I used to stick around after my postmodern literature class to pester my professor with questions about his days in the New York City free jazz scene of the ’60s. His best story concerned his one encounter with Albert Ayler, who walked in to a little café populated by free jazz folks, took out his saxophone, and, without a word began playing a repetitive phrase akin to a folk melody, or a march. After 20 minutes of spell casting, Ayler packed up his sax and left; a year or two later, he was gone from this earth.
As the professor walked home from the café puzzling over Ayler’s music—how simple, universal melodies swirled and reformed—he was transfixed as a pile of leaves were caught in whirlwind, lifted up, and blown down the street “like a wraith.”
“That was Albert Ayler,” the professor said to me.
While time and fate robbed me of a chance encounter with Ayler, I can say that I once saw Chris Corsano, “wraith-like” percussionist of Rangda and numerous jazz outfits, playing drums alone in an abandoned strip mall parking lot on the edge of Northampton, Massachusetts.
“It was right next to a cement mixing plant in a dead mall’s parking lot,” writes Corsano by email, while on a break between shows on Rangda’s West Coast tour. “So I was free to make whatever (and however much) sound I wanted without worrying about bothering anybody, though once or twice I woke a trucker sleeping in his 18-wheeler idling in the lot.”
Thin, tall, and bald, Corsano’s physique betrays his intensity behind the drum kit. He is a mass of energy and spontaneity that rivals global warming weather patterns: bucolic calm, quiet moments with bowed cymbals and small sounds made from manipulated drums, instantaneously up-ended by blasts of snares, showers of cymbals, a gust of sound that could lift a cement plant in Connecticut and set it down in California, unharmed but transformed.
“I start with something–an object, a design, a physical technique—that I think might help me get a sound that I want, and I tinker with it until it either does, or I give up on it and move to something else,” says Corsano. “Hopefully, the craft is about how these techniques and mini-instruments are used in the service of the music, instead of the other way around.“
Watching him live, I’ve often wondered if he is possessed of an aural telepathy, some rare gift to tune into his partner’s thoughts and sounds, and alter them. If not mind control, then it is a unique ability to adapt and respond , accentuating the qualities of an individual sound, and directing those elements into a greater being.
“There’s attention paid to things like dynamics, the overall structure of the piece and other musical concerns,” says Corsano. “Mostly, I’m responding to what’s going on around me with a bunch of moment-to-moment micro decisions about what to do that very second. Not all of it is happening on a conscious level—there’s too much going on at too fast a rate to analyze everything. So you end up feeling your way through.”
In any configuration, alone, in duos, large units, whether free jazz (with Joe McPhee, Wally Shoup, Nels Cline, Greg Kelly), fare-forward rock (Sunburned Hand of Man, Jandek, Thurston Moore, Mick Flower), noise (Vampire Belt, Death Unit), or with Bjork, Corsano translates the catharsis of improvisation into transcendental experiences for the listener.
“When you find the music that really does it for you, I mean really does it, it’s a revelation, an awakening. I can remember some shows I saw early on and the physical feeling of what it was like witnessing this band that was knocking me for a loop. It’s the experience of having your mind opened, and it’s great.”
By Daniel PresnellBC, British Columbia