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Roswell Rudd : Rudd Revival (Part 1)

In winter 1992, I traveled from my upstate New York home to interview Roswell Rudd at his home in Accord, NY, about an hour north of New York City. Little had been heard from Rudd in a number of years, and when I spotted an article he'd written for Down Beat on the music of Herbie Nichols, I contacted him about sitting down for an extended interview with the purpose of doing an oral history of his career.

He proved recalcitrant, pleading a busy schedule, so it took about a year before we finally set a date. Arriving in his home we talked through the late afternoon until late in the evening, stopping only to eat a tomato seafood stew he made while he answered questions about his life and particularly his role in the heyday of the New York jazz avant-garde. Now it was neo-conservative young lions who were at the forefront of the music and it seemed unlikely that an old lion, even one still in his fifties, would be called back into action, even though his emphasis on musicality over technique was more relevant than ever.

Instead here he was playing nightly for an audience of "geriatrics", as he called them, in the show band of the Granit Hotel. The article was published in the October and November 1992 issues of Cadence, contemporaneous to a biographical essay by Francis Davis in Atlantic Monthly (Davis had seen that same Down Beat piece). Slowly Roswell Rudd, one of the pioneers of jazz trombone, started to emerge from the Catskills woods.

Rudd had made his impact more as a sideman and collaborator than a leader. Even the most prominent band he led, the mid-1970s quintet that featured singer Sheila Jordan, served as an equal showcase for both their prodigious and distinctive talents. Not surprisingly, when Rudd came out he didn't launch his own band, but instead worked in conjunction with others. In the past ten years he's performed on a range of sessions as a featured sideman, collaborator and as a leader. He's demonstrated that he's more than an important figure from the music's past, but a vital contributor to its present and beacon for its future.

For Allen Lowe, a tenor saxophonist, bandleader and writer, Rudd had a natural attraction. Lowe had already by 1993 produced a couple sessions that sought to integrate traditional jazz elements with the energy of new music, including a session featuring both living museum Doc Cheatham and saxophonist Julius Hemphill. With Rudd, those two traditions resided in one musical personality. As Lowe noted, Rudd had played with both Eddie Condon and Cecil Taylor. (This is not as unique as Lowe implies—Steve Lacy and Buell Neidlinger have a similar range of associations.) On Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground (Music & Arts 811), Lowe covers American popular song from Blind Willie Johnson to Dizzy Gillespie to Elvis Presley. Rudd appears on ten of the twelve tracks waxed in two sessions. The earliest is from May 1993, recorded in Accord where Rudd was still playing at the Granit. The Catskills resort band job seemed to others more colorful than it was satisfying to Rudd; he had no chance to improvise other than the occasional Dixieland number. On the Accord sides with Lowe he bursts out with the energy of someone too long restrained and now freed. The tunes are standard chord changes decorated with rather fussy heads written by Lowe. "Tea Party" ("Tea for Two") and "Dinah's Gone" ("Dinah"), along with bop favorite "Dizzy Atmosphere", are not the repertoire one usually associates with Rudd, but he revels in the music. "Tea Party" offers a virtual compendium of Ruddisms—tasty morsels of melody, twisted around each other and decorated with vocal swoops and growls. The other session was recorded two months later at a concert with Lowe and the same estimable rhythm section of bassist Jeff Fuller and drummer Ray Kaczynski joined by Paul Austerlitz on clarinets and Robert Rumbolz on trumpet. Here the band concentrates on Lowe's vision of traditional jazz including some of his personal favorites like "Mental Strain at Dawn" by Jack Purvis and King Oliver's "Mabel's Dream". The playing tends to be affected and leaden with the soloists never able to either engage in an anachronistic or contemporary manner; everyone that is except for Rudd—it's all contemporary to him. On "Mabel's Dream" he steps surely into the breach, wielding his plunger mute to summon the ghosts of brass masters past, including his own younger, adventurous self. Roswell Rudd was back on the scene.

