Microtones and Bebop

One of the infrequent pleasures of ethnic weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs in the era before DJs began contributing to musical unemployment (may God forgive me) was the chance encounter with jazz players hiding out in those bands. I can recall coming across sidemen formerly associated with Fats Navarro, Woody Herman, Thad and Mel, and Cecil Taylor. Musicians call those gigs socials, and play them for the same reason critics write liner notes or press releases: It’s a living. As a rule, they bring their jazz expertise to the gig and take little if anything away. Joe Maneri suspended the rule. The saxophonist and clarinetist, who celebrated his 75th birthday with a full house at Tonic on February 9, took to heart the pitch variations in Greek, Israeli, Middle Eastern, and other party musics he mastered in the line of duty, noting their affinity with scalar particularities in the music of West Africa and India as well as jazz, and made his way into the alternate universe of microtonality.

Having flirted with instrumental vaudeville (two instruments at the same time), Dixieland, swing, and Tristano-style modernism, Maneri studied dodecaphony with Josef Schmid, a student of Alban Berg; supported himself with gigs at ethnic clubs, where he learned new time signatures as well as sliding scales; and landed, in 1970, a professorship at the New England Conservatory, where he evolved a concept of microtonality that identifies five distinct pitches between two notes of the tempered scale, or 72 pitches per octave. As all this happened away from the international stages of jazz, his sudden arrival as an avant-garde star and ECM recording artist in the mid ’90s, when he was in his late sixties, added up to one of the oddest overnight success stories since Grandma Moses. He was acclaimed a prophet, and his first—and, in my judgment, best—ECM album, Three Men Walking, a 1995 performance with violinist Mat Maneri (his son) and guitarist Joe Morris, did not disappoint. It is original and deeply compelling. While the Maneris tend to blend, Morris counterposes a different yet complementary key, suggesting harmolodic spaciality. He is at once apart and in sync.

The comparison with Ornette Coleman doesn’t end there. If Coleman plays off-pitch from the tempered scale, he is always in tune with himself, producing a deliciously raw and ragged sound; his use of microtones is a natural, unforced consequence of his effulgent style, reflected in his whoops and glissandi. Maneri begins with conventional tuning, but probes for the notes between notes. I don’t know if a listener can detect them all, or even what a 72-note scale sounds like. But the effect is of a music in which virtually every note is virtual, a moaning glissando that swims one way and then another. On Three Men Walking, Maneri is a communicative player: His sounds on tenor, alto, and especially clarinet are impressively his own, his phrases logical and meaningful. Nowhere is this more evident than on “What’s New?” which begins disarmingly with the standard’s first two notes and continues to limn the melody while veering deeper into it, so that instead of theme-and-variations you experience something akin to an enchanted dissection.

Maneri’s achievement was underscored by the 1998 release of Panoits Nine (Avan), which consists of a demo made for Atlantic Records at precisely the wrong time, 1963, when Coleman had disappeared from the label, selling far fewer albums than his blizzard of press notices or the splendor of his music promised; and a live klezmer performance from 1981. The album is great fun, demonstrating his ease with tricky time signatures and embrace of authenticity. Yet little attempt is made at bringing ethnic styles to a jazz template, and some of that is derivative. The title piece, in 9/8, is unmistakably Brubeckian; the whimsical “Why Don’t You Go Far Away” is a pitch-challenged combination of Monk and the Pink Panther. I suspect that other numbers are the kind of thing one might have picked up on albums bought in the Middle East during the same period. On Three Men Walking, however, such influences are so thoroughly assimilated into what appears to be an instinctive microtonality that they might not come to mind at all if one wasn’t primed to seek them out.

Subsequent albums are less enticing, though they all have moments. In Full Cry features the quartet heard at Tonic—the Maneris, bassist John Lockwood, drummer Randy Peterson—and shows off the saxophonist’s control of harmonics, producing brazen chords and notes that swell in the middle line on a string instrument. He suggests Artie Shaw’s silvery technique and Pee Wee Russell’s microtones (who knew?) on “Shaw Was a Good Mann, Pee Wee.” But what’s with “Tenderly,” a cloying tune that other avant-gardists have also resuscitated? Two spirituals are less than emphatic and an original called “Outside the Dance Hall” underscores the absence of music from inside, where the pulse is bound to be more assertive. The search for microtones here and on Blessed (mostly duets with Mat) is no substitute for, say, Coleman’s melodic and rhythmic exhilaration, which may seem apples-and-oranges except that a few numbers at Tonic and passages on the superior Tales of Rohnlief (“Bonewith,” “Hold the Tiger”) show that Maneri can light a fire beneath his weeping glissandi when he chooses to.

A highlight of the Tonic set was a brief, laid-back violin passage by Mat Maneri, who chain-smoked throughout the hour while affecting a smug insouciance, yet achieved a rhythmic suppleness and communicative ease of his own. In recordings with Matt Shipp and in his version of “Body and Soul,” which is perhaps the expressive acme of Blessed, he has suggested growing maturity. The promise is realized on his recently released ECM debut, Trinity, a solo recital of unexpected depth and variety. His adaptation of “Sun Ship,” a stark and rather insubstantial Coltrane fragment, begins with barely a hint of the source material, then proceeds to locate it in the course of deliberate microtonal stages, building to a vigorous peak as if the Coltrane figure had to be earned. He seems to have assimilated his father’s assimilations to the point where he may be able to achieve his own rapprochement between microtonality and jazz per se.

