Annette Peacock: Composer, Muse, Enigma

October 19, 2016

acrobatOn his acclaimed new album, Lovers, nestled among compositions by the likes of Kern, Rodgers, and Mancini, the guitarist Nels Cline fashions a medley out of two songs – “So Hard It Hurts” and “Touching” – by a distinctly less familiar tunesmith. In the hands of Cline and arranger Michael Leonhart, the melodies seem to gradually coalesce and then, just as elusively, dissolve. Evanescent yet haunting, the compositions of Annette Peacock offer the same lingering strangeness in 2016 that they did in the early Sixties when her work was introduced by her second husband, the pianist Paul Bley. Strange is also the word to describe both Peacock’s uncommon six-decade career and her there-but-not-there position in the jazz universe.

To give her the credit she is surely due, Peacock has near iconic stature in the alternative music community. Singing her oddly distinctive, highly personal songs in an equally idiosyncratic vocal style, Peacock gleefully merged experimental music, rock, and other genres within the open stylistic borders of the meager dozen or so of her own highly praised, if commercially invisible, albums. A revered cult artist, Peacock has little more than a marginal presence when it comes to standard jazz practice. Yet, stumble upon her work, as interpreted by others, and you find she’s been a vital shadow figure behind much musical beauty.

Paul Bley, the daring and influential pianist who died in early 2016, recognized a similarly creative talent in Peacock, then the wife of the accomplished bassist Gary Peacock, who would remain a lifelong musical partner of Bley’s. By 1965 Bley was already recording Annette Peacock’s compositions, and he continued to essay them long after the couple split. (Bley also had a curious habit of recording the compositions of another ex-wife, Carla Bley.)

In their ability to achieve maximal expression through reduction, Peacock’s spare melodies seem to embody the principals of the renowned architect Mie’s van der Rhoe, who claimed his work could be stripped to “almost nothing.” Peacock is no Bobby Timmons; you don’t start humming her tunes moments after hearing them, but they do possess an undeniable enigmatic authority that belies their sparseness.

Bley often summoned up the poetry in these minimalist pieces, drawing on their anomalous power throughout his career. His open debt to Peacock is nowhere more apparent than on the overtly dedicatory 1992 album, Annette, credited to the pianist, bassist Peacock and the Austrian trumpeter Franz Koglmann. It’s hard to pinpoint the lingering allure of this recording, which, of course, makes it all the more alluring. Nine of Peacock’s tunes, including “Touching,” “Albert’s Love Theme” and “Mr. Joy” coax molded statements from the members of the trio who respect the finely crafted artfulness of Peacock’s work by keeping their own improvisations generally lean and appealingly fragmentary.

The same sensibility is filtered throughout an even more ambitious project, the 1997 ECM double-disc recording, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock attributed to the pianist Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock and the drummer Paul Motian. Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, much like Annette, isn’t intended to be a showcase for the virtuosity of the contributing players. But as with the earlier album, the Crispell, Peacock, Paul Motian recording simultaneously reveals the gem-like quality of Peacock’s work as well as the sensitivity and imaginative elegance of the trio members, both as a collective unit and individually.

The start of the new millennium saw the release of Peacock’s An Acrobat’s Heart, her sole ECM recording to date. Melding her piano and vocals with the Cikada String Quartet, the album is typically spare and strikingly lyrical, yet no more conventionally jazz-like in intent as any of her earlier work. Still, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to find discerning jazz musicians rediscovering these tunes somewhere down the line. Quality, even from the least ordinary of artists, has a strange way of resurfacing.

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