WOBC vault picks with Levi Dayan, host of Everything is Improvisation

by Teagan Hughes

Staff Writer


Free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor

[originally published May 9, 2022]

 

The couch on the south wall of the WOBC lobby—the plaid one of indeterminate age—is the perfect surface upon which to display your records of choice. On this particular Tuesday afternoon, the green-and-yellow pattern is obscured by a slew of vinyl records and CDs, many of them housed in sleeves with softening edges and battered spines. These records are the “vault picks” of Levi Dayan, longtime host of WOBC’s Everything is Improvisation.


Everything is Improvisation, which currently runs from 3-4 p.m. on Friday afternoons, “highlight[s] the ways in which improvisation keeps ancient musical traditions alive.” Dayan’s selections from the WOBC vault span a number of styles and compositional forms, with Dayan characterizing them as free jazz, avant-garde, and contemporary classical, among other descriptors. “Really, a lot of what I’m into now, I actually have only started really getting into during the pandemic,” they say. “It’s not that I was ever against it, it was just that I hadn’t listened to it yet. I had been moving through other stuff…maybe it was the thing of just having so much time on my hands that all I could do was just, like, kinda spend time with this music, and I think being able to spend time with it and just listen to it and sit with it for a bit, it helps.”


Below are excerpts from my interview with Dayan, along with a full list of their WOBC vault picks.

 

Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come - Live At The Cafe Montmartre by Cecil Taylor (1962)


LD: This is a guy named Cecil Taylor, and he’s, like, one of the foundational figures of free jazz. He’s like a pianist, and his style of piano-playing is—he’s been described as kind of a percussionist with the piano; it's like very loud clunking sounds all over the place…His music was always like—even when I started first getting into free jazz, I think his music was slightly intimidating to me ‘cause it’s, like, it has a reputation for being really out there…there was a certain point when I’d listen to it and I just heard it as like…I think I just was listening and hearing this kind of unbridled creativity in it…There was a point where that clicked, and it was kind of a thing of realizing, like, you can kinda hear whatever you want in music…I think to some people, the kind of experimental avant garde type stuff, especially in jazz, there are some people who will think of it as being academic or inaccessible, or just really difficult to listen to, and I honestly don’t really think that’s true. I think you can see it that way if you choose to but you can also see it as something…you could listen to it and be like, oh shit, this dude’s just fuckin’, I don’t know, going for it. Yeah, Cecil Taylor’s an extremely fascinating figure, maybe one of my favorite musicians of all time, honestly. This particular album, which is a live album called Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come - Live At The Café Montmartre—or however the fuck that’s pronounced—this one in particular is brilliant…he was one of the first making this kind of [music], and he was making it in the ‘50s, which is insane to me. He passed away only a few years ago; he had an extremely long career. The stuff he was making in the ‘50s, I think still sounds super cutting-edge today.

 

For Alto by Anthony Braxton (1971)


LD: This guy Anthony Braxton…this is probably his most famous album by a longshot. It's called For Alto, and…I think it's, like, the first solo saxophone jazz album. So there's no accompaniment, it's just him playing saxophone…He was associated with this collective called the AACM, which is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. It was this collective based in Chicago, [and it] had offshoots in other parts of the Midwest, like, I think Kansas, I think St. Louis, but it was mostly based in Chicago, and…this music that's collected there was pushing for this really kind of different outlook on, I guess, composition and it was just taking in all these different influences. There's an element of kind of avant garde, like, contemporary classical music and stuff to it. Like, Anthony Braxton is super influenced by that. This album was his, I mentioned, it's his most well known…he has other albums that are also just solo saxophone stuff. But it's not really that representative because…he has these compositions where it's really hard to tell, like, what's improvised and what's not…I think it sounds like multiple jazz groups performing at once. And it's very dense…I find it really exciting and, like, I actually have fun listening to it a lot. But he’s very much influenced by classical, but there's also all these other influences, like, he's talked about being influenced by, like…James Brown, and he's a huge fan of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. And like, what else…Captain Beefheart? Like, just all sorts of stuff. I've read a lot of interviews with him—he's an extremely interesting guy…I think he's still composing, still making music and stuff. He's a person who just had this insanely long career…he's one of those artists where you can't point to any one period of his career, at least in my view, and be like, ‘that's like the definitive part.’ Because there's all these different phases and different sort of lineups he's worked with.

 

A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley (1969)


LD: This is Terry Riley…this is, like, early electronic music. Terry Riley was someone who was part of the very early minimalist school of composers. This is definitely way before Philip Glass and definitely before, like, Steve Reich. But he kind of pioneered using electric—like it says, like this is electric organ…yeah, electric organ and tape loops and stuff. And it's really interesting because it's like—you have this one piece called In C that's really famous. It's like…you have this whole ensemble…it's just very repetitive and it's all in the key of C, or something like that. But it's this hugely important piece. And it's like, you see this very big deal, kind of composure in that scene. But at the same time, like in actuality, he was just a guy who…enjoyed just, like, tripping on acid and making pretty synth music and stuff. But yeah, hugely influential, one of my favorite composers, also seems like he's still alive today. And he seems like this incredibly pleasant old man. And there's an influence—I mean, something I'm attracted to is that it's music that's very influenced by John Coltrane, and also, like, Indian music and all sorts of stuff. And I'm interested in that kind of repetitive music that works within this sort of set mode or a set constraint, but also just goes as far out with it as it can. And it also has a spiritual element to it.

