge of parody, full of diversity and joy. For example, take the song that opens the album, “Fascists Get Better as Corpses.” If a song with this title and energy were performed by a young, angry hardcore-punk band, it would be an abrasive outburst of noise and rage. Gruntfest and Gilman-Opalsky, on the other hand, fire off a seventy-seven-second-long anarchic yet melodic, dynamic improvisation that titles its message with humor and a credible fidelity to the spirit of anti-fascist struggles. The next piece, “Cosmic Curveball 1,” is a melodic, upbeat track that conveys great facility in a traditional jazz sound, before taking off so we don’t forget that these guys really want to improvise!

There are many beautiful, tender tracks on the album, and this should not be overlooked. Gruntfest is a brilliant player with a lot of imagination, and he is able to create moments of almost-innocent and elemental beauty alongside moments of technical complexity. “Abstractions Without Lyrics” is a piece like that, for example, as are the other versions of “Cosmic Curveball.”

The standout feature of this album is probably the fact that the improvisations are extremely short. This comes across as a programmatic idea, as if the shortness is itself a statement about the music and the reasons for its creation. The musicians express a range of feelings in these very compact, almost sketch-like pieces where there is just enough room for a single theme and its elaboration, for one idea and some of its variations. This contrasts with most other albums of jazz improvisation where the compositions are longer, or where the songs take the time to return from sprawling improvisation to pre-written parts of a composition. Improvisations for the End of Time is very different in the way it imposes a creative limitation, requiring the musicians to be efficient and focused and to never stop. Listening to this album, I was reminded that I once heard that sharks will suffocate if they stop swimming, and so they must always move forward. On this album, the songs end as soon as it becomes clear that the next tone or the next beat of the drum might repeat something that had already been played. To avoid fatal stagnation, the duet moves quickly on to the next.

In addition to the already-mentioned lyricism, Gruntfest has a more abrasive side, and although this album could not be characterized as one of high volume and extreme blowing, there is lots of controlled overblowing and honking, and things do get wild and noisy. Some pieces are percussive, where rhythmic tones come through the saxophone in a textural way. Gruntfest is imaginative throughout, and despite their brevity, the songs do not make for a patchwork of unrelated motives and experiments. Even the composition titled “Failed Experiment 1” is a 57-second excellently guided narrative that says everything it has to say in less than a minute, before getting out of the way for the next track. “Riff in Search of a Drum Solo” is a great demonstration of Gruntfest's thematic sensibility, lots of melody passionately performed with energy. Elsewhere, the simple proclamations of titles like “All Things are a Manifestation of Mind” (or the obsessive repetition of a sentence about the addictive nature of technology) convey statements that might appear naïve without the music that inspired this listener to actually contemplate their message.

The most important element of this album is how the saxophonist and drummer understand each other perfectly and fully sync up in the collaboration, playing off of one another in such a way that each of these short sketches is full of tension, feeling, and dynamics. These two men seem to have been playing together for a long time, which can be heard in the way they complement each other in phrasing and volume, and in the way that the drummer plays something very different from the saxophonist which nonetheless forms a logical, artistically gratifying whole that seems to demonstrate an almost telepathic communication. These are musicians for whom improvisation is not only a way to enrich music, but the de facto starting point of a total performance. This would be impressive enough as it is, but then there is the shocking revelation that the album was recorded separately! The saxophones were recorded first in California and then the files were sent to Illinois where Gilman-Opalsky recorded the drums, before the duet was mixed into one. This isn’t the first “delayed” improvisation that I’ve heard (Derek Bailey and Han Bennink did it a few decades ago), but it’s hugely impressive.

Gilman-Opalsky shines throughout the album, with a sound that is clear and loud and marked with lots of subtlety. For example, he is able to generate feedback from very light strokes and scrapes that emanate from the cymbals and drum heads and give the music an electroacoustic dimension. For fans of virtuoso music, there is also a solo drum piece, “For the Beautiful Maestro Milford Graves.” In less than three minutes, Gilman-Opalsky demonstrates his mastery in splendid form, and reveals an approach to improvisation that makes for a successful homage to his great predecessor, Milford Graves.

When Bierman joins for the trio, it is a different kind of perfection. Bierman is a tenor saxophonist with a history of collaborations with Gruntfest. Together, they sound fresh and playful. The two horns offer a nice harmonic interplay, which ignited my desire to listen to them play together in longer form compositions where there would be more space and time for tonal, textural, and harmonic exploration.

Gruntfest does not appear to be stuck in his own past, and plays as if striving to surpass anything he’s done before. He is a musician who is always looking ahead and looking for new ways to materialize the music inside him. This is, of course, also resonant with radical political thinking, to always look to some future horizon. In Gruntfest’s case, we find a man who merges Marxism with Buddhism, poetry with improvisation, and very importantly, uncompromising communist ideas with a sense of humor that is persistent in his art. This is art that compels us to reflect on how to be good human beings and live decent lives. Improvisations for the End of Time comes across as a raw, real, and essential lesson for life.

About Jazz Sunday
Jazz Sunday is a series of vignettes published every Sunday offering an extensive review of a jazz album. Sometimes, I’ll be discussing old, well known classics, other times I will focus on the latest release I’ve discovered. There won’t be any rules. As it should be. As it must be.

Release Information: https://gruntfestandgilman-opalsky.bandcamp.com/album/improvisations-for...

Translated into English:

Original Review here (In Serbian): https://cvecezla.wordpress.com/2021/07/11/jazz-nedeljom-gruntfest-and-gi...