Making effective political art can be tricky — an artist confronted by the larger issues of economics and class is likely to lose his touch, and the result can be well-intentioned but boring. Nashville producer and songwriter Ed Pettersen has delved into what you could call political music on his 2007 three-CD set Song of America, a sequence of songs selected to illustrate American history. Released under his avant-garde nom de plume, Mad King Edmund, Pettersen's new Happening: A Movement in 12 Acts is a politicized — if not overtly political — operetta that references the free jazz movement of the 1960s, complete with throbbing saxophone, dissonant piano and drums that imply the beat rather than state it. The relative difficulty of Happening is in keeping with its subject: the Occupy protests that have been in the news across North America. With contributions by the likes of Music City soul singer Charles Walker and all-purpose vocalists Mary Gauthier and Suzy Bogguss, it's a remarkable example of genre-busting — its intentions are noble, and it's certainly not boring.
Happening came about from a recording Pettersen was trying to make with free-jazz saxophonist Giuseppi Logan, who made a name for himself in the 1960s working with such figures as Patty Waters, Don Pullen and Milford Graves. After making a couple of well-regarded records in the '60s, Logan disappeared for decades — an apparent casualty of drug abuse and mental instability. Pettersen tracked Logan down a couple of years ago in New York, where the rehabilitated saxophonist had begun to play.
"What happened was, the original recording session I had scheduled with Giuseppi was for May 5, 2011," Pettersen says. "I'm tryin' to find Giuseppi and there's no Giuseppi, and I find out that he had fallen and broken his hip about a month earlier, and was in some unnamed hospital." (Pettersen did eventually make a recording with Logan later that year — he is currently trying his luck with Kickstarter to get The Giuseppi Logan Project off the ground.)
With the Logan project temporarily on hold, Pettersen hooked up with pianist and composer Thollem McDonas, a native of Palo Alto, Calif., and a player devoted to avant-garde, improvisatory music. They found saxophonist Jeff Lederer, who plays in a style similar to that of Albert Ayler, along with drummer Pete Abbott. They recorded a couple of hours' worth of material in New York, and Pettersen came back to Nashville to figure out what to do with it.
A remarkable player, McDonas took the original material and edited it, condensing it down to about 45 minutes. As he says, "I took a free improv session, and I did a lot of heavy editing. I think of it as an honest representation of that session, but at the same time, heavily re-arranged."
Pettersen wrote the libretto for the work, and he and McDonas began looking for vocalists to interpret the text.
Although Pettersen says that Happening is a work that is "inspired by Occupy, but not about Occupy," the characters that populate the work are ideal Occupy protesters — each has been scarred by America's ongoing economic meltdown. Songwriter Freedy Johnston voices a character who is called "Male Protagonist," while Bogguss sings in the voice of middle-class woman who questions the wisdom of our policies. Rhythm-and-blues singer Charles Walker — a Nashville musician who currently sings with the retro-funk band The Dynamites — does a remarkable turn as the voice of the "common man."
Walker adds immeasurably to a backing track that is abstract blues, with McDonas' rumbling piano and Lederer's mocking saxophone punctuating the lyrics. "We've been living in this small apartment / For the last two years / Since our home was foreclosed / All six of us here," he sings.
For Gauthier — a Louisiana native who moved to Nashville 12 years ago — the project represents a chance to expand her singer-songwriter boundaries. "I'm a lefty from way back, and when I started seeing people gettin' riled up, I was excited," she says of the Occupy protests. "I'm always rootin' for the underdog and the people who don't have a microphone."
Gauthier says the vocal session with Pettersen went smoothly. "I don't know how it happened, but I just instinctively knew when to come in," she recalls. "It was a stretch for me, but it was a good stretch." Similarly, Johnston's contribution stands as one of the record's highlights: his voice conveys a toxic mixture of boyish panache and all-American enthusiasm gone horribly wrong.
Another Nashville singer who appears on Happening is Walter Egan, who portrays a Wall Street executive who is somewhat less than sympathetic to the demands of the Occupy protesters. The composer of "Hearts on Fire," a song Gram Parsons recorded on Parsons' 1974 album Grievous Angel, Egan also cut the 1978 hit single "Magnet and Steel." He has been successful, but Egan says the success of a musician isn't the same as that of a Wall Street Master of the Universe.
"I'm very much in the 99 percent and not in the 1 percent," Egan says, referring to the well-known disparity of wealth distribution that is a major issue for Occupy protesters. "Doing this project with Ed gave me a chance to tap into what someone like a Wall Street guy would be like. It was a great experience — I just kinda went with the vocal, and they thought it was good."
Happening is the sound of American history in free fall, with McDonas' insistent piano figures driving the music in tandem with Abbott's deft drumming. The combination of piano, saxophone and seething electric guitar textures results in a kind of aural déjà vu. If the free jazz of Ayler, Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane expressed the anger of disenfranchised Americans of an earlier era, the music on Happening does the same for a post-jazz, post-liberal age.
Mixed and mastered by former Motown engineer Bob Olhsson, it's a brilliant work — a piece of music that illustrates the power of avant-garde art. Pettersen's words are never arty, so the message is one of solidarity without sentimentality. There's anger in Happening, but the landscape of broken dreams is rendered as it actually exists in our fractured, fractious country. Far from being hard to take, the musical and verbal insights on Happening move the mind and the body, which is an unbeatable combination for anyone who wants to make the kind of historical and cultural connections that have lasting value.