Back in the World

Roswell Rudd's triumphant return to braying trombone excellence

In late June, Rudd brought his Malicool band to Jazz Standard minus the kora—the African player slated to fill in for Diabate was stranded in Paris after his passport got stolen. "We have the kora in ourselves," Rudd assured the audience. But maybe not. "Charming as this is and as much as I'm enjoying it, I don't hear a single Malian element," claimed the guy next to me, an esteemed rock critic who knows more about world music than I ever will, midway through the opening "Way Down in Mali." Frankly, all that mattered to me, as Rudd burst loose from a steel-drum groove, was that the African instrumentation supplied an effective backdrop. It was a pleasure to hear him in full cry, a jabbing reminder of why he was so missed.

But for those who prefer their Rudd bare-boned, there's Airwalkers (a collaboration with bassist Mark Dresser) and Early and Late, featuring him on tour with Lacy and the late sopranoist's regular bassist and drummer in 1999 and 2002, and—not just an afterthought, but the double CD's raison d'être—as a member of a quartet Lacy used to record four previously unissued 1962 demos.

With Dresser snapping strings against wood until it creaks and Rudd blowing so hard you can hear the metal in his horn resonate, the freely improvised duets on Airwalkers are elemental, but not strictly—there's also plenty of in-tempo walking and wailing, and it inevitably comes across as something both players were planning all along, never a momentary respite from all the sonic hijinks. Rudd's tone is as beery as any trombonist's since Jack Teagarden, and it serves him well on "Don't Blame Me," the album's only standard and a genuine heartbreaker.

Roswell (left) and Yomo Toro throw down
photo: Verna Gillis
Roswell (left) and Yomo Toro throw down

Lacy, who had in common with Rudd an apprenticeship in Dixieland, also retained a love for polyphony, and some of Early and Late's best moments come when what starts off as a solo escalates into full-scale simultaneous improvisation, Lacy splitting notes and dirtying up his tone here and there to match Rudd's growls. (For his part, Rudd quotes nursery rhymes in keeping with the sprung rhythms of Lacy's tunes.) But the set's real value lies in those demos by an historically crucial quartet otherwise represented on record by only a dim and poorly distributed concert LP released years after the fact. Despite eventually becoming notorious for playing Monk—and only Monk—before anyone else quite grasped either the full extent of his deviations from bebop orthodoxy or the whole point of jazz repertory, the quartet was still interspersing its Thelonious with tunes by other composers when they made their only foray into the studio.

So along with pianoless interpretations of "Think of One" and "Eronel" (two takes) that head straight for the spry melodies above and the off-kilter rhythms below those suspended chords, their audition also included a curving, spinning, and polyphonic (naturally) dash through Cecil Taylor's "Tune 2" that might have settled the question of his direct lineage from Monk once and for all, had anyone heard it back then. Heard today, the brainy intensity on all four performances—plus the enduring riddle of their song-based approach to free improvisation—keeps them sounding new, situated in evolving tradition rather than in the past. They are this year's rara avis, hands down.

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