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Flying Away from the Guggenheims

In art created through not-for-profit funding, the grant proposal too often is the art form. The requirements of application give shape to the work that the artist (or the hired grant writer) proposes to create. The funding process  is valuable—indeed, an essential alternative to the free market—but also limited by its necessary politics. You can just smell the grease of the grant machinery in some of the work that comes out of the Guggenheims. It’s palpable in the high concepts that rarely venture too high, in the ideas that are precisely unusual enough to sound groundbreaking, but are rarely so strange that they can break much hard ground. There’s a whiff of this need to placate the institutional watchdogs in Geri Allen’s new project, a suite of pieces -- “a solo piano excursion”—written under a Guggenheim fellowship and supposedly inspired by the work of three major innovators in postwar jazz: Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock. Titled Flying Toward the Sound, the music was recently released on an enhanced CD that includes three video clips from a companion film by the photographer and director Carrie Mae Weems. Fortunately, Allen is too defiantly original to be grounded by the Guggenheims, and Flying Toward the Sound, blessedly, glances at Taylor, Tyner, and Hancock only to wave goodbye. (Allen’s playing brings to mind Keith Jarrett as much as any of those other three, though four inspirations may have been one too many to sell.) This is my favorite jazz album of the year so far, and I can only thank the Guggenheims for paying for it—and marvel at Allen’s ability to convince her benefactors that what she would make is anything other than apolitically, uncategorizably, her own.

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