 

Vertigo by The Necks (2015)


LD: This is a band called The Necks. They're a trio from Australia…they've been making music for, I guess, like, 30—more than 30 years now. Their albums are extremely diverse and cover a lot of ground but it's like, they're like a trio, the piano, bass, and drums. Their studio albums have a lot of different stuff on it, but their live performances—they're one of the bands I want to see live the most—their live performances are just piano and bass and drums. And it's another thing of, like, this music that has like some level of—it's like they're working within some level of constraint, because it's very much kind of within that minimalist tradition. A lot of their albums, like, this one in particular is only one song, it's 44 minutes, and it's like, very slow, pretty repetitive, and, like, just slowly changes over the time, but it's also, like, there's an element of jazz influence too, because again, it's a trio of piano, bass and drums…this music that like exists, it's like very much, like, its own thing. And, like, I like to listen to it when I study. This is actually—this is kind of like, The Necks are just kind of my go to like, ‘I need to just crank something out.’ I listen to it because it's all—it's slow and pretty repetitive, but it's also…propulsive…

TH: And you said, that's—it's one song, the whole thing?

LD: Yeah, one 44-minute song…some of their albums will be, like, four relatively long songs. But…a lot of their albums are just one song. And oftentimes, that one song, like, doesn't really change, or changes very minimally. And this album came out in 2015, and this one in particular is like one of my favorites…I feel like it's one of their darker albums. It's very, like, it has this very menacing kind of drone sound in the background. And then with like this kind of rattling piano and then, at certain points, the drums will just come in. It'll sound just like creaking. I don't know, it's really fucking cool.

TH: How is it—and this might be my own ignorance—how is it a song and also an album at the same time? If there's only one track on it?

LD: Because that one track is long enough to be an album…it doesn't really matter, there are some people who will listen to albums all the way through all the time and, like, might not distinguish between certain songs, but their stuff is like, it's one continuous song. There's no point where it stops. It's just like, it starts, it goes on for 44 minutes, and then it's done. You would think it would require an attention span, but it's also…it has that propulsive feeling to it. Even some of their really ambient-type stuff is like…it keeps you. I mean, it's very hypnotic and I'm very much attracted to that kind of music that's just very either minimal or very just like, anything that can be described as being hypnotic, or…having some sort of trance-inducing quality. I'm always attracted to that.

 

La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura by Luigi Nono (2003)


LD: This is contemporary classical music. It's this guy, Luigi Nono…I picked it out because I've been listening to this kind of contemporary music pretty obsessively the past few weeks or so. So this is, like, what's been on my mind. I don't know if I've actually listened to this specific recording, but…I have a funny story with this composer, he's an Italian composer who—again, this kind of music is like a little bit new to me. So it's like, I can't fully—I probably can't adequately describe all the ways that he's like, important or whatever. But…he was a composer. He was a left-wing, communist-type person. And his music is very political…My story is that…I listened to some pretty weird shit when I was like, maybe 13 or 14. I was really into the band Can and stuff like that. So I had a pretty out-there taste for someone who was in middle school, or early high, I can't really say for sure what time, but…I was in LA with my family, and I was at Amoeba [Records]. And my dad's friend was there and he bought me a vinyl record by Luigi Nono and was like…"This is brilliant. You need to listen to this." And I never…I was listening to some out-there stuff, but I was—there's no way I was—I wouldn't have known what to do with this, like, Italian avant-garde classical music. And I never listened to it until very, you know—fast forward, years later, I still have that record, but I started actually getting into the music just on my own.

 

The Hired Hand (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Bruce Langhorne (1971)


LD: This album is really fucking cool. And I didn't realize—I was sort of surprised to find it on CD here because I don't know if I've ever actually seen a copy of it out in the open. But this is a soundtrack to a movie that was directed by Peter Fonda. He's the guy in, I don't know, Easy Rider and stuff like that. I think brother of Jane Fonda, or at least in that family…The movie itself is, like, this really visual, kind of acid Western-type movie that—I watched it a while ago, and I actually really enjoyed it. But this album, it's only 23 minutes. And it's by this guy named Bruce Langhorne who was this Black session—folk-y-slash-session-musician who was…very much a part of the Greenwich Village scene. His big claim to fame is that the song "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan is inspired by him, because he apparently had some really big tambourine…It's one of the most beautiful albums out there. It's really meticulously arranged and composed…Again, it's one of those albums. It's just, like, there's nothing that really sounds like it. It's just kind of like a world of its own. I don't know. Yeah, it's very near and dear to me.

 

Full list of records

  • For Alto by Anthony Braxton (1971)

  • Catelogue D’Oiseaux by Oliver Messiaen (1959)

  • Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come - Live At The Cafe Montmartre by Cecil Taylor (1962)

  • The Hired Hand (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Bruce Langhorne (1971)

  • Naked City by Naked City (1990)

  • Vertigo by The Necks (2015)

  • Infinito Nero by Salvatore Sciarrino (1999)

  • A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley (1969)

  • La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura by Luigi Nono (2003)

  • Four Full Flutes by Phill Niblock (1990)

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