Review: Local Author Bob Sweet Chronicles Creative Music Studio
Of the many skilled authors and writers in our area, it’s unlikely many have traveled across the country not only to do research on their subject, but been so personally involved preserving a legacy they firmly believe in.
Robert E. Sweet is a musician who occasionally performs jazz with his trio at the Ann Arbor District Library. He is a drummer, an original member of the Sun Messengers, has worked with fellow drummer R.J. Spangler, and works his day job in the library of U.M.T.R.I. - the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute on North Campus.
Not so much a sidebar as a passion, Sweet has been pivotal archiving the artifacts of the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y. where he attended as a student in the mid-1970s. A school, think tank, and communal living situation in the Catskill Mountains some 90 miles north of New York City, C.M.S. was a proving ground for improvised music, the burgeoning world music movement, dance, poetry, meditation, healthy living and other forms of non-pop expressionism.
Founded by Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and especially Karl Berger and his wife Ingrid, C.M.S. and the supporting Creative Music Foundation also established workshops, intensive sessions, and other educational satellite posts around the world.
Sweet has just published a second volume of the C.M.S. story All Kinds Of Time – The Enduring Spirit Of The Creative Music Studio (Arborville Publishing Inc.), a follow-up to Creative Music, Creative Mind – Revisiting The Creative Music Studio, based on oral history interviews, bringing the entire archives back to Ann Arbor, cataloging the items, preserving audio recordings, and turning them over to where they currently are housed at Columbia University.
More so, the book emphasizes that C.M.S. is still alive, updated and morphed into different forms, including internet courses, continuing live performances and workshops, and, above all, a mindset that there is more to music than reading notes on a page or improvising on random timbres and tones. It is a feeling shared by many thousands of musicians and listeners around the globe, including several individuals living in Ann Arbor such as Bob Sweet.
The book begins with the physical collapse of C.M.S. in 1984, its revival in recent years, and how the scope of the concept has expanded due to technology, not to mention the interest in artists who are still alive, those no longer alive such as the late Coleman, Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Collin Walcott, Nana Vasconcelos, and lesser knowns such as Turkish saxophonist Ismet Siral. Even drummer Levon Helm (The Band,) reggae legends Sly & Robbie, or John Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood) had a role at C.M.S. Larry Chernicoff is a musician who also contributed the cover photo design.
Of course there are those whose vast influence is felt among millions of musicians and listeners. There are big names who conducted workshops like Anthony Braxton and Jack DeJohnette, as well as pioneering trombonist and live electronics music maker George Lewis, There were two week intensives led by Cecil Taylor or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Former students Marilyn Crispell and Tom Cora benefitted greatly as students, and one who was student turned instructor John Zorn. Much of this was covered in the previous book, but refreshed and revisited here.
These individuals founded the idea and ideals of world music, and not necessarily popular music from other countries. Instead, world music is folk music from other countries infused with American jazz, especially improvisation and blues feeling, making for a new music form that is unique unto itself.
What is most evident in reading All Kinds Of Time is the painstaking, infinite possibilities and details of the musical spirit infused in Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso, and their insistence in keeping the history, tradition, and future of this music alive. Sweet knows the intimate ins and outs of how Berger and Sertso have prevailed through musical, financial and health barriers to insist their contribution is very alive and well.
There were an amazing array of artists involved in C.M.S. beyond big names like Coleman and Cherry. Bassists John Lindberg and Bill Laswell (both formerly from Metro-Detroit,) drummer Tani Tabbal from the legendary Detroit ensemble Griot Galaxy, Ann Arbor’s Ed Sarath and former Ann Arborite James Ilgenfritz (student of Lindberg) are all important exponents of C.M.S.
Sweet weaves through post-1984 with the story of how the Studio went dormant, and rose like a Phoenix on sheer willpower. The author went to Woodstock, N.Y., received and preserved recordings, materials and artifacts, catalogued them, made certain of their authenticity, and over a period of three decades, forwarded them to Columbia University where they now are housed.
The recorded musics, through no small amount of wrangling, have made it to the marketplace in the form of two triple CD sets for the Innova and Planet Arts labels respectively (the story about sessions originally being on Douglas Records is a good one), with more possibly on the way.
The first third of the book revisits the precepts of C.M.S. - basic practice, spirituality, discipline, and what creative music actually entails. It is a fascinating read in the discovery of how this music was conceived, realized, and collectively made without being produced like popular music. Yet there is a universal appeal to their sounds. It is in the main thoughtful, very tuneful, and enjoyable, rarely noisy or jarring, but in fact quite refined within the realm of spontaneous and thematic composition.
Sweet moves on to how C.M.S.’s broad minded ideals have always been valid and remain intact. There’s a major chapter on the Turkish connection via saxophonist Ismet Siral. With Turkey a centrally located Middle Eastern country subject to many influences from African, European to Asian, Karl Berger sees Turkish folk music as a basis for many other tangents to spring from.
The enduring and increasing importance of trumpeter, sage and spiritual counselor, pocket trumpeter/keyboardist/poet Don Cherry also has a chapter devoted to his insight. Born in Oklahoma City, living in the mean streets of Watts, L.A., forming a legendary group with Ornette Coleman, either drummer Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden, then emigrating to Sweden, Cherry's original post-bop influenced style changed, his personal sound driven by playing the melodica, and African instruments like various wood flutes, and especially the hunter’s guitar/doussin’gouni.
Then there’s the follow through of Columbia University via George Lewis, organizing and celebrating the recent fortieth anniversary of C.M.S., and providing hope that current students have access to the materials Sweet assured would be preserved. Concluding chapters add a great deal of information on the recruitment of current COO Rob Saffer.
Beyond the physical music and historical documents, Sweet tells a lot about how the Studio reinvented itself away from their Woodstock base, and also returned to upstate New York thanks to Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, their family members, and Saffer.
The book is an easy read, especially for those who are attuned to this music. All others will learn a lot. If critiques be made, the book re-repeats the self-implied importance in keeping the C.M.S. spirit alive. Also there is no index, and the Table of Contents is incorrectly numbered.
Otherwise, it gives notice to the notion that diversity in infinite ways and means is a good, powerful, and effective method for bringing peace to the world by showing us that we have many more similarities than differences. For the Creative Music Studio, there is indeed all kinds of time for their vision to continue and extend itself.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.