Goodbye Nick The great baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola died Friday, February 8, at 65, after battling cancer for a year. His label, Reservoir, had just released his last album, Tour de Force, a terrific session recorded in December 2000, brimming with his usual bebop energy (“Donna Lee”) and rhythmic wit (“Backwoods Song”), belying any incipient illness. I first heard Nick with Ted Curson’s quintet at a Left Bank jazz club in Paris called Le Chat qui Peche in 1967; it was the summer of my freshman year and I had never heard of him, though I knew Ted’s name from his appearances on recent albums by Archie Shepp and Booker Ervin. We all became friends, and when Ted launched his quartet (Nick, bassist Reggie Johnson, and drummer Dick Berk), I hired them to play my college. They arrived the week John Coltrane’s posthumous Expressions came out, and Nick was eager to hear Coltrane’s sole recording on flute. He was disappointed. Nick had just begun playing the instrument, and was far more proficient.

Nick was almost ridiculously proficient. He had played in a youth orchestra at Newport and graduated to Woody Herman’s 1963 band, before beginning his long association with Ted, which flowered during a residency at the Tin Palace in 1974. In those days, he often played clinics and had a gimmick in which he would give a student cards, each one marked with a chord. He would begin improvising at a clip and the student could flash the chords at him in any order at any time; he never missed a change. A totally unpretentious, working-class kind of guy, he was born in Troy, New York, and remained in the area all his life, spinning jazz platters on local radio and leaving when he had work. When I met him, he was 29, and hungry for recognition, so he self-produced an LP, This Is It! (Priam), playing baritone, saxello, flute, alto, and bass, overdubbing himself. Only his alto was uninspired, but he soon got past the need to show off and focused on the baritone.

By the late 1970s he was recording for Beehive, inviting Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne, as well as Curson, to join in, but he really came into his own with 10 smashing CDs for Reservoir, beginning in 1989, always backed by the best rhythm players—Kenny Barron, John Hicks, Dave Holland, Rufus Reid, Jack DeJohnette, and often his old friend, the spirited Dick Berk. As you’d expect of a guy who could whisk the changes, Nick had bebop DNA, but the thing about him is he would try anything: If it was jazz, he was game. He worked with Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Three Baritone Saxophone Band (Gary Smulyan, Ronnie Cuber), Mingus Big Band, Phil Woods, Dewey Redman; he loved jamming at Dick Gibson’s Colorado jazz parties, and took a back seat to no one. In Paris, Nick had sniffed that Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet always played the changes, whereas in Ted’s, they really went outside. But he loved Mulligan, and gave him props often, producing one of the hippest of tributes (“Gerrylike”) on the 1996 Flight of the Eagle. Nick’s sound had a fine, wood-grain finish with just enough grit to underscore its brawny valor—it was a sound you could easily love, like the man himself.


Billy Higgins, 1936–2001

Is it spring or the waning days of autumn? The festivals are getting underway, so it must be spring. Yet it feels like a shivery October in the realm of jazz mortality, as every passing week brings news of another loss, beginning late last year with Milt Hinton and continuing with Jack McDuff, Norris Turney, Lou Levy, George T. Simon, Les Brown, Buddy Tate, Ike Cole, Billy Mitchell, and two radiant beacons of the modern jazz movement and all of American music, as players and composers, J.J. Johnson and John Lewis, who spoke for them all when he remarked, “Everybody wants to be in the image of God. That’s why I play jazz.” Unlike many of their predecessors, they at least made it past 70. Billy Higgins, who died May 3 of liver and kidney failure, did not, which is one reason his passing hurts, even though he had been ill for years and was awaiting his third liver transplant. The main reason, of course, is that he gave so much pleasure. When you walked into a club where he was playing drums, you knew you were going to hear good time and have a good time.

Drums do not present time as simple four-to-a-bar tapping, which you can do with your foot. They clothe the elementals of tempo and meter in an elaboration of sound and pulse. At their best, they are richly colored and intensely musical, and can generate an emotional gravity to equal any other component in the performance. If in 1934, Sonny Greer and Jo Jones had traded jobs, the music of Ellington and Basie would have evolved much differently. Even when we are fixed on the soloist, seemingly oblivious to the drums, we are in their thrall, which is why bad drummers are so insidious—they do not allow us to ignore them. Great drummers don’t either, of course, except when they want us to forget they are there, at which time they become merely the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the very air we breathe.

Shortly after I left college, I experienced a drums epiphany at a place called Boomer’s, where Cedar Walton and Clifford Jordan had a quartet. I was given a seat hugging the right-hand side of the stage; the drummer’s left ride cymbal hung over my head. I figured I would try a number, and leave if necessary. I knew Higgins’s work from records—Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean—but had never seen him and did not think any drummer could be inconspicuous or quiet enough to make that kind of proximity endurable. An hour later, I left in a state of elation, and the thing is: At no time was Higgins inconspicuous or quiet. He was—no other word will do—beautiful. He didn’t get in the way of my hearing Cedar, soloing on the other side of the stage, yet I was always aware of the glowing sound of the cymbals and snares, the way he made them mesh in cross-rhythms, as though they were made not of metal and canvas but of something pneumatic and plush.

