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Roswell Rudd : Rudd Revival (Part 2)

Tucked into the credits on Four by the Ab Baars Trio with Roswell Rudd, the last item covered in part one of this overview of the work of Roswell Rudd since his re-emergence, is the name of Verna Gillis. "Roswell Rudd represented by Verna Gillis/Soundscape", the notes for the 1998 session read. This marked a significant development for the trombonist, and one that would bear fruit the following year. Gillis helped initiate reunion sessions with some of Rudd's most noted associates—John Tchicai, Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp. She also produced an ambitious session under his own name and provided him entry into the music of Mali, opening another new avenue for Rudd's restless muse.

The first recorded product of this partnership was a reunion of the members of the New York Art Quartet: Tchicai, Milford Graves, Rudd and Reggie Workman. 35th Reunion marks the group's founding by the saxophonist and trombonist in 1964. As with so many groups founded in the turbulent atmosphere of the free period, it lasted only two years and left a scant recording legacy. But then such fleeting existence is what many a legend is made of.

For those who admired the ensemble's Fontana and ESP recordings, the prospect of the reunion promised much. I for one always have wanted to like 35th Reunion more than I do. Part of the problem is the impossibility of recapturing the edgy attitude of youth, that certain devil-may-care earnestness. All the players here have moved on and created vital music in the intervening 35 years. Rudd has always insisted that this and other sessions with compatriots from the 1960s are not revivals, but rather opportunities to pick up unfinished business.

In this June 1999 session the business seems destined to be left unfinished. Rudd's "VG's Birthday Jamboree" and Graves' "Perceiving Passerby's" best capture the old spirit. Even here though, Rudd and Tchicai (for whom the larger tenor now replaces his dry, acrid alto) seem not to be connecting—Rudd sputters and ruminates on the far left and Tchicai ruminates on the right. Part of the problem is the presence of Amiri Baraka. Baraka, then still known as Leroi Jones, made a guest appearance reciting his "Black Dada Nihilismus" on the band's 1965 recording for ESP. Here he becomes a fifth member of the quartet; and to my ears at least, a fifth wheel. The recitations prove distracting, seeming at times to derail the band's forward momentum. The nadir is his improvised work on Tchicai's "Seek Light at Once", which includes a list of obvious cultural references to the 1960s and degenerates into literal baby talk. His best work comes on Rudd's "Music's Underwear", where he turns down the volume and blends more comfortably with the group's textures. With Graves and Workman on board this session is never less than expertly played, but it never catches fire. Maybe next time.

A week later in France, Rudd hooked up with another long-time collaborator, soprano saxophone maestro, composer and bandleader Steve Lacy. The ties between the two men date back to the late 1950s when both were playing Dixieland. Over the years, though Rudd remained stateside and Lacy relocated to Europe, they still recorded together occasionally, notably on Trickles, a 1976 Lacy recording on Black Saint.

The title of their reunion session, Monk's Dream, evokes the promise of their most notable collaboration, a quartet dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk. The so-called School Days quartet (post-named for the group's sole recording that appeared first on Emanem in the 1970s and was most recently reissued by Hat Art) devoted itself to freewheeling and canny dissections of Monk's oeuvre. While the instrumentation is the same, the spare mix of soprano saxophone, trombone with bass and drums, Monk's Dream really isn't a reunion session. Rather we find Rudd joining Lacy's long established trio to jam on a couple Monk gems, Ellington's "Koko" and a half-dozen Lacy favorites.

The repertoire seems safe, and the playing sounds a little safe. Lacy's playing especially sounds like a distillation of his work, Rudd displays just how well his chops were getting back into shape and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch are simply one of the best rhythm duos in the music. They bring a well of color, and a deeply rooted sense of groove to everything they play. "Koko" shows Rudd's hand in arranging and his deep love of Ellington. (See the Candid session that featured a couple of his charts played by a small band that included Lacy, pianist Cecil Taylor in his last recording of someone else's music and Clark Terry.) Bookended by brief episodes of free interplay, the score reduction has Lacy's piping horn against Rudd's plunger muted trombone to evoke the entire Ellington brass section. Underneath Avenel and Betsch engage in a thoroughly modern song and dance.

