21st-Century History

Three Classic Avant-Garde Schools Come Together Not a Moment Too Soon

'Momentum Space' (Verve) by Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor, and Elvin Jones — yes, the billing order is strange—was recorded last year and released several months ago with no fanfare and little serious response, pro or con. I have heard it denounced as disappointing, which makes me wonder how lofty are the prayers that haven't been answered and reminds me of reviews of the 1961 collaboration between Armstrong and Ellington. Critics then were disgruntled because Ellington didn't compose a concerto to mark the occasion; critics now embrace their meeting as a hitherto neglected classic. I have also heard Momentum Space dissed as a rip-off because the full trio appears on only two selections, which is like spurning a great Monk solo because Coltrane laid out. The two selections, incidentally, total 30 minutes, more than half the CD's playing time, though that's beside the point. This is a considered and focused album — not an autumnal all-star caucus like the Giants of Jazz in the '70s, but a unique and artful collaboration.

Even if the music and conceptual organization were less remarkable, this disc would be one for the books, as a détente deferred much longer than the Armstrong-Ellington sessions. The avant-garde movement that took shape in the late 1950s and 1960s was unprecedented, not least for the distance maintained by the three principals: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. That breach was only partly mandated by their discrete apprenticeships — respectively, in the conservatory, r&b, and jazz itself — and the routes they took in fomenting a new jazz. Parker, Gillespie, and Monk went separate ways, but that didn't stop them from partnering each other; if they weren't less competitive, they were surely less adamant about guarding their turfs. Coltrane recorded once with Taylor and once with Coleman's band, but never with Coleman, who has never recorded with Taylor.

It may sound slighting to think of Elvin Jones, the most influential and original drummer of his generation, and Dewey Redman, a masterful and versatile tenor saxophonist, as proxies for Coltrane and Coleman, but Momentum Space doesn't merely imply a convergence of these three academies. It delivers. In case anyone misses the point, Redman quotes "Lonely Woman" a minute or so into the climactic selection. The interprenetrating echoes of the original troika are heightened by the absence of bass or any other instrument. Indeed, those echoes were underscored after the fact by the stunning duets Taylor and Jones recently performed at the Blue Note, as 11:30 add-ons to sets by Jones's regular band.

There were lines east and west of the door for the September 9 set, a historic evening less for what it said about the past than for the electric immediacy of the event. With theater kept to a minimum—Taylor wore all white but for a red scarf and Jones wore all black but for a few red salmon on his T-shirt—and the host limiting himself to the low-frequency rumble of mallets, the encounter was peaceably fervent, the music rising and falling like mountains and plains seen from a train, the peaks in density giving way to hushed parabolas of melody, much of it expansively romantic and yet exactingly resolute.

The album is something else. For one thing, it is an album, the seven parts organized to suggest a de facto suite. At just under an hour, it possesses the happy semblance of an LP. Tracks one through three might be considered side one and the remaining four side two. How fitting that the innovators of a music famous for solos of unprecedented length should buck the CD edict of more-is-more with a work of overall restraint.

It opens with a bang. Redman launches his own "Nine" with one raucous ascending arpeggio, followed by an interlude in which an aggressive Jones and a quizzical Taylor feel each other out until Redman's return. Despite his warmer sound and centered pitch, Redman embodies the Coleman style, and as he guns his motor we hear for the first time ever a congruence of the avant-garde's key schools—the Coleman cry amid rugged polyrhythms of the sort that shadowed Coltrane and the keyboard-splashing Taylor conceived to evade or negotiate every kind of harmonic radar. Taylor is consistently fascinating, playing step passages in accompaniment and glisses to set up his own solo, which erupts with trinkling chords (a Theloneologism, as in "Trinkle Tinkle") and storming bass marches that counter treble cataracts, all contained with a blueslike repetitiveness—hardly atonal, that deathless canard, though the key darts around like a gazelle.

Jones's "Bekei" is a playful mallets solo that could serve as a bare-bones demonstration of his trademark approach to time. Other drummers found their way to metrical freedom by de-emphasizing the one in favor of changeable patterns that trampled the bar lines. Jones has always relied on the one to impose order, but in superimposing three over four and adding rhythmic crosscurrents, he implies — in a harmolodic sort of way—all rhythms at once. His affinity for triple-meter sets him apart; Jones is the true waltz king. In "Bekei," he maneuvers a deceptively simple three-beat figure (two on the bass drum, the third on cymbals) through lucid variations, implying several signatures. On "Spoonin'," a duet with Redman that follows, he holds the rhythm in suspension as he drives the time, finally breaking out in a typically charged onslaught. Except during a parallel burst of heady harmonics, Redman mines his most soulful timbre, spinning a tale on the borderline of customary swing.

If this were an LP, you would flip it for the suite within the suite, Taylor's triptych: "Life As," "It," "Is." The first section, for solo piano, is a marvel of concision and control. He begins impassively with two tones over 15 seconds, then probes melody without conventional form or resolution—melody that exists more in the alternations of single pitches and chords and of bass and treble than in linear design, but melody all the same. The opening gambit and the sudden dynamic buildup of crisp chords and utopian tremolos are reminiscent of Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, but without the gothic melodrama. Thoughts of Liszt disappear as chord flurries curl up at the edges with blue notes and distinctive motifs abound, patterned with eighth-note rests, before the symmetrical wind-down, which includes a great climactic vortex before returning to silence with one long sustained note.

Contrastingly, "It" opens with bounding dancelike figures—Taylor in a chipper mood and Jones following his every step with polyrhythmic chatter on snares and cymbal. This is a freer and more kinetic number; about two-thirds through Taylor tickles the keys until the piano rocks with laughter, then sighs as the drums take it out. Redman returns for the balladic opening of the oddly structured 21-minute pièce de résistance, "Is." The surprising reference to "Lonely Woman" is made especially notable by the response: the spreading ripples of the cymbal, the swirling keyboard arpeggio that cradles the melody. Other memory-chords are struck as well: Redman's long yearning notes, recalling Coltrane in his "Alabama" period, or the brittler Archie Shepp sonority he invokes in a later passage; Jones chasing a mercurial Taylor with the Blakey-like press rolls he employed to keep Coltrane on track while "Chasin' the Trane." In this context, they become waves for the piano to surf. The intensifying trio consummates the euphoric madness of '60s free jazz, and even after Redman drops out, Taylor's simultaneous bass lines and flashing chords create the illusion of a trio—Elvin and two Cecils.

After a midway recap, Redman disappears from the piece and is conspicuously absent from the closing recapitulation. Maybe he shied away from reentering because of the intensity of the duet that ensues, with Taylor rocking and riffing and slowing down for contemplative respites. Elvin, too, takes a break during the most fanciful of those meditations, complete with supersonic harplike glissando, until Taylor brings him back with a two-note call and they fade off, two septuagenarians who remain constitutionally incapable of making background music. Redman returns for a 40-second sign-off of split-tones and a holler. What else is there to add except amen? Don't wait until 2030 to join the congregation.

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