Lit at Both Ends


D.D. Jackson: Everything is grist for homo ludens.

For their last set in the short-lived Minetta Lane Theater series some weeks ago, D. D. Jackson and James Carter elected to make the most of their capacity for virtuosic exuberance. Carter’s gleamingly metallic sound on reeds and Jackson’s heavy-lifting keyboard attack resonated in episodes that were by turns sensational and showy, even ersatz, and you wished they would cool down, dim down the ecstacy a little, find an amenable backbeat, groove on the changes. Yet in the end alienation was allayed during a modishly anarchistic ”I Got Rhythm,” which commenced with expansive allusions to ”Battle Hymn of the Republic” (Red Nichols would have passed out if not away), ”The Marine’s Hymn,” and other lockstep ditties. Grooving primarily on themselves, they made technique for its own sake its own reward, and you found yourself laughing encouragingly at the pleasure–the old homo ludens–they took in exchanging phrases, solitary pitches, squeaks and clusters, staccato bullets, rattling eruptions, and copious digressions, not least a sort of Crime Doesn’t Pay police show anthem.

Admittedly, much free jazz, in its happy mood as opposed to its throes of emotional disgorgement, is little more than chronic back-and-forth, reflexive echoes in place of meditative conversation. But rarely is it ventilated with the confidence of musicians who can, on the dime, restore order with the finesse of those very musicians most likely to scowl at the commotion. Jackson and Carter belong to a growing generation of musicians who have gone past the ability to play inside and outside, a double-gaitedness that not too long ago practically defined pomo jazz virtuosity. Apparently, they don’t even think in those terms. Everything is grist for the mill–they are the best possible repudiation of those who want to divide jazz against itself with loyalty oaths to the proprieties. You may not like what they play, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they can’t play.

Indeed, on some levels they are throwbacks. When Carter microwaves his sound on a ballad, he can invoke Don Byas, a classic rococo tenor saxophonist long neglected and as unexpected a resource as Paul Gonsalves proved for David Murray. Jackson filters his melodic sense through gospel chords and mines the 19th-century vestiges of his classical education. His two-volume collection of duets, Paired Down (both released this year on Justin Time), begins with their ”I Got Rhythm” variation (they call it ”Rhythm and Things”), and the first splash of ice water is Carter’s use of the archaic C-melody saxophone, usually the province of antiquarians who have memorized Frank Trumbauer solos. The second is that they signal the changes at the release more obviously than, say, Teddy Wilson would have done 60 years ago. These guys are candles lit at both ends, reexamining the rudiments of harmonic improvisation even as they light the way to a postschismatic future. At the end of the performance, Carter heads toward a ”good evening fri-e-ends” kicker with popping and double-tonguing that would have warmed