"The Bath" provides a glimpse of Rudd's own form of musical theater. With his horn he paints the scene of a bum taking his first bath in a long time. He opens with a breathy tone that sounds like water bubbling up through ancient pipes. He continues to summon the image of the water steaming as it hits the tub, and finally loosening into a steady stream. In an extended solo, Rudd traces the turns of the bum's reverie. Each phrase takes on a different emotional color as the bum reflects. When Rudd and the trio went on tour in 2000, he extended this even further, giving comic voice to the interior monologue. I caught the band on the last two nights of its cross-continental tour and by then it had jelled into a working unit, with Rudd reveling in his role as comic provocateur. Too bad no live recordings of this Lacy-Rudd quartet were made.

While Rudd was engaged in these two reunion sessions, he was also in the process of recording Broad Strokes, the album that would serve as an official proclamation of his return. Not surprisingly, given Rudd's romantic inclinations, the session is devoted to ballads. Also unsurprising given Rudd's musical reach is the manner in which the definition of ballad gets stretched to the extreme. This is certainly not a set of sedate renderings of sentimental tunes. Rather it is a sprawling, messy recital grounded in Rudd's life. He even has a love ballad about an affair between a Great Dane and a German Shepherd mix sung by his son Chris, a tune that reflects Rudd's love of animals -- he has adopted animals from New York City pounds.

The trombonist pays tribute to those who inspired him throughout—Monk on "Coming on the Hudson", recorded at the same session as the Lacy date; Herbie Nichols on "Change of Season", which opens the session and is reprised at the close; and Ellington with the medley of "All Too Soon" and "Way Low". As a whole, the session features a variety of bands recorded over an eight-month period. Four of the tracks feature a five-horn frontline that includes three trombones: Rudd, Steve Swell and Josh Roseman. Otherwise the personnel shift from track to track, as does the mood. On "God Had a Girlfriend" Rudd enlists help of musicians he worked with in the Catskills to tell the tale of his thwarted effort to start a nightclub in 1974. On "Theme from Babe" he blows over the top of an electronic cushion supplied by Sonic Youth. Swell, Lacy and Elton Dean return from various sessions he recorded in the years preceding. And most notably, vocalist Sheila Jordan joins him for "The Light", a hymn as much as a ballad celebrating Rudd's belief in Pythagorean philosophy. Jordan delivers an earnest, emotional reading of the theme; Rudd only steps forward once she's finished, starting quietly. Slowly he builds a jubilant solo, full of gospel fervor. But for all its sense of clutter, Broad Strokes remains an enduring, engaging addition to Rudd's discography.

A few weeks before the last Broad Strokes session, Rudd traveled to Boston to participate in a project devoted to his compositions led by his former student, saxophonist and composer Charles Kohlhase. Eventuality (Nada) almost seems like an alternative version of a Rudd coming out recording. Unlike Broad Strokes, this date focuses exclusively on Rudd's compositions: No Monk, Nichols or Duke. And as such it provides a well-rounded portrait of the artist.

"Siva & Sakti" demonstrates just how the ancient and modern, sacred and profane intersect in his work. The piece references the cosmic lovers of Hinduism, is dedicated to friends and supporters of composer's, a married couple, and draws its harmonic underpinnings from the standard "Like Someone in Love". The song is intoned by Rudd on mellophone, the instrument he first played in grade school, and Kohlhase on alto saxophone over bassist John Turner's bowed counterpoint. The song is through composed and stretches over six minutes. In it Rudd draws a lyrical line from the classic ballad writers of Broadway through Monk and Nichols to his own distinctive expression.

Rudd also has a knack for using simple ideas to great affect. The blues "Palmer House Rocking" (dedicated to the people at a residence for the mentally handicapped where Rudd worked during the 1990s after his gig at the Granit Hotel) takes an easy-on-the-ear figure and, through voicings and background figures, turns it into a jamming vehicle for the entire band. "Something of Yours", inspired by a letter from Lacy, hints at the soprano saxophonist's own compositions before shifting into a Dixie clambake. Rudd also benefits from the services of the members of Kohlhase working band, the Charles Kohlhase Five. Kohlhase provides the principal solo voice, playing mostly angular, acerbic alto. On "Joel" (written for Herbie Nichols' father), Rudd presents a straight-ahead swing tune with room for everyone to step forward and blow.