A few weeks after my first Voice piece appeared, in 1973, I was asked to write liner notes for a Jimmy Heath album, Love and Understanding, and was pleased to see Higgins at the date. Later, Jimmy told me about the new pieces written for the session; one was called “Smilin’ Billy,” composed, he explained, “for the love of the way Billy Higgins plays and for his love of music and of playing.” Now this was at a time when, for many people, the title was less likely to recall an old comic strip (Smilin’ Jack lost his wings that very year) than a type of behavior (smiling) considered unbecoming for an African American male. I mentioned that Louis Armstrong, two years dead, was still getting pilloried for it, but Jimmy laughed and the nickname stuck. Higgins always looked kinetic behind the traps, smiling, almost laughing, eyes sparkling, flashing his hands like a quick-change artist having the time of his life. This was true up to the end, at reunions with Coleman and at the annual two-week December gig at the Village Vanguard with Walton and McLean.

Back at the Heath date, though, I was still coming to grips with my evening at Boomer’s, because I wrote, “He has developed a clean and personal sound on cymbals and snare that rivals Kenny Clarke’s and is one of the few drummers of any generation who plays with the taste and restraint that allows a listener to sit right by his traps and not be deafened.” Clarke was an obvious forebear, though Higgins had also studied with Ed Blackwell, an earthier player whose contrapuntal patterns influenced him, as did his melodic tuning, which in turn suggested Roy Haynes, who brought a virtuoso shine and bass drum anchor to the modernist techniques devised by Clarke. But Haynes and Blackwell are about syntax; they bring an original language to trap drums. Clarke and Higgins, for all their influence (Clarke’s was decisive for a generation), make themselves known through their shimmering sound and immense poise, no matter how hard they drive.


Higgins is on one of the 1960s’ key jazz hits, Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” and yet no one associates him with its hit-making beat, partly because he didn’t latch onto it, hoping for some kind of commercial crutch. Even when you listen to the record, Higgins is easily the freest spirit of the three rhythm players, swinging the vamp without chaining himself to it. He plays alternately on and against the backbeat, always with a liquid freshness that enlivens the beat when it would have been so easy to cheapen it. Maybe that’s why he is often overlooked in discussions of the great drummers of that period. When you hear Tony Williams or Elvin Jones, you feel you are in the presence of genius. With Higgins, you feel you are hearing perfection, which is neither as sexy nor as easy to talk about. In his book Different Drummers (1975), Billy Mintz transcribes and analyzes the playing of 19 percussionists, Higgins not among them. Yet the last sentence of his text, after a paragraph in which he recommends his favorite jazz and rock artists, reads: “Listen to everything with Billy Higgins playing drums because his time is so swinging that it just floats along.”

The nature of his swing is panstylistic. Of course he didn’t change horses to ride “The Sidewinder”—this is an artist who initially became famous playing free jazz with Coleman (he recorded with Cecil Taylor in the same period), who aided Rollins in navigating the straits dividing free and not-free, buoyed Dexter Gordon to crests of invention, and in every instance sounded exactly right and exactly like himself. He could play a written part as well as anyone—McLean’s brilliantly cornered “Melody for Melonae,” for example; or cross the ts on a rumble crafted especially for him—Morgan’s “One for Higgins,” for example; or fashion cool breezes—Charlie Haden’s Silence, for example. His brief solo on the latter’s “Conception,” built on a basic march pattern, is riveting yet wittily self-effacing. But he was also a relentlessly driving accompanist, and perhaps the greatest miracle of his playing is how beautifully and calmly swinging he sounds even when he’s playing to beat the band. The flip side of the Sidewinder LP offers the blues waltz “Boy, What a Night,” in 12, a meter that can easily generate inflexible triplets. Higgins is loose and infectiously zealous. Joe Henderson, Morgan, and Barry Harris turn in splendid solos, as the Cheshire Cat hovers over them all.

Higgins, who was born in Los Angeles in 1936, started on the drums at five. Still in his teens, he worked with Don Cherry in the Jazz Messiahs, a band led by James Clay that was inspired by the Davis-Rollins sessions, and sat in with the area’s leading beboppers (Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards) and r&b bands (Bo Diddley, Amos Milburn). In 1956, he met Coleman, who astonished everyone, one way or another; Clay took his tenor to Ray Charles’s orchestra for a quarter century, while Cherry, Higgins, and Blackwell, who had known Coleman for several years, were drawn to the altoist’s ragged cry and glancing tunes. With Blackwell ensconced in an r&b band, Higgins made the Hillcrest engagement, recorded with Coleman (The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century), and took the historic leap to New York. Even those who scoffed at Ornette recognized Higgins as an extraordinary drummer after seeing him at the Five Spot or hearing him on “Ramblin’,” “Una Muy Bonita,” or “Focus on Sanity.” But things went badly. Higgins was busted for drugs and lost his cabaret card; Blackwell, who had skipped bail with his wife after they had been imprisoned in New Orleans on a charge of interracial marriage, took his place.

Higgins would reunite often with Coleman over the next 40 years, turning in one of the most memorable performances of his life at the 1997 Coleman triptych at Lincoln Center, with Haden and Kenny Barron. But by then he had also morphed into something unexpected—the much coveted, unofficial house drummer for Blue Note records, and one of the most recorded musicians of the era. In later years, he worked with David Murray, Charles Lloyd, Hamiet Bluiett, Harold Land, Art Pepper, and many others, in addition to countless engagements with Walton, and, last year, the most unexpected gig of all, one under his own name, dedicated to the Blue Note songbook. Pepper, before he and Higgins fell out over a bassist, called him the greatest drummer who ever lived. He wasn’t really. It just seemed that way whenever you listened to him.


A memorial tribute to Billy Higgins will be held Thursday, May 17, at 10, in the Main Space at the Knitting Factory.


