Julius Eastman - Femenine
As a queer African-American member of the avant-garde, Julius Eastman cut a unique figure in the 1970s by necessity. He was lithe, he had a five-octave voice and an improviser’s intelligence at the piano. When he was healthy, Eastman was sought out by famed conductor Pierre Boulez. He played jazz in a combo that frequented clubs in Buffalo, contributed synths and vocals to an experimental disco outfit organized by Arthur Russell, and sang in early groups led by Meredith Monk. Composer and trombonist George Lewis remembers that, to him, Eastman represented “a singular figure of presence” in those years, since “black artists were far less in evidence in the Downtown New York music scene than queer ones.”
The release of Femenine is an occasion for wide celebration, though never intended as an album as such. In terms of sonic fidelity, this is an occasionally scratchy live recording of a performance by the S.E.M. Ensemble from November 6, 1974, with Eastman at the piano. In creative terms, it’s a crystal-clear, 72-minute shot that reaffirms what all the veteran scholars and performers have been talking about for decades. It gives an idea of how Eastman fused jazz-informed improvisation with the rigors of early, pulse-based minimalism.
Eastman using a mechanical device that shakes sleigh bells for the entirety of the performance, can be read as both a Fluxus-style joke on the stark rhythmic processes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as an assumption of that sound into the overall Eastman palette. That Eastman could simultaneously be a prankster and a skilled style-scout was one aspect of his genius.