The session closes with comic high jinks, in an evocation of a studio band playing for a talk show. The snazzy show band wail gets periodically cut off by some verbal chatter, or in Rudd's word, "imbroglio". The band gets further and further out, until it bursts into a free roar that stops suddenly midstream. "What a cut off!" Rudd proclaims, getting in the last word.

As Rudd continued to reunite on the bandstand with former colleagues, anticipation built among his most loyal followers for a meeting with Archie Shepp. The saxophonist, composer, dramatist and all-around provocateur led a quintet from 1965 until 1969 that was a defining force in the second generation of the avant-garde as well as a too-little-credited influence on the neo-traditionalists of the next two generations. With his broad, expressionistic style that resonated with the overtones of the entire history of the music and flair for the dramatic wedded to an acute awareness of politics, he seemed the natural figure to be designated by the media as the spokesman, the "angry" spokesman no less, of his generation. This image even earned Shepp a mention in the Ken Burns PBS documentary Jazz, which otherwise downplayed the avant-garde. During this period Rudd served as his aide-de-camp, arranging music, including the Ellington pieces they both loved and Nichols' "Lady Sings the Blues", providing a complementary frontline voice that matched Shepp's in its range of reference.

In the intervening three decades both had gone on to explore more traditional aspects of that range. Brought together in late September 2000, the band that hit the stage at the Jazz Standard was sorely lacking in preparation, but had spirit to spare. Grachan Moncur III, who joined the frontline in later versions of the quintet, is on hand as was the crack rhythm team of Reggie Workman, again on bass, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Amiri Baraka reads "We Are the Blues (Funklore)", in a performance more in balance with the proceedings than his work on the New York Art Quartet recording. If that recording came off as an all-star session and the Lacy session had Rudd in the role as guest artist with an established group, then this session has all the makings of a gathering of old friends.

The playing is vivacious, with the music spilling out of the horns like old friends gathering around a table for drinks, except that these old friends are less concerned with recounting the glory days than with catching each other up on what they've been doing since. Shepp's explorations of the romantic tradition comes through in his singing and piano playing on "Steam", composed for his cousin who died at 15 in a street fight, and "Déjà vu" with opens with a ballad statement by Rudd. The session closes with "Hope No. 2", his paean to bop composer Elmo Hope. "Ujamma" comes from the repertoire of his 1970s quintet.

Rudd brings five compositions to the table, including the opener "Keep Your Heart Right", the band's former theme song. Rudd also contributes "Slide by Slide"; with its slithering old-timey opening and rollicking blowing sections, it's a far cry from the wild interplay of "Portrait of Robert Thompson" recorded in December 1967. Still, it's a fitting celebration of the brotherhood of the sliphorn. When Rudd would talk about whom he wanted to play with again, he always put Moncur high on the list, a reflection both of esteem for his fellow trombonist-composer as well as his love of the bold sound of multiple trombones. Moncur's work on "Slide by Slide" is characteristic of his playing throughout the session—spare, punchy, sounding like he's dueting with Workman's firm, responsive bass. That interest in multiple 'bones echoes his use of a trombone trio on Broad Strokes and looks forward to his recent Trombone Shout band that toured Mali. His African interests are also reflected in the inclusion of "Bamako", a song inspired by his first visit to Mali. The piece was a favorite at this time. It was also a part of the repertoire of the Lacy-Rudd touring quartet.

Though these signs of where he was headed were clear, revisiting his former work was not yet a thing of the past. The Nexus Orchestra, the Italian progressive big band founded and led by percussionist Tiziano Tononi and saxophonist Daniele Calvallanti, invited Rudd to join them in celebrating the ensemble's 20th year of existence. Rudd visited twice in 2001, first in May to record original Nexus compositions and later in November to record a new version of his "Numatik Swing Band", released as Seize the Time (Splasc(h)).

