Ilhan Mimaroglu & Freddie Hubbard’s “Sing Me a Song of Songmy”

Ilhan Mimaroglu

In July last year, the strange story of İlhan Mimaroğlu came to a close due to complications from pneumonia.

The son of a famed Turkish architect, Mimaroğlu moved to New York in the 1950s and eventually became an integral, and relatively undersung inventor and pioneer in the  John Cage-championed realm of electronic and avant garde composition exploding behind the scenes in the city at the time. Mimaroğlu thrived as both a composer in his own right, and as a producer and owner of Finnadar Records; working with, recording and releasing works by a wide range of musical titans – including Charles Mingus, John Cage, Edgar Varese and, to somewhat bizarre effect, Freddie Hubbard.

One of Mimaroğlu’s defining characteristics – and arguably his greatest contribution to 20th century American music – was in his marriage of jazz with classical avant garde & musique concréte. As an executive and producer at Atlantic Music, Mimaroğlu worked mostly in the late-60s and early-70s, recording the likes of Charles Mingus, John Lee Hooker, and Ornette Coleman, and he kept his expertise and intrigue with tape music and minimalism somewhat sidelined. Mingus’ Mingus Moves from 1973 (produced by Mimaroğlu), for example, plays like a relatively straight-forward post-bop record from the period, albeit with a slightly more “searching and unpredictable” style. Whereas the unusual Sing Me a Song of Songmy, made in collaboration with the normally less adventurous Freddie Hubbard, was an occasion where Mimaroğlu utilised his stature and the tools at his disposal to create a high-budget piece of avant garde music – a fusion of post-bop with musique concréte, united by a generally “anti-war” message, that still doesn’t quite sound like anything that’s come before or since.

Freddie Hubbard

Freddie Hubbard was arguably the only rival to Miles Davis’ crown as jazz’s greatest trumpeter (& flugelhornist) at the close of the 1960s, and while Davis explored modality and the influence of psychedelia and expanding timbral colour on his music with In A Silent Way Bitches Brew, Hubbard introduced soul and funk in a much more subtle way on his Herbie Hancock-informed 1970s opuses, Red Clay & Straight Life, expanding the pallet of his music, yet still remaining firmly on Earth while Davis explored outer space. Furthermore, Hubbard’s First Light, recorded after Sing Me a Song of Songmy in 1971 saw Hubbard become even less musically adventurous (although still brilliant), injecting string arrangements into the mix in an uncharacteristically high-budget affair, creating an album of soul & big-band influenced fusion. All of which make his involvement in Mimaroğlu’s strange Songmy project all the stranger.

The “Songmy” in Sing Me a Song of Songmy, undoubtedly must refer to “Son My”, a village in South Vietnam and the location of the mass murder, rape and mutilation of some 400 unarmed civilians by the US Army during the tumultuous events of the US’ Vietnam campaign in 1968. The event caused outrage in the States, and was one of the driving factors in the burgeoning anti-war sentiment in the nation that arguably cost the US the war later in the 70s.

As afroementioned, Mimaroğlu’s album can take rank with the multitude of similar anti-war compositions coming out of both popular and jazz music at the time, and furthermore sit comfortably alongside the “Afro” focused music culture of the day, when the likes of Archie Shepp, Melvin van Peebles and Gil Scott-Heron really put the African back into African-American. The record takes the form of a montage, patch-working its pieces together in an almost Dark Side of the Moon fashion.

Album opener, Threnody for Sharon Tate, sees synthesizer tones, dissonant string arrangements and other processed sounds bed a rising crescendo of strange recitations about death, music and love – voices in the heads of the young soldiers sent to murder innocent Vietnamese. “I feel I can hold a guitar, I know I can hold a know, I think I can kill…” This quickly segues into This Combat I Know, a track that starts as a relatively straight-forward post-bop, piano-led romp by Hubbard & his Quintet, before gradually introducing Mimaroğlu’s own spacey synthesizer work, and ultimately losing its romp atmosphere and drifting along sparsely morphing from soulful to jazz to dissonant avant-garde, reintroducing recitations by Turkish poet, Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca (“This is combat, do whatever you want, burn my sky…but don’t burn my prize cows”). This atmosphere of horro-movie dissonance with poetic anti-war recitation continues into The Crowd, a musique conréte montage littered with moments courtesy of Hubbard’s quintet as well as the aforementioned string orchestra and the Barnard-Columbia Chorus, becoming increasingly unhinged like Jazz’s own Lumpy Gravy.

The album’s highlight is arguably the couplet of two shorter pieces – Monodrama and Black Soldier – that open the LP’s second side. Mimaroğlu creates a processed atmosphere of reversed horn and synthesizers, while Hubbard improvises a reverbed bugle call over the madness. This segues nicely into Stravinsky-esque string arrangements, twisted by Mimaroğlu’s production, harkening Hubbard himself to recite another Dağlarca passage, translated into an African-American context.

You, black man. US Army, private first class. For freedom you shoot down your own freedom. Your body lies crucified on a steel cross.”

This album it seems, was somewhat falsely marketed as a collaboration, with Hubbard first and Mimaroğlu second, but it’s quite the opposite. As was in vogue at the time, it’s an album by a producer, with Hubbard & his quintet merely as star guests. The album, it seems, was a flop, and is seen as a minor footnote in Hubbard’s beloved career as a great voice in 20th century jazz, and one of the many big label oddities from the era.  At times it may seem flat-out weird, and at others it may sound utterly breathtaking, either way the album truly deserves a second hearing, and is in many ways a lost classic and a relic from a time when “big-budget major label avant-garde” was still possible, and inventive musicians were, on occasion, given carte blanche to be just that.

Sing Me a Song of Songmy

Part I
1 Threnody For Sharon Tate 2:04
2 This Is Combat, I Know 8:57
3 The Crowd 7:03
4 What A Good Time For A Kent State 1:27

Part II
5 Monodrama 2:54
6 Black Soldier 2:19
7 Interlude I 5:48
8 Interlude II 4:30
9 And Yet, There Could Be Love 4:28
10 Postlude 1:05

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Footnotes:

  • Visit John Zorn’s Tzadik: probably the best example of this sort of high-prouction value experimental music happening today.
  •  Listen to Amalgamation – a similar and parallel fusion of jazz with musique concréte by Masahiko Satoh (being recorded at almost exactly the same time in 1971, only in Japan).
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