Back in the World

Roswell Rudd's triumphant return to braying trombone excellence

For the good of his or her soul, every critic ought to perform at least one good deed. Mine entailed schlepping to a Catskills resort in 1991—braving poolside yoga classes and investment seminars, not to mention cocktail hour and the nightly floor show—in search of Roswell Rudd.

Before going missing in the mid-'80s, Rudd was lionized by critics as the archetypal free-jazz trombonist, the pre-eminent voice on that horn after J.J. Johnson. But Rudd was equally admired by critics hostile or indifferent to free jazz, and by some never completely sold on bebop, for being as much a throwback as an avant-gardist. Johnson's innovation had been assimilating Charlie Parker as part of bebop's initial thrust; in Germany a decade later, Albert Mangelsdorff's early style was likewise saxophone-inspired, though modeled on Lee Konitz and cool. These efforts made the instrument seem more graceful by deflecting attention from its tubular design and potentially awkward mechanics. Rudd chose the opposite route, reawakening images of the trombone as a projectile—a horn that entered jazz growling or braying like an animal at the head of a parade or on the back of a truck. His first recordings, as a Yalie in the late '50s, were with an undergrad trad outfit called Eli's Chosen Six, and despite updating rhythmically and harmonically, he'd gone right on tailgating and initiating polyphony alongside saxophone screamers like Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri, and Archie Shepp in the '60s.

Devotees of jazz are frequently mocked—not without good reason—for living in the past. But another problem is poor short-term memory. Out of earshot means out of mind, and by the time I went looking for him in the Catskills, Rudd had gone so long without releasing an album or appearing in New York that people had given up wondering where he was. Years ago, whenever a musician dropped off the scene, the underlying cause was usually heroin. Nowadays, the explanation is more likely to involve health insurance. Wearing a tuxedo in a hotel orchestra backing showbiz legends on the way down was the price Rudd paid for having a sick wife. A lot of musicians happened to read my article on him, and much as I'd like to take credit for eventually coaxing him down from the hills, they're the ones to thank.

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

Rudd's comeback has been fueled by two different types of albums. Sixties free induces nostalgia by this point, and following Rudd's 1999 reunion with his former bandmates in the New York Art Quartet, European and Japanese produc- ers have also reteamed him with two of his former employers, Shepp and Steve Lacy. And then, befitting a man whose long-ago day gig was assisting Alan Lomax in his work on cantometrics (an arcane system of statistically correlating common vocal traits with social and cultural data in different ethnic musics), the other type of recent Roswell Rudd album is starting to amount to a one-man Nonesuch Explorer series. Like his earlier collaborations with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate (on 2001's Roswell Rudd's Malicool) and the Mongolian Buryat Band (on 2005's Blue Mongol), the new El Espiritu Jibaro—co-credited to Rudd and Yomo Toro, generally recognized as the greatest living exponent of the guitar-like Puerto Rican cuatro, with percussion by Bobby Sanabria and his group Ascensión—is predicated on the belief that stellar musicianship alone can overcome any and all cultural and artistic differences.

Such blind faith has resulted in any number of jazz rhythm-section mismatches over the years, and quite a few cross-cultural debacles. Here, as on Rudd's previous such excursions, the hoped-for synthesis occurs, and his musicological background might have less to do with it than his passivity and goodwill in blending into any musical or social setting (no doubt a factor in keeping him employed in that resort show band, and I suspect part of what prevented him from making his move as a leader during those years he was the avant-garde's favorite sideman).

A guy on a jazz webpage I occasionally look at was wondering if El Espiritu Jibaro is indeed jibaro(Puerto Rican slang for "hillbilly") and not just more plena—a West African–derived style apparently at the root of most Ricanjazz fusions. I bet the difference is why I find Toro's nimble fingering so novel and refreshing—Robert Palmer's Timesdescription of Toro as "a Puerto Rican Jimi Hendrix" has followed him around for years, but a better comparison might be to Anton Karas's zither on Carol Reed's Third Mansoundtrack. There are no slavish bows to "authenticity" here: Though the adjoining "Preludo" and "El Amor" are respectively identified as a marcha/danza moderna and a bolero moruno in the liner notes, Rudd's arrangements and baleful solos transform them into dirge-like anthems as stirring as the ones Carla Bley showcased him on in the '70s. The most wounding of the tracks is a Rudd gospel number replete with church organ but flutteringly sung by Alessandra Belloni, an Italian tarantella specialist. Meanwhile, the most festive of the party-like uptempos is Rudd's "Bamako," an all-purpose riff he's also recorded with both Lacy and Diabate—given that it's named after Mali's capitol, who knew it was a merengue?

In late June, Rudd brought his Malicoolband 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.

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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