Zooids New and Old

Schoenberg warned a century ago, during that twilight zone between Wagner and Stravinsky, that the tempered scale was used up—its melodies worn out, its thematic variations a close-order drill going nowhere. Of course, jazz proved him dead wrong by revitalizing all the verities with blue harmonies, rhythmic force, and melodies of expressive and exuberant originality. Still, he was right about European classicism, a not insignificant field at the time, and his solution, serialism, forced his adherents to disavow habits and conventions. This produced a whole new musical world, though not many hits. Meanwhile, jazz thumbed its nose at the worrywarts and had a high old time for 50-plus years, until it, too, began to ruminate about habit and convention, opening the gates to rock ‘n’ roll, which filled the hit-making gap. Now, at the dawn of a hip-hopping new century, one can’t help but notice that the tempered scale once again seems used up—its melodies worn out, its thematic variations a close-order drill going nowhere.

Jazz’s Schoenberg, Ornette Coleman, devised three solutions. The first was the chimera of free jazz, which offered spontaneity on a blank grid, producing a montage of ebullient melodies, one-one rhythms, and providential harmonies—though Freddie Hubbard’s bebop habits revealed that freedom was a matter of, as Lester Bowie would later observe, “what you know.” Wary of spontaneity’s limitations, Coleman issued solutions two and three in 1976, on Dancing in Your Head. At the time it was released, in that twilight zone between fusion and neoclassicism, many thought the story was Coleman’s use of electric instruments and backbeats, but it became increasingly clear that the key innovation was scrupulous notation that forced the rhythm section to abandon conventional patterns. By including a brief collaboration with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, he cracked the door open to a third source of rejuvenation, patronizingly known as world music.

Coleman wasn’t out there alone—others were working along the same lines before and during. But where other innovators release albums, Coleman has a penchant for producing manifestos. The fact remains that most modern jazz that isn’t mainstream-conservative combines free improvisation, heady notation, and, not to put too fine a point on it, exotica. You could not ask for a better example than the new band Henry Threadgill debuted at the Knitting Factory on September 15, a sextet called Zooid (“1. Biology. An organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism, especially a motile gamete such as a spermatozoon. 2. Zoology. One of the usually microscopic animals forming an aggregate or colony, as of bryozoans or hydrozoans.” American Heritage Dictionary).

Threadgill has been collating the free, written, and world options since the mid ’70s, starting at least as far back as Air and pieces like “Untitled Tango.” But Zooid, even in a sometimes tentative premiere, took a bold step beyond Air and such later bands as Very Very Circus and the ongoing Make a Move in combining the raucous exuberance of familiarity with fastidious notation that forces both the chamber unit and its members to think fast and fresh. The group’s internationalism is literal. Only Threadgill and acoustic guitarist Liberty Ellman are American-born; Tarik Benbrahim, who plays oud, is Moroccan; Jose Davila, who plays tuba, is Puerto Rican; drummer Dafnis Prieto is Cuban; and accordionist Tony Cedras, the only holdover from Make a Move, is South African. Much emphasis is placed on the strings, but the band’s peculiarly jerky heartbeat is in the rhythms. The meter changes, at times, from measure to measure, keeping the musicians’ eyes on the lead sheets and their minds on the moment.

Zooid was conceived as a stopgap for a gig that was booked before Threadgill discovered that not all the Make a Move musicians would be available. He might have taken it easy, jamming with friends for a few nights, but instead configured an ensemble that required new music and much rehearsal. He composed eight new pieces, four for flute and four for alto saxophone, and readapted Very Very Circus’s “Hope A Hope A,” a perfect, dessertlike set-closer. The evening opened with two flute pieces. “Tickle Pink,” an undulating six-note riff and tremolo, emerged cautiously—the players hewed to written harmonies and meters as Threadgill navigated a solo. The piece cohered best, however, when Liberty Ellman eased his way into an invention with knifelike articulation (he plucked at or near the bridge), sustaining lines long enough to crest the changing rhythm. The arranged time and harmonies proscribed relaxed swing, but inspired novel improvisational figures. Threadgill had stacked the deck against habit and convention. Even Cedras, who plays so expansively on Where’s Your Cup? (the Columbia CD quietly released a year after the label bumped Threadgill), sounded hesitant.

But as the set continued, a mutual authority kicked in, and what started as a negative print developed into a vivid picture. Threadgill’s alto helped. His sound is always a tonic, combining two standard fruit metaphors—pear-shaped pitch and peach-fuzz timbre. Parts of “Do the Needful” suggested a clattering mechanical toy slowly winding down, only to get a sudden burst of life. The leader’s gritty solo, with its ferocious, arpeggiated dives and swoops, stayed the center, even when simultaneous meters vied for attention; where do you look?—the drummer says one thing, the tuba another. Then, with a stunner called “Around My Goose,” the issue of Schoenbergian mazes and forced originality disappeared, as the ensemble cohered into a practiced chamber sextet, capering through the soft melody with the push-me-pull-you suppleness of an accordion, providing a pneumatic cushion to float the solos. The meter, too, was compelling—you couldn’t tap four, but you wanted to tap something.


On “Hope A Hope A,” first heard on Spirit of Nuff . . . Nuff, you could tap all the fours you wanted. Familiarity bred fluency, and after a riveting drum solo that established the second-line beat, and a full-bore Threadgill alto attack, Cedras found his balance, bounding mightily on fat, resilient chords. Then the gifted Ellman broached a thoughtful lyricism with touches of Django. The guitarist is remarkably quick on his feet; he examines the rhythmic turf, thinks his phrases, and within a few bars finds a groove. Prieto also made a strong impression, feeling his way through the metrical skips and hops precisely and, at times, with a slam-bang audacity. Oud and tuba were used almost exclusively within the ensemble—a thumping, reedy, herky-jerking contraption of surprising elegance. It will be back.