Rudd is relegated to more sideman status on the next Lowe-led session he appeared on. Woyzeck's Death (Enja 9005) takes as its inspiration Georg Buchner's play with each of the nine movements "triggered" (Lowe's term) by a passage or scene. The piece has no connection to Alban Berg's opera of the same name and drawn from the same source—too bad, because the resulting suite may have been more interesting. As it stands, the music is undistinguished progressive bop with Kurt Weill-highlights, altogether too upbeat and sunny for the subject. The structure is largely heads and solos. Lowe displays some of his finest work with a searing ballad statement on "The Sun on Her Bones". Only Rudd eschews standard blowing date rhetoric and instead literally acts out, providing vivid characterizations on "Misery" and "The Hard Gray Sky". This side of the trombonist, the serious clown, would come to the fore more in the next ten years than it had previously. The CD concludes with two tracks composed by Rudd and played by the same quartet as the Accord sides. "Bonehead" is unabashed in its ebullience. "Concentration Suite" is elegiac in intent, honoring the memory of three late colleagues—Herbie Nichols, Beaver Harris and Chris McGregor. Not that it doesn't have its comic moments, most notably the slippery section where Rudd and Lowe trade smeared phrases, emulating Rudd and Harris singing nonsense songs. The suite focuses more on ensemble play than on solos, highlighting how Lowe, with his broad, gruff and unfocused sound reminiscent of Archie Shepp, provided a familiar foil for Rudd.

Rudd only appears on two tracks of Terrible (New World Crosscurrents 80473), the terrific solo debut of NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams. The rest of the disc features a hodgepodge of musicians, including Sun Ra alumni, and a healthy dose of Adams' potent Monk-cum-Jerry Lee Lewis piano. Adams, who worked with Rudd in Carla Bley's band, had employed the trombonist for a couple one-off tracks—a version of "Bud Walked In" for Hal Wilner's Monk tribute album and a track on NRBQ's Wild Weekend. Like the other tracks on the CD, the two featuring Rudd, "Hilda" and "Toddlehead", demonstrate Adams' ability to bring pop-tune concision to jazz without sacrificing its fire. On "Toddlehead", the result is a Rudd masterpiece. Opening with Adams' playing a Japanese pump organ, soprano saxophonist Jim Hoke intones the nursery rhyme melody. Rudd doesn't enter until after Hoke has said his piece, then with the saxophonist's lines trailing off Rudd declaims a jaunty lick that's of a piece with Adams' melody. What follows is a masterful display of Roswellian aesthetics. The phrases are simple, even folk-like; most wouldn't be out of place in a Dixie solo, and the technique lacks any pyrotechnic aspirations. Indeed, in this period, Rudd had a tendency to blat out phrases. But that hardly matters in light of Rudd's stouthearted musicality. He splays out lyrical tidbits, reiterating them, goosing the accents a bit differently each time the phrase rolls around. Rudd breaks the tension built up by the repetitions with half-glissed, half-tongued downward scales that wind up on the doorstep of a new melody. He caps his solos with hard-hit declamations, then tapers off with figures that echo what's gone before. "Toddlehead" has it all.

Well, maybe not all. What the tightly wrought solos of the above sessions lack is the robust, wild fire of Rudd's early avant-garde work with Shepp and others. It was this fire music that first attracted the generation of boomer trombonists just coming of age in the late-1960s and 1970s. Those young sliphorn acolytes had few models. The largely inactive J.J. Johnson was the music's resident poll winner, even though he hardly ever played his horn. Save for a few soloists who got their chance to step up from the ranks of big bands, notably the young Glen Ferris with the Don Ellis Orchestra, and Wayne Henderson of what was then still the Jazz Crusaders, few trombonists were around to serve as models.

So for a young trombonist like Steve Swell to discover Rudd on the radio, in full glory, roaring his way through Shepp's "Wherever June Bugs Goes" proved a revelation. As Swell explains in his notes to Out and About (CIMP 116), he heard in Rudd a whole new way to make the instrument speak, a voice that could express the range of human emotion. So it's not surprising some 27 years later in June 1996, when he and Rudd arrived in CIMP's Spirit Room, for one of the label's early sessions, it would be to lay down high-energy, no-holds-barred free jazz. Swell has proved himself in the past seven or so years not only to be a fine trombonist, but also a composer of distinction. His pieces for Out and About are bright, scene-setting fanfares, bugle calls sounding the charge. The blowing is rough-edged and enthusiastic. "Start Up", the first track recorded but the middle one of the seven captures the mood. The head, with its reference to Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something Big", launches Rudd into a humor-laced solo. Swell blows with complementary vigor before they lock horns. The interplay between the principals is the best part of the session. On "Walking the Dog", an easy going blues-like groove, Rudd wields his plunger and Swell answers with open horn as they bray joyfully at each other, their lines slipping and sliding together in animated conversation.

