Back in the World

For the good of his or her soul, every critic ought to perform at least one good deed. Mine entailed schlepping to a Catskills resort in 1991—braving poolside yoga classes and investment seminars, not to mention cocktail hour and the nightly floor show—in search of Roswell Rudd.

Before going missing in the mid-’80s, Rudd was lionized by critics as the archetypal free-jazz trombonist, the pre-eminent voice on that horn after J.J. Johnson. But Rudd was equally admired by critics hostile or indifferent to free jazz, and by some never completely sold on bebop, for being as much a throwback as an avant-gardist. Johnson’s innovation had been assimilating Charlie Parker as part of bebop’s initial thrust; in Germany a decade later, Albert Mangelsdorff’s early style was likewise saxophone-inspired, though modeled on Lee Konitz and cool. These efforts made the instrument seem more graceful by deflecting attention from its tubular design and potentially awkward mechanics. Rudd chose the opposite route, reawakening images of the trombone as a projectile—a horn that entered jazz growling or braying like an animal at the head of a parade or on the back of a truck. His first recordings, as a Yalie in the late ’50s, were with an undergrad trad outfit called Eli’s Chosen Six, and despite updating rhythmically and harmonically, he’d gone right on tailgating and initiating polyphony alongside saxophone screamers like Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri, and Archie Shepp in the ’60s.

Devotees of jazz are frequently mocked—not without good reason—for living in the past. But another problem is poor short-term memory. Out of earshot means out of mind, and by the time I went looking for him in the Catskills, Rudd had gone so long without releasing an album or appearing in New York that people had given up wondering where he was. Years ago, whenever a musician dropped off the scene, the underlying cause was usually heroin. Nowadays, the explanation is more likely to involve health insurance. Wearing a tuxedo in a hotel orchestra backing showbiz legends on the way down was the price Rudd paid for having a sick wife. A lot of musicians happened to read my article on him, and much as I’d like to take credit for eventually coaxing him down from the hills, they’re the ones to thank.

Rudd’s comeback has been fueled by two different types of albums. Sixties free induces nostalgia by this point, and following Rudd’s 1999 reunion with his former bandmates in the New York Art Quartet, European and Japanese produc- ers have also reteamed him with two of his former employers, Shepp and Steve Lacy. And then, befitting a man whose long-ago day gig was assisting Alan Lomax in his work on cantometrics (an arcane system of statistically correlating common vocal traits with social and cultural data in different ethnic musics), the other type of recent Roswell Rudd album is starting to amount to a one-man Nonesuch Explorer series. Like his earlier collaborations with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate (on 2001’s Roswell Rudd’s Malicool) and the Mongolian Buryat Band (on 2005’s Blue Mongol), the new El Espiritu Jibaro—co-credited to Rudd and Yomo Toro, generally recognized as the greatest living exponent of the guitar-like Puerto Rican cuatro, with percussion by Bobby Sanabria and his group Ascensión—is predicated on the belief that stellar musicianship alone can overcome any and all cultural and artistic differences.

Such blind faith has resulted in any number of jazz rhythm-section mismatches over the years, and quite a few cross-cultural debacles. Here, as on Rudd’s previous such excursions, the hoped-for synthesis occurs, and his musicological background might have less to do with it than his passivity and goodwill in blending into any musical or social setting (no doubt a factor in keeping him employed in that resort show band, and I suspect part of what prevented him from making his move as a leader during those years he was the avant-garde’s favorite sideman).

A guy on a jazz webpage I occasionally look at was wondering if El Espiritu Jibaro is indeed jibaro (Puerto Rican slang for “hillbilly”) and not just more plena—a West African–derived style apparently at the root of most Ricanjazz fusions. I bet the difference is why I find Toro’s nimble fingering so novel and refreshing—Robert Palmer’s Times description of Toro as “a Puerto Rican Jimi Hendrix” has followed him around for years, but a better comparison might be to Anton Karas’s zither on Carol Reed’s Third Man soundtrack. There are no slavish bows to “authenticity” here: Though the adjoining “Preludo” and “El Amor” are respectively identified as a marcha/danza moderna and a bolero moruno in the liner notes, Rudd’s arrangements and baleful solos transform them into dirge-like anthems as stirring as the ones Carla Bley showcased him on in the ’70s. The most wounding of the tracks is a Rudd gospel number replete with church organ but flutteringly sung by Alessandra Belloni, an Italian tarantella specialist. Meanwhile, the most festive of the party-like uptempos is Rudd’s “Bamako,” an all-purpose riff he’s also recorded with both Lacy and Diabate—given that it’s named after Mali’s capitol, who knew it was a merengue?

In late June, Rudd brought his Malicool band to Jazz Standard minus the kora—the African player slated to fill in for Diabate was stranded in Paris after his passport got stolen. “We have the kora in ourselves,” Rudd assured the audience. But maybe not. “Charming as this is and as much as I’m enjoying it, I don’t hear a single Malian element,” claimed the guy next to me, an esteemed rock critic who knows more about world music than I ever will, midway through the opening “Way Down in Mali.” Frankly, all that mattered to me, as Rudd burst loose from a steel-drum groove, was that the African instrumentation supplied an effective backdrop. It was a pleasure to hear him in full cry, a jabbing reminder of why he was so missed.