If you owned a record label and had the pick of musicians, you would sign Threadgill for the innovative richness of his imagination. But you would also want the kind of funky pop-jazz band that can be counted on to pay the bills—a listener-friendly group that packs bars and clubs, gets big jukebox action, and sells a zillion records. Who would have thought in the ’60s that this means you would want the Archie Shepp-Roswell Rudd Quintet, which returned last week, after a 34-year layoff, at the Jazz Standard? Opening night (a necessity for me in order to make deadline) may have been something of an open rehearsal, but never mind: Club life hasn’t been so much fun since repeal. From the first selection of the evening, an expanded version of Rudd’s “Keep Your Heart Right” (the first track on their 1966 Impulse classic, Shepp’s Live in San Francisco, which became a true classic after the 33-minute masterwork Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime was added to the CD), you knew all was right with the world.

It may be tempting to note that aging avant-gardists always return to the blues, that spontaneous inventions end up seeking tonics and subdominants and bar lines and so forth, but you have only to search out Rudd’s Everywhere and Shepp’s Four for Trane, Live in San Francisco, and, if you can find it (I wish I could—I long ago wore out my reel-to-reel), Live at Donaueschingen (all with Rudd) to know that they were never as scary as they thought we thought they were. It’s been a long time since Shepp’s rueful, dark baritone told us about Rufus’s snapped neck, semper Malcolm, and the Attica blues. But even then a bluesy bemusement and balladic tenderness infused his music, just as a Dixieland blowsiness always abided in Rudd’s. In the intervening years, each disappeared from the front lines for long stretches. Well, whatever was ailing them has been cured. With and without plunger, Rudd was electric, a workman come to work. And Shepp, in his black fedora and double-breasted, was equally compelling tinkling an insouciant piano waltz or letting rip with his patented long and grainy tenor saxophone loop-the-loops.

The accompaniment was strictly Rolls Royce: Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille shimmered and thumped, staying mostly in the background, keeping the funk palpable, then disappearing for a couple of duets—including Herbie Nichols’s “Change of Season.” It was good to see the fifth wheel, trombonist Grachan Moncur III (who joined with Rudd on Shepp’s Mama Too Tight), but his elliptical solos were less commanding than his ability to beef up the ensemble. Rudd suggests the old man of the mountain, while Shepp with his dimpled grin suggests a keeper of secret ironies. They are wonderful together. Even “Steam,” Shepp’s 1976 portrait of a cousin who was killed in a street fight at 15, became a comic turn as the players mused on what a cool nickname Steam is (“His real name was Robert,” Shepp said quietly). This is in no way a reactionary band; sometimes, as Edward Albee wrote around the time of Free Jazz, you have to go a long way out of the way to come back a short distance correctly. I’ll leave it to you to figure out a connection between The Zoo Story and Zooid. I’m just relieved to find so much jazz hot in town.


Saved by the Classics

Okay, so Michael Dorf is not the Flo Ziegfeld of jazz, not yet. Forgive the prefestival enthusiasm, but the pain of festivals past, like the pain of pregnancy, has no shelf life. Last year at this time I was vowing to be in another country this year at this time, but then I looked at the schedule—Ornette! Max and Cecil! the Art Ensemble!—and capitulated to a heedless optimism. Where else would you want to be, and how could anything go wrong? Such a simple concept: You exchange a ticket for a specific seat, the lights go down at a prearranged time, great musicians emerge to play great music.

But that’s not exactly the way the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, now in its second year and with tentacles in D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia, works; as the heir to the long-running Knitting Factory What Is Jazz? festival and a fleeting season of Texaco sponsorship, Bell wants to be at once inclusive and legit and bohemian. So the great music that was played cost more than the price of a ticket. Consider the following triptych of big events. All were imperfect. But unlike so many of the lesser shows, at least they weren’t predictable.

You may have heard about the blinding yellow lights, emanating from the stage and into the eyes of the audience, that went on a half-hour into Ornette Coleman’s final set—the one with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins—at his opening-night Battery Park concert. The Parks Department chose to impose a curfew, subjecting patrons (who paid as much as $65) to an indignity it would never think of implementing at a free Central Park concert with Diana Ross or the New York Philharmonic, where the audience is many times larger. The lights were Commissioner Henry Stern’s way of saying, “Coleman, you’ve got five minutes to finish your piece.” The lights did not merely blink a warning, but remained on, while generators in the rear roared into clattering motion, until it was no longer possible to play or be heard. There were no assaults, no fights, no disturbances of any kind to warrant such treatment, though the crowd might have considered tarring and feathering Stern and the imbecile who hit the switch.

Except for jazz reviews, the incident didn’t make the evening news; we have become a city willing to accept arbitrarily imposed curfews—for our own good. Incidentally, the lights went on not at midnight or 1 a.m., but at 10:10. The concert began at seven. Unless the Statue of Liberty wanted to take a nap, the likelihood of residential complaints was nil. The whole business was pure thumb-in-your-eye bureaucratic idiocy. But it didn’t begin there. From the late start, there were occasional jackhammers, as if the city and Bell were unaware of each other’s existence. The sound, Bell’s problem, was dismal for the opening set—the debut of Coleman’s Global Expression Project, in which the backup musicians were amped at the same level as Coleman. Audio was especially cloudy in the press section, a holding pen populated mostly by suits who talked louder than jackhammers. George Wein figured out how to amplify an outdoor space and handle (ruly) crowds at Newport 45 years ago. At Battery Park, you’d have thought open-air concerts were a novelty.

