The Dark Tree

By Santoro, Gene | The Nation, October 21, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Dark Tree

Santoro, Gene, The Nation

Allan Bloom has analogues all over the cultural landscape, and jazz is no exception. The One Great Tradition theory is currently popular in neocon jazz quarters; Jelly Roll to Louis to Duke to Bird-it sounds almost like a triple-play combo. And yet it takes nothing away from such indisputable greats to admit that there have been numberless musicians whose names have rarely become known to general audiences, or even to most jazz fans, who have nevertheless exerted a profound influence on the folks they played with as well as on those who've come after them.

Take, for example, the impact on Muhal Richard Abrams, founder of the seminal Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of two historical ciphers, King Fleming and John Dennis. Fleming led a big band in Chicago in the early 1950s and gave the then fledgling pianist Abrams his first gig as an arranger. In 1962 Fleming cut Stand By (Argo), an extraordinary excursion into rhythmic invention. His recordings never got out of Chicago in any significant way; now in his 70s, he plays lounges in suburban Illinois and the Midwest. In 1955 the Philadelphia-based Dennis made one record as a leader, New Piano Expressions, for Debut, the label founded by Charles Mingus and Max Roach; that record was also poorly distributed. Nobody's quite sure what happened to Dennis after that. But the two-handed approach to the keyboard that he and Fleming favored caused Abrams to rethink the post-Bud Powell attack that, with its atrophied left hand and lightning-bolt right, dominated postwar jazz for a couple of generations.

As Abrams-who, along with the A.A.C.M., is now based in New York-sees it, "Fleming and Dennis don't play licks; they play ideas. That's the older school, like Fats Waller and Art Tatum, again. Those guys weren't interested in a body of licks that were set down by one or two people that they could grab and make cliched connections with. It's a different way to think-trying to tell a story instead of showing off flash." In line with that way of thinking, since the formation of his Experimental Band in 1961 and the founding of the A.A.C.M. in 1965, the incredibly open-eared Abrams has consistently expanded his own vocabulary to include everything from stride to swing to serialism to post-Ornette Coleman, post-Albert Ayler breakthroughs to international musics.

To cite just one example, on his most recent album, last year's brilliant The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint), Abrams wittily combined gorgeously written ensembles and thick-textured charts a la Duke and Mingus with blithely skipping playground-type tunes a la Omette for an eighteen-piece band of first-rate players, including multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich, trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater and Jack Walrath (a Mingus Dynasty veteran), and bassist Fred Hopkins. And in mid-September at New York's Symphony Space, he led an eight-piece ensemble that included six percussionists through the beautifully articulated jazz-meets-gamelan piece "Percussion 26 (1)"; it projected a vivid three-dimensional sonic image as it moved gracefully from section to section. In some ways, it was the conceptual extension of Miles Davis's On the Corner (CBS). Abrams will be appearing with his octet from the album A View From Within (Black Saint) at the Victoriaville (Quebec) jazz festival in midOctober. And on his new Blu Blu Blu (Black Saint), he updates and redefines the gritty electric blues of his Chicago youth: The title cut is dedicated to Mc-Kinley Morganfield, a k a Muddy Waters. As Abrams characteristically puts it, "It takes me backwards and forwards."

Sub-aural pioneers like Fleming and Dennis-and, for that matter, Abrams himself, whose influence on three generations of musicians via the revolutionary A.A.C.M. is as incalculable as it is largely unknown to the general public-are the knots tying jazz's history together. So when you discover one, there's often a sense of deja vu, because you've heard his stuff before through the scrim of the folks who've picked up on him. But that's counterbalanced by the wonderful zest of strangeness, which reminds you that you'd only caught the refraction, not the light source itself.

Horace Tapscott is just another outrageously powerful example of this underground current of history and the duality of perception at work. A trombonist until he was sidelined by a car crash in the early 1960s, Tapscott played in his Los Angeles school band with Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry, and he later worked with band-leaders Gerald Wilson and Lionel Hampton. Switching to piano-his mother had trained him-after the accident, he settled back into the Central Avenue scene that had nurtured him. As John Litweiler explains in his definitive The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (Da Capo), "Back in 1961, four years before Chicago's AACM, the long-experienced Horace Tapscott founded the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMMA) to produce concerts by his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra." Along with the late clarinet great John Carter and cornetist/trumpeter Bobby Bradford, he helped spawn a new generation that includes David Murray and Arthur Blythe of the World Saxophone Quartet. Blythe, in fact, made his recording debut with Tapscott.

All of which makes the incendiary but disciplined sounds of The Dark Tree (hat ART) very welcome indeed. Art Lange's detailed, insightful liner notes point out that Tapscott's releases over the past ten years have rarely made it out of L.A. So this stuffed-to-the-soundbites two-CD set joining Tapscott with Carter, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Andrew Cyrille opens into a panoramic view, a retrospective culmination of what we've been missing.

As a composer/arranger, Tapscott can wax complexly lyrical, as on the haunting "A Dress for Renee," where he strides from impressionism to ragtime in a beautifully dovetailed art-song ballad. Or he can plug into a genially loping blueswith-a-twist like "Bavarian Mist." But on The Dark Tree he focuses primarily on hammering ostinatos that swell into ominous overtones as they power the soloists into post-Ornette territory. With the fabulous rhythm section and soloists the album boasts, that's a recipe for a hypnotic force packing the wallop of Hurricane Bob.