"Numatik Swing Band" was first commissioned and waxed in 1973 by the Jazz Composers Orchestra during a burst of visibility for Rudd. He, with his wife Moselle and pianist Hod O'Brien, had opened the New York City nightclub and recorded with a band featuring Sheila Jordan on vocals. The recording showed his more adventurous side compared to the more commercial leanings of the Arista date with Jordan, and it featured one of the masterpieces of Rudd's career: The solo on the "Circulation" movement. As that solo built to its climax, Rudd turned a perfectly formed lyrical gem—so perfect, I always assumed it was part of the composition. So listening through on the Nexus version I kept waiting for it, but it never came—the sole disappointment of this recording.

"Numatik Swing Band" is also Rudd's tribute to the art of wind playing. The opening "Vent" sounds like a primordial horn band warming up, with the occasional bellow of an elephant in the distance. Over four of its five movements, Rudd explores the continuing implications of humanity's discovery that such beautiful noise can be made by blowing into hollow devices. With Nexus, Rudd expands the piece some to give more musicians blowing room—and not only horn players, as the bass team Tito Mangialojo and Paolino DallaPorta sound the final notes and guitarist Roberto Cecchetto says his piece. The second movement, "Breath'A Howard" (subtitled here "The flat-foot version"), blossoms from the original three-minute feature for Howard Johnson's tuba on the original to a six-minute swinging jam. The concluding "Aerosphere" gets similar expansion, with the Italian crew making the most of the space.

Nexus provides an ideal environment for Rudd, a large sprawling ensemble with just the right mix of discipline and spontaneity. That comes through on Tononi's "The BloodDrumSpirit Suite". Clearly Nexus members were a great host because Rudd sounds in fine brawling form here, and perfectly at home. The session is not only notable for his work either. For those who haven't explored this band's work, Seize the Time is a great place to start. Given the personnel, it also serves as a good introduction to the more adventurous elements in Italy's vibrant jazz scene.
As is obvious from the scope of his work over the past decade, Rudd is not just interested in revisiting the past. The most dramatic testament to that came with MALIcool (Universal), a date he co-led with Toumani Diabete of Mali. He first traveled with Verna Gillis to Mali in February 2000. When I talked with him later that spring during his tour with Lacy, he was still exuberant over the trip and the possibilities. MALIcool was recorded at a later date (the notes don't state when), and the repertoire is a mix of Rudd and Diabete originals along with some unexpected covers.

Unlike other jazz musicians who have used African elements to provide a bit of exotic color, Rudd immerses himself in the African context with an electric bass and guitar as the only other Western instruments. (In Sayon Sisoko's hands the guitar even returns to its Moorish roots.) The session opens with Rudd's "Bamako", presented here in its full glory. The simple melody rings out amid a tangle of strings with Diabete's kora commenting on Rudd's Malian reverie. The pulse is insistent, yet oddly delicate. The tempo picks up with Diabete's "Rosmani", as the strings and Lassana Diabete's ballophone weave crossrhythms underneath Rudd's plunger-muted hollers. Diabete's two other contributions have a country lilt to them. A listener, I think, would be hard pressed to tell which compositions here are the works of American or the Malian composer; both use the resources of this crosscultural ensemble to create distinctive sound.

The ensemble also jams on some odd vehicles: Monk's "Jackie-ing" sounds strangely at home, while jams on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", "Malijam", "Summertime", and the traditional Welsh lullaby "All Through the Night" provide insight into the interactions among the musicians. Rudd's loose, vocal delivery and harmonic sensibilities help him blend in with his Malian colleagues.

He has since played live in New York with Diabete and a version of MALIcool. He's also returned to Mali fronting another promising ensemble, his Trombone Shout band—inspired in part by the music of the United House of Prayer, an African-American religious denomination centered mostly on the Eastern Seaboard. Rudd is making clear that he hasn't finished adding on to his already distinguished legacy. In the past 10 years, he has played some of the best music of his life, and he shows every indication that there's more to come. And for that, music lovers should glad.