For the second set, I escaped the pen and had no trouble hearing the American debut of the chamber piece alternately known as “La Statue” and “Freedom Symbol,” a marvelous 40-minute paradox that begins and ends with notated ensemble sections and has a long middle section in which each player solos—improvising or embellishing a notated episode. Drawing on diverse influences from Renaissance music to 19th-century romanticism to jazz, the players generally acquitted themselves well, though Lew Soloff’s startlingly rangy trumpet episode, accompanied by guitar and suggesting an exalted Coleman ballad, so outdistanced the rest you couldn’t help but wonder what the piece would sound like if most of the players had been drawn from jazz rather than classical. The mounting and speedy closing section, bouncing off Greg Bendian’s timpanis, is a roller-coaster thrill ride.

The concluding, hastily interrupted trio should have sent everyone away drifting on a cloud. Against Haden’s buoyant rumble and Higgins’s pneumatic suspension of time, Coleman’s gorgeously ragged riffs swan-dived and jackknifed, ageless and serene, instantly echoing a distant foghorn, dropping momentary references to “La Marseillaise,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “The Good Life,” and just freely exulting—until our guardians stepped in, for our own good.

Little attempt at crowd control was necessary at Columbia University, where Max Roach and Cecil Taylor revisited the site of their original 1979 duets. The city could not interfere and the music went on for hours, though most of those hours were prelude to the main event, including one by Bob Stewart’s La Guardia High School jazz orchestra, with guest soloists (Warren Vache, James Spaulding, Wessell Anderson). Does any other music fetishize amateurism—from school bands to weekend dilettantes—the way jazz presently does? I was reminded of a story Ira Gitler tells about standing backstage with Gerry Mulligan at a concert in Europe while students played. A woman enthused, “Aren’t they cute?” Gerry retorted, “Madame, jazz is not cute.”


Happily, part of the evening was given to David S. Ware’s quartet, with Matt Shipp, William Parker, and Guillermo E. Brown, a tremendous ensemble of virtuoso excess. Ware is a true believer who, with Ayler’s tonal grit and Coltrane’s volubility and Rollins’s muscular drive, is an avant-gardist by design. He has not only taken the flash-fire music of the ’60s another step, but constructed the ideal rhythmic foundation. Despite one piece with a triple-meter vamp, the quartet never let up and never lost the audience, which leaped to its feet at the end. Free jazz has always had a communal appeal, breeding a concert excitement that doesn’t necessarily carry over to records—the kind of intensity that can be oppressive at home can be liberating when diffused through a crowd of thousands.

A few years back, I dreamed I detected a mellowing in Cecil Taylor’s playing. If his recent work with Elvin Jones had not disabused me of such heresy, his reunion with Max Roach would have. From the git (no recitation, no song), he was titanic, pushing great parabolic blocks of sound as though brushing aside gnats. As he wound up, throwing in an occasional elbow, he suggested a high-wire athleticism—headstands, somersaults, leaving the wire altogether to fly! fly! fly! fly! Roach, who leaned heavily on a tuned tom that suggested a tenor timpani, never flinched. Au contraire: After 50 minutes or so, Taylor began what seemed a negotiation for closure; he looked up at the drummer and offered a possible clearing space, to which Roach responded with a furious fusillade that brought the pianist back to the front line. That happened several times, I think—Taylor working toward an exit and Roach slamming all the doors. Finally, at the hour mark, they agreed to desist, or at least ventured enough of a pause for Taylor to walk away from the piano, at which point Roach embarked on a drum solo. These guys, 71 and 76, would have known how to handle that punk Henry Stern.

For much of the week, I felt like I was in the hall of mirrors in Chaplin’s The Circus—or maybe the party of ghosts in Kubrick’s The Shining. One night I accepted an invitation from pianist Bill Savory to attend a memorial gathering for his late wife, singer Helen Ward, at the Hotel Pennsylvania. He had rented the penthouse ballroom, provided food, erected huge speakers to play his wife’s records with Benny Goodman and others, and set up a bandstand for musicians who chose to sit in. Maybe a dozen people arrived. Staring out the window at the neighboring gargoyles, with Helen and Benny swinging behind me, I imagined eternal ballrooms, sparsely attended by those who wish to recall a dusty era, and asked a few of those present how it felt when their particular world ended, but no one could remember. Helen was still singing when I left for the Jazz Standard, where Uri Caine had different gargoyles on the brain, wrestling with Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I like his Mahler, not so much his Schubert, and now it’s time for Caine to come back to the blues. This was a novel montage-music that changed course often enough to avoid boredom, but without making a point. When Caine or his violinist played it straight, they didn’t do it as well as Gould or Schiff; when his saxophonist (Greg Tardy) or trumpeter (Ralph Alessi) issued jazzy variations they punctured any illusion of continuity. A tango variation was slick and amusing, but Barbara Walker’s gospel and DJ Olive’s turntables added little beyond the suspension of belief. At least they got a few laughs. “As Long as You’re Living Yours: The Music of Keith Jarrett,” with Tom Harrell, Mike Manieri, and George Garzone, took the same stage later in the week to reflect reflections of pieces that do not exactly cry out for reinvestigation. When I could no longer feel a pulse, mine or the music’s, I left. A few days later the same bandstand would be resurrecting Hank Mobley. Help!

