Saved by the Classics

Bell Meets (Is?) Big Brother

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!

Max Roach at Columbia U: refusing to flinch, then slamming all the doors
photo: Michael Macioce
Max Roach at Columbia U: refusing to flinch, then slamming all the doors

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.

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