But for those who prefer their Rudd bare-boned, there’s Airwalkers (a collaboration with bassist Mark Dresser) and Early and Late, featuring him on tour with Lacy and the late sopranoist’s regular bassist and drummer in 1999 and 2002, and—not just an afterthought, but the double CD’s raison d’être—as a member of a quartet Lacy used to record four previously unissued 1962 demos.

With Dresser snapping strings against wood until it creaks and Rudd blowing so hard you can hear the metal in his horn resonate, the freely improvised duets on Airwalkers are elemental, but not strictly—there’s also plenty of in-tempo walking and wailing, and it inevitably comes across as something both players were planning all along, never a momentary respite from all the sonic hijinks. Rudd’s tone is as beery as any trombonist’s since Jack Teagarden, and it serves him well on “Don’t Blame Me,” the album’s only standard and a genuine heartbreaker.

Lacy, who had in common with Rudd an apprenticeship in Dixieland, also retained a love for polyphony, and some of Early and Late‘s best moments come when what starts off as a solo escalates into full-scale simultaneous improvisation, Lacy splitting notes and dirtying up his tone here and there to match Rudd’s growls. (For his part, Rudd quotes nursery rhymes in keeping with the sprung rhythms of Lacy’s tunes.) But the set’s real value lies in those demos by an historically crucial quartet otherwise represented on record by only a dim and poorly distributed concert LP released years after the fact. Despite eventually becoming notorious for playing Monk—and only Monk—before anyone else quite grasped either the full extent of his deviations from bebop orthodoxy or the whole point of jazz repertory, the quartet was still interspersing its Thelonious with tunes by other composers when they made their only foray into the studio.

So along with pianoless interpretations of “Think of One” and “Eronel” (two takes) that head straight for the spry melodies above and the off-kilter rhythms below those suspended chords, their audition also included a curving, spinning, and polyphonic (naturally) dash through Cecil Taylor’s “Tune 2” that might have settled the question of his direct lineage from Monk once and for all, had anyone heard it back then. Heard today, the brainy intensity on all four performances—plus the enduring riddle of their song-based approach to free improvisation—keeps them sounding new, situated in evolving tradition rather than in the past. They are this year’s rara avis, hands down.


Bop Loves Pop to Death Among the Killer Filler, for an Hour and Then Some

On Miles Davis’s Birdland 1951, bop loves pop to death, squeezing the peachy-but-preachy “Get Happy” (via chord surgery, circular breathing, and speed) into “Out of the Blue” ‘s Paradise Now, as Miles’s trumpet, J.J. Johnson’s trombone, Kenny Drew and Billy Taylor’s pianos, Tommy Potter and Charles Mingus’s basses, and Sonny Rollins, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and Big Nicholas’s tenor saxes hot-wire and drive their Jackson Pollock scroller coaster around and around Art Blakey’s spotlit cymbal. (Miles and Art co-motorvate two otherwise different lineups.) Birdland‘s (remastered yet) raw, live broadcasts are 67-plus New York minutes of uncut 1951: new discoveries and ex-bootlegs, jumping turnstiles between ’40s ur-bop, later ’50s hard bop, and ’00s ears. Pieces o’ woik in true progress.

Including (among 10 tracks total) two versions of “Half Nelson,” and three of “Move”—killer filler, especially when the third “Move” moves out of the second, and Sonny’s ax splits into those of Lockjaw and Big Nick. Secretly I associate Lockjaw and Big Nick’s names and agile brawn with r&b (not as “smart” as jazz). So mine is tainted love. But clean cool you will dig this too.


Mind Over Matter

Certain great writers—Hemingway, obviously, Whitney Balliett and Lester Bangs in my own backyard—were meant to be admired, not emulated; they’re lousy influences because their idiosyncrasies resist imitation while inviting it. Something similar is true in jazz, where the stumbling block will more likely be insufficient technique

than borrowed tics. Sarah Vaughan’s swoops and operatic colorations, for example, are off-limits (or should be) to anyone lacking her vocal magnitude and harmonic ear (which describes most mortals). A more earthbound example would be J.J. Johnson, an untouchable virtuoso who adapted Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to trombone in the late 1940s and sent a generation-plus of post-bop trombonists on a wild-goose chase.