I arrived early at the Knitting Factory for the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s tribute to Lester Bowie, to get a seat; half an hour later it was claimed by regulars through some kind of primogeniture. Never mind, heard a terrific soundcheck, as Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Magoustut, and Famoudou Don Moye bopped with great insouciance and charm, Mitchell testing his flute (he practiced a strain from Bach), tenor, alto, and soprano, producing vital and distinctive timbres on each. The stage was packed like a winter closet with racks of drums, cymbals, gourds, xylophones, shakers, blowers —a complete store of “little instruments.” The doors opened at eight for an eight o’clock concert, guaranteeing a late start—8:30, to be precise.


The trio finally arrived and began to explore the little instruments, which took another half-hour. Longueurs are part of the Art Ensemble’s bag of tricks, but in all the times I’ve seen them I’d never experienced an interlude this tedious, not even when the point was provocation (as if you could provoke an audience at the Knitting Factory). When, at long last, Mitchell rose from the floor, where he had been crawling through the bric-a-brac, and played an extended, circularly breathed note on tenor, it was like rain in the desert. As Favors and Moye closed in, he configured a slow, familiar theme and followed with a relatively brief (maybe seven minutes) but riveting solo, flush with vestigial touches of Sonny Rollins. Changing to soprano, which he plays with perfect pitch, Mitchell let loose a hurricane of overtones, at times spinning parallel phrases as if playing two instruments, and swinging with candid exhilaration over an arching four-beat. On alto, he was more boppish, working over an appealing eight-bar theme. The Art Ensemble, a quintet until Joseph Jarman left, is a trio with the death of Lester Bowie, but it remains nonpareil, one of the best bands we have. Perhaps it should park some of the little instruments in the attic.


Jazz’s New Wing

Given all the clamor over whether or not Lincoln Center should unload inanimate treasures to subsidize performing ones, I was surprised at the lack of attention generated by the New York Philharmonic’s plan for recycling Bach in 2000, the 250th anniversary of his death. Instead of using Bach’s instrumentation and traditional orchestrations, they’ve commissioned contemporary composers to create updated versions, turning to pop and jazz for some variety; TAFKA Prince will adapt Partita No. 2; Diana Krall and Audra McDonald will sing the B-Minor Mass with new lyrics by Sir Andrew; and Wynton Marsalis will transcribe the cello suites for trumpet and rhythm. Bach is the most overhauled composer of all time, so there’s nothing very novel here. Still, I expected more harrumphing. Like you hear in jazz.

Jazz repertory will peak in frenzy this year as everyone and his cat pay homage to Duke Ellington; all meet and proper. But while Ellington may be the greatest orchestrator since Berlioz, he was also a composer of melodies that echo throughout the past 73 years and it is ludicrous to argue that they be off-limits to adaptation. When Ellington was alive, jazz orchestras always commissioned versions of his work, not least because it would have been considered imitation or theft, not repertory or homage, to do otherwise. Like the constitution, Ellington’s music implies more than can be bound by strict interpretation. The unevenness of the updated material performed by the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band on January 21 underscored the maxim— usually attributed to Ellington or Stravinsky— regarding the two kinds of music, good and bad. Those Bach revisions may make your skin crawl, but if one or more works, you’ll revise your prejudice. In music, new does not replace old.

The issue was raised twice last month in very different contexts. As part of the monthlong Blue Note celebration, Billy Higgins fronted a small band at the Jazz Standard, performing tunes made famous on Blue Note albums of 30 to 40 years ago. No one expected music director Don Sickler to mimic original instrumentation, because the tunes— good as they are— are considered launching pads for improvisation. They are neither pop melodies nor classic jazz. Yet some people were offended when the CHJB played an evening of Ellington half-authentic and half-revised, though perfectly willing to give Higgins a pass.

My first Higgins epiphany occurred about 25 years ago, when I went to see Cedar Walton and Clifford Jordan at Boomer’s and was seated, to my dismay, ringside, the high-hat cymbal literally hanging over my table. I expected to be smashed into oblivion and instead fell in love with the pealing musicality of the drummer, who even from my vantage was in balanced accord with the quartet. The second came a couple of summers ago at Ornette Coleman’s Avery Fisher triptych. Because he had been seriously ill, his very appearance was noteworthy. Coleman, Geri Allen, and Charlie Haden played imaginatively, instinctively, beautifully, but time and again my attention was riveted by Higgins’s shining cymbals, sandy skins, and incalculably subdivided time— now you hear the one, now you don’t, but you always feel it.

Burt Korall, who wrote the definitive Drummin’ Men, recently pointed out to me that Higgins is the sonic heir of Kenny Clarke. That says a lot. When was drumming more sensuously illuminating than on Miles Davis’s sessions of 1954? Clarke’s shimmering tone-colors make those sessions roll. Higgins has that quality, as well as an analogous faith in the basic components of the trap set and a gentlemanly sense of dynamics. But his versatility is astonishing, from Coleman to Blue Note house drummer. He may not have invented the “Sidewinder” beat, but he made it his own— made jazz-funk fluid, radiant, deep, cool. At a recent Vanguard gig with Walton and Jackie McLean, he splashed the time, skating across it with rhythms that were less countable than intuitive. The terra was firmer as he fronted the True Blue Allstars, but he was no less spellbinding, pressing turnbacks, alchemizing plushness with just the snare and ride cymbal. On Dexter Gordon’s funny blues march, “Hanky Panky,” he would drive the backbeat for a couple of choruses then suddenly let up, allowing the piece and soloist to breathe.