Carter, like Bradford, was a boyhood pal of Ornette; he was also one-fourth of the underrated Clarinet Summit quartet, along with Murray, New Orleans great Alvin Batiste and longtime Ellington sideman Jimmy Hamilton. The group released finely wrought albums during the 1980s on small labels like India Navigation and Black Saint. Although all four reached beyond Benny Goodman's swing and Buddy DeFranco's bebop, Carter in particular brought the reed instrument out of its then somewhat anachronistic status. His astonishingly vocalic clarinet sometimes recalls Dolphy's as it cries and whinnies, sings and screams with a stunningly rhapsodic abandon.

Carter was also, of course, a frighteningly ambitious composer in his own right; his five-album series Roots and Folklore. Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music (Black Saint/ Gramavision) was one of the outstanding achievements of the eighties. It traces in musical form the intersection of preslavery African civilizations and Western cultures and their ensuing entwined history without ever lapsing into static allegory. Drawing, for instance, on forms of the various periods it covers, from field hollers to blues and swing, it reinterprets those sounds into contemporary idioms, including noise, dissonance and chromaticism, in order to create a compelling sonic narrative. Voices, either scatting or singing pointed lyrics, appear periodically. And fierce ostinatos, like Tapscott's, are used to suggest the thrusting drive of postwar life. But while the series made a number of critics' end-of-the-decade ten-best lists, it didn't make much of a dent in the marketplace, and Carter only got to perform sections of it on a couple of rare occasions, as in an under-attended performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1989.

Local scenes-like the one in the 1960s that Carter, Bradford and Tapscott played key roles in-are more often than not underdocumented in recordings, and the records that do exist are more often than not poorly distributed, since the only true national distribution pipelines in the United States are owned and operated by the six major labels. European and small U.S. labels, the usual sources for nonmainstream material, typically either have to depend on a patchwork of regional distributors, who are notoriously unreliable, or else piggyback on a major's network, which leaves their relatively small-selling releases at the mercy of an uninterested sales force. Even the recent major-label reissue West Coast Hot (Novus), which collects some terrific Flying Dutchman sides from the Ornette-inflected 1969 Carter-Bradford quartet and Tapscott's 1969 quintet, including an earlier version of "The Dark Tree" that features Blythe, was simply dribbled out unheralded.

Worse still, recording for a small label is not necessarily helpful these days when performers are looking for gigs. Promoters and most club owners, like radio program directors, prefer to deal with artists who have big-company "product" in their pockets, if only because of the promotional budgets that back them. But even if a small- or no-label player lands a live date, it doesn't necessarily follow that it will be covered by the press. The farther away from the media margins you get, the more likely it is that editors want stories tied to current recordings and chart positions. While that's understandable from the standpoint of circulation, it also completes the closing of the vicious circle that ties together recording and distribution control, record company promotion, press coverage and airplay. (To get a hint of how that circle can work, take a look at the enormous orchestrated media attention that a commercially successful rock band like Guns N' Roses can currently command.) So whether you're a jazz or rock musician, more often than not you won't get noticed if you don't have a big record on a big label, except in ever-decreasing segments of the music press and the occasional review in a local daily or alternative weekly paper. And thus your anonymity and the One Great Tradition theory become mutually reinforcing.

At least some of the many music festivals held around the United States every summer try to correct that misperception partially by featuring local artists along with national headliners. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, for instance, puts the big touring acts on two stages, and reserves the many small stages and tents for regional musicians who generally have no record deals and rarely, if ever, get outside the Deep South. There you could have seen saxophonist Edward "Kidd" Jordan, an omnivorous player who's willing and able to share the stage with boppers, lounge lizards, free jazzers and rappers alike. Later in the summer you could have caught him at the edges of the Chicago Jazz Festival, where he hooked up with some of Chicago's little-known legends at South End MusicWorks, a small loft-style venue. Along with saxophonists Fred Anderson and Douglas Ewart, Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Dushun Mosley, he created a Pharaoh Sanders-inspired set full of dynamically shifting overtones so finely calibrated that the room itself felt like it had begun to vibrate.

Like the New Orleans shindig, the Chicago fest always includes regional acts, such as pianist John Young, violinist Johnny Frigo or second-generation A.A.C.M. member Vandy Harris, who usually don't get out of the Windy City. And because it's free to the public in lakeside Grant Park, it draws curious crowds who, in the course of any evening's varied program, can get turned on to music they didn't know anything about. Like any big festival, it also acts as a magnet that energizes more outboard segments of the local scene. Since folks from around the country come to town for it, after-hours jams at small clubs like South End or Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase can introduce the curious to new sounds, like the music of Hal Russell.

Like Tapscott in L.A., multi-instrumentalist Russell is an offbeat local institution in Chicago, an elder statesman who works consistently with younger players, most of whom also double on various instruments. Russell's music, however, stays pretty far from the dark anger that fuels much of Tapscott's. His NRG Ensemble can slide easily from broad vaudevillian humor to outside blowing, sometimes in the space of a few bars. So on Conserving NRG (PJP), the quintet swerves from off-the-wall ensembles to pure blasts of angular improvisations to wickedly funny jump-cuts and parodies, while Hal on Earth (Hal Russell Music) boasts a hilarious medley-tribute to Fred Astaire, complete with the sound of dancing feet.

This fall, Russell will be doing a few rare dates around North America, starting with the Victoriaville jazz festival in Canada. Check your local listings to find out if his weird spacecraft has targeted your town. If not, try to hang on until spring of next year, when ECM, a decent-sized German label with reasonably credible US. distribution, will release The Finnish-Swiss Tour. It should be the first Russell album to make it out of Chicago, except for the copies the man himself sells from the stage at the end of every performance.

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The Dark Tree


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