A maverick among Johnson’s immediate contemporaries for not even trying to catch up with him was Bob Brookmeyer. To judge from a handful of recent CDs and an inspired performance by his New Art Orchestra in the Imperial Ballroom of the Sheraton New York during last month’s convention of the International Association of Jazz Educators, Brookmeyer is still going his own way at 74. His independence started with his valve trombone, practically a different instrument from J.J.’s slide and one rarely employed in jazz before or since (one of its few earlier proponents was the Ellingtonian Juan Tizol). Along with yielding a brighter, more piquant sound, valves are supposed to allow a trombonist greater ease of articulation, turning the horn into an oversized trumpet. But jazz musicians have always exercised mind over matter in mastering their instruments, and a classical listener hearing recordings might be fooled into thinking that it was Brookmeyer and not Johnson who was extending a slide—Brookmeyer’s tone is muffled and more rumpled than Johnson’s, and he retains more of the traditional trombone vocabulary, most notably the broad smears that bebop’s lickety-split tempos pretty much ruled out.

Last year’s Island (Artists House), a quintet date co-led by Kenny Wheeler, a lyrical trumpeter just a month younger than Brookmeyer, and featuring compositions by both, owed much of its appeal to the sense of urgency conveyed by the two horns playing at moderate speeds. But the new reissue Bob Brookmeyer (Mosaic Select), featuring five of his LPs from the 1950s on three CDs, shows he was in no hurry even as a young man. Intimate surroundings suit Brookmeyer: The brand-new One Night in Vermont (Planet Arts), featuring duets with pianist Ted Rosenthal (a former student of his), is all familiar standards, and Brookmeyer’s improvisations on them are so melodically winning—and his harmonic variations so keen—it’s tough to tell where Gershwin and Porter leave off.

Despite a few challenging charts for Gerry Mulligan’s big band and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis in the 1960s, Brookmeyer didn’t fully emerge as a composer until assuming the role of music director for Lewis’s band following Jones’s departure in 1979. His current writing for the Lübeck, Germany-based New Art Orchestra approaches genius. Brookmeyer the composer is Mr. Hyde to the improviser’s Dr. Jekyll. The titles alone of Kansas City Revisited and Traditionalism Revisited, two of the dandy LPs from the late 1950s rescued from oblivion on the Mosaic collection, reveal that Brookmeyer was never a bopper. But whereas his solos are models of artful simplicity, his writing for orchestra is muscular and demonically complex—more Bartók than Basie, though unmistakably jazz. Along with four pieces showcasing guest Till Brönner, a young German trumpeter with a lovely tone and a commanding sound, Get Well Soon, the NAO’s latest, includes three others that qualify as imaginative pieces for orchestra, not just themes for a string of soloists to blow on. The loveliest of these—and the moodiest, though all of them are moody—is “Elegy,” written for the late Earl Brown, a contemporary of John Cage and Morton Feldman with whom Brookmeyer studied in the 1980s. As perfect in its own way as anything by Gil Evans, it manages to evoke Brown’s modernism without falling into the trap of imitating his methods.

Weather prevented me from making it to the Village Vanguard last week for what was billed as “a battle of the bands” between the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the NAO. (Some battle—so many members of the VJO once studied with Brookmeyer that for him to win would have been like eating his young.) But I did hear parts of overlapping sets by both ensembles at the IAJE. Joined by Slide Hampton on a rousing “Frame for the Blues,” the VJO was in typical fine form. And Brookmeyer and the NAO were breathtaking. As on Get Well Soon, the high point was the swirl of oboe and low brass and John Hollenbeck’s quietly insistent wire brushes on “Elegy.” You’ve heard the one about hearing a pin drop? That pin could have been Hollenbeck’s cymbals. It’s the sort of piece that demands complete attention, and that it got nothing less in a ballroom crammed with glad-handing educators and record company executives attests to its power.


Scoring With Slide Hampton’s Color, Swing, and Simple Riffs

Slide Hampton, the veteran trombonist who guested with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the IAJE last month and wrote all the music on their The Way, is a J.J. Johnson man, although he uses more multiphonics than Johnson did. As a composer and orchestrator, he’s far more conventional than Bob Brookmeyer—rather than voicing across sections, à la Ellington or Gil Evans, he’ll pit brass against reeds in predictable fashion. But his charts swing like crazy, and few writers active today get as much color out of a handful of simple riffs or push soloists along with less fuss. As it did at the IAJE, “Frame for the Blues” sends the VJO into orbit. Knowingly similar to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in both format and swank—on some level an attempt to reclaim this material for jazz—the piece was a vehicle for Maynard Ferguson’s nosebleed trumpet when Hampton worked for Ferguson in the early 1960s.

Revamped for the VJO, it becomes a donnybrook between Hampton and fellow trombonist Jason Jackson. The album’s newer pieces are a mixed lot: “Suite for Jazz Orchestra” fails to evoke its honorees—Thad Jones, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, and Tadd Dameron—and never really coalesces into a suite (the Jones dedication is just “Giant Steps” in disguise, as to a lesser extent is the Dameron, which might explain why the subtitle is “Inspired by John Coltrane”). But Hampton’s three other new pieces are winners—especially “Past Present and Future,” with its infectious fanfares and Gary Smulyan’s croaking baritone solo—and the VJO proves itself at least the equal of any other big band in New York, including the better-publicized ones indentured to Mingus and Marsalis.