Yet the set I caught was missing something: fire, madness, genius, a tenor saxophone. For all Blue Note’s range, its signature sound remains the funked hard bop assault that began with Blakey and Silver in the mid ’50s and climaxed with Hancock and Shorter in the mid ’60s— hardly a music of fire, madness, and genius, as compared with Monk, Powell, Coleman, or Taylor, but bold and expressive all the same. The repertory of Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Hank Mobley, who was especially well featured, is rich enough to merit more
than celebrational recycling, if the players are out for blood. Sickler, a deliberative trumpet player with a trim tone, played smartly and without risk; Curtis Fuller, a singular trombonist, charmed with triple-tonguing and foghorn timbre, but limited himself to single choruses; James Spaulding, an altoist with unsteady pitch, veered into neverland on “Soy Califa.” A remarkable, just-issued 1982 concert by Freddie Hubbard, the key trumpeter of the True Blue era, glows with the electricity this idiom can produce; Above & Beyond (Metropolitan) respects nothing but the passion of the moment. Jazz repertory should be respectful, but not reverential.

Despite the tuxedos, the hall, and the occasion, reverence was not a problem at the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band’s “Black, Brown and Beige and More: Happy Birthday Duke.” In its fashion, it drew just as heady a bead on Ellington as the rousing David Murray concert in December; but it often missed the target. Of the new arrangements, two I’d like to hear again. You’d have to be awfully fundamentalist or humorless or both not to admire Jim McNeely’s temerity in adapting “The Mooche,” Ellington’s most famously serpentine hoochie-coochie epic, to the precincts of cool jazz. As Britt Woodman imparted puckish plunger obbligatos, the cup-muted brasses took the winding theme slow and easy, for a contrast that was paralleled as Frank Wess offered soulful blues tenor and the ensemble coalesced in luscious Gil Evans sonorities (circa 1957). A dreamy passage led to plunger trumpet by Byron Stripling, who played with becoming reserve all evening. Because it worked, measure for measure, I never found myself comparing it to Ellington.

“Rockin’ in Rhythm,” also arranged by McNeely, was another matter; everything, from Renee Rosnes’s insufficiently percussive piano intro to a merely attractive theme statement (cool, coy) to unmemorable solos and various self-conscious references reminded me of what wasn’t there— for example, the Harry Carney clarinet solo. A pale rumination on a masterpiece, I thought, touching inadvertently on the relative merits of modernist originality and postmodernist refractions. On the other hand, Frank Foster hit a classicist triple with “Take the A Train,” all ’50s opulence, with pretty bone voicings, a good Carrie Smith vocal, and a fine chorus of high-pitched variations for the saxophones, punctuated by the gleaming brasses— the effect marred only by a protracted tag ending. Jimmy Heath added little to “Johnny Come Lately” (though Randy Brecker brought it fleetingly alive and Jon Faddis took it out with a Dizzy cadenza), and Randy Sandke dared too much in an incoherent medley of train songs, salvaged briefly by a solidly Dexter-ish Ralph Lalama tenor solo. It ended with the three-note Count Basie kicker— a joke, I guess, although it went over my head.

True-blue Ellington was heard during the second half, done full justice by conductor Maurice Peress. Black, Brown and Beige belongs to the realm of flawed masterpieces, like Eyeless in Gaza or For Whom the Bell Tolls, where an artist’s best work goes toe-to-toe with his worst. But if BB&B lacks the formal discipline of Harlem or the obvious solutions of the suites, it dares far more, offering a procession of peaks that, though seemingly bound at times by nothing more than Elmer’s, are so elevated that ungainly transitions are reduced to tolerable blips. The major problem is theatrical: a discursive and anticlimactic third act. Live with it. “Black” is marred only by a too-abrupt transition from the magnificent “Work Song” to the first swing passage. Peress has conducted BB&B on several occasions, but I’ve never heard him or any ensemble mine as much exuberance from “Work Song.” Did he edit the trombone passage or did Dennis Wilson play it so well that the awkwardness of Tricky Sam Nanton’s 1943 performance disappeared? One of the loveliest and most neglected passages in Ellington is the violin setup for “Come Sunday”— Eddie Venegas made it sing. Yet it was Jerry Dodgion who had you on the edge of your seat as he sculpted every note of the alto solo with a rhapsodic inspiration worthy of Johnny Hodges. Stripling, Wess, and Smith (she missed one word but bounced right back) rose to the occasion, with Faddis crowning the high notes and drummer Winard Harper helping Peress to keep the whole mechanism running as smoothly as an hourglass.

Faddis did a decent job reading the Ellington introductions to each episode, but if BB&B is to get more than one performance a decade, that responsibility should be assigned to a pro, as is the case with Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. Peress made his case, and the Carnegie audience jumped to its feet and cheered. That’s the sign of a living piece of music, and, heretical as it may sound (I didn’t feel this way about his recording or earlier performances), I’d would rather hear him conduct BB&B in its present form— slightly tweaked from the original— with a great orchestra than listen to the 1943 performance. Nor will it surprise me if Higgins and Sickler someday make me forget Blue Note vinyl. Jazz repertory is no longer a movement; it is a permanent wing, like the avant-garde. There are no rules, only good intentions, successes and failures. Incidentally, I made up the stuff about Bach and Lincoln Center. But Deutsche Grammophon has now commissioned Billy Bragg and Wilco to devise settings for the cantatas Bach never completed.