Rudd returned to the North Country compound that houses CIMP and its affiliate Rusch enterprises in November 1996 to record the first session under his own name since the 1982 session on Soul Note that he co-led with Steve Lacy, Misha Mengelberg, Kent Carter and Han Bennink (Regeneration). That session was devoted to the compositions of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. Rudd, a student and friend of Nichols, had served as caretaker of the older man's work, since Nichols' death in 1963. Nichols had bequeathed on Rudd a stack of compositions. These pieces had been penned after Nichols' legendary Blue Note sessions. Those Blue Notes had been the source of whatever tributes had been paid, including two of the three tracks on Regeneration.

Rudd arrived at the Spirit Room bearing what he called "the unheard Herbie Nichols". More conventionally minded musicians would have organized a session along the lines of the Soul Note gig, a conventional horns with rhythm section playing in the time-honored heads-solos-heads form. Rudd seems constitutionally disinclined to do anything quite the usual way. While most covers of the works of eccentrics like Monk and Nichols attempt to smooth out the oddities, Rudd brings them to the fore. The quirkiness of the session that resulted in two CDs, The Unheard Herbie Nichols Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (CIMP 133 and 146), is obvious from the personnel. Rudd employs two musicians he'd collaborated with in Rochester, NY: Greg Millar on guitar and John Bacon, Jr. on drums and vibes. So here we have a tribute to a pianist-composer known for his insistent bass figures that includes neither a piano nor a bass. The instrumentation is spare, even stark, especially when Millar solos with just drums for company, or on Volume 2's "Strange City" when Rudd gingerly approaches the high notes, employing several trombone tricks to help him enunciate them. Given CIMP's au naturale recording methods, the sound is naked.

Rudd structures the pieces in a manner that evokes the sessions during which he originally learned these compositions. The themes weave in and out of the performances sometimes coming only at the end, sometimes appearing after long introductions, sometimes interpolated among improvisations, and sometimes standing alone. The intent is always to sustain the integrity of the composition.

The self-effacing nature of Rudd's approach is evident from the first track on Volume 1, "Freudian Frolics", which is framed as a drum solo. Bacon's melodic theme-rooted statement acknowledges the percussive nature of Nichols' music. Indeed, Rudd doesn't step up to take an improvised solo until well into the third track, the long jam "Jamaica". On "Valse Macabre" he plays the melody, only slightly adorned, on mellophone, a French horn-like instrument that was the first horn he played as an 11-year-old in Clinton, NY. When he does enter five minutes into "Jamaica" he shouts out raw calypso lines, transforming the trio into a jam band. Here Rudd seems intent of evoking Nichols' state of mind as he composed "Jamaica" and as he revisited it and recomposed it in his sessions with Rudd. The long jam on Volume 2 "Tee Dum Tee Dee", a smeared bluesy rant, also recalls Rudd's living room sessions with Nichols. Rudd ventures here in a form he's clearly drawn to—the musical memoir.

On the tracks where Rudd plays unaccompanied ("One Twilight" and "Passing Thoughts" on Vol. 1 and "Vacation Blues" on Vol. 2) he strikes a tone of reminiscence. Not that he completely eschews more traditional approaches to the music; "Prancin' Pretty Woman" and "Karna Kanji" on Volume 1 and "Strange City" on Volume 2 are more conventional in structure, if still distinctive in their delivery.

Rudd had just returned from a trip to Europe when he recorded the Nichols celebration. There he worked with saxophonist Elton Dean, a veteran progressive rock and jazz performer whom he'd met in Carla Bley's band. Rumours of an Incident (Slam 223) resulted from the trip. It's a wondrous free two-song jam with the opener, "The Incident", running over 46 minutes. The live date captures the trombonist blowing solos in several modes - hard swinging, a soaring, robust ballad, some wry plunger, and an up-tempo gregarious angry bumblebee muted spot—against the aggressive, yet responsive support of pianist Alex Maguire, bassist Marcio Mattos and drummer Mark Sanders. Dean matches Rudd stroke for stroke, and they clearly revel in locking bells for some collective interplay.

A year later Rudd returned for another collaboration with Dean. On Newsense (Slam 229) the emphasis is more on composed material for a nonet that includes the all-star trombone section of Rudd, Paul Rutherford and Annie Whitehead. The trio's robust camaraderie colors the date. On the big-band like numbers "Three Forty" and "Allez Ali" the trombones are set off against Dean's alto saxophone and Jim Dvorak's trumpet. The rhythm section is the same as on Rumours except Mattos moves over to cello and Roberto Bellatalla assumes the bass chair. The sliphorn triumvirate interplay comes to the fore on their collectively improvised feature "Snap, Crackle and Pop". Rudd moves front and center on the delicious "Ruddfish Dish", which is credited to Dean yet it so captures the essential lyricism of the trombonist that unwary listeners may think it's the trombonist's composition. It's a classic Rudd performance, at once broad and wistful, with the trombonist wearing his heart on his bell. Needless to say, given the personnel, the CD contains much wonderful playing, that falls outside the purview of this essay, but deserves investigation by lovers of the European progressive scene.

Rudd was back in Europe a year later, and again was caught in a live performance with European fellow travelers on Four (Data 012). This time the site was the venerable jazz club the BIMhuis in Amsterdam and the gang consists of Dutch masters Ab Baars, bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Martin van Duynhoven, a returnee from Rudd's session Maine, recorded in Amsterdam 22 years before. Again as in the previous recordings covered, the listener would be hard-pressed to find much of a pattern from one year's recording to the next. Rudd proves again a boon fellow, enjoying the company of those he's with, contributing to the musical bon hommie, celebrating the moment. When I interviewed Rudd back in 1992, he clearly feared he may not be able to get back into the game. Now that he was he is obviously intent on making the most of every opportunity. Every outing seems to reveal a new facet of his musicianship. Four opens with five Baars-penned pieces. Aside from the giddy circus music charm of "Boo and Milly's Marching Band", these are abstract, sporadically lyrical chamber pieces that rely more on ensemble interaction than virtuoso solos.

The rest of the session is devoted to Rudd's four-part "The Year was 1503", announcing Roswell Rudd the vaudeville comedian! Suddenly the BIMhuis, a shrine of the Dutch avant-garde, becomes the Granit Hotel in the Catskills. Rudd introduces a series of fictional musical legends, using broad humor to poke fun at the excesses of jazz hagiography. The hotel drummer, the horsehead fiddler and Big Eye Louis Nelson are introduced in turn and in hyperbolic fashion before each has a chance to step forward to solo. On the opening piece, von Duynhoven does an especially good job of evoking his character with a solo that echoes the hotel drummer's name "Rattamacue P Segue Paradiddle and Yours Truly Pants Pressed While You Wait".

The piece concludes with Rudd himself as Bartolomeo Tromboncino, a Renaissance court trombonist who after a period of high success hit a low point during the depression. This Tromboncino also hung around with Copernicus, "my worthy constituent"—the turn of phrase borrowed from Charlie Parker's reference to Dizzy Gillespie at Massey Hall. While the story is surreal and boisterously declaimed, I hear echoes of Rudd's own experience. As a self-described devotee of Pythagoras, he has certainly communed via the written word with Copernicus and would have loved to pal around with Renaissance scholar. And he too had his own heyday during the height of free jazz in the 1960s, only to hit hard times. Now he had some hope those might be easing, enabling him to get back to doing what he loved, riding "that magical acoustical carpet" that he remembered from his childhood when he'd fall asleep while his father and his friends jammed downstairs. (Cadence, 10/92, p. 7)

Over the five years from Dark Is the Night to Four, Rudd had recorded in a variety of settings. What he hadn't done was reunite with those with whom he helped revolutionize the music in the 1960s. That was about to change. Those reunions as well as new solo releases and collaborations will be discussed in the second installment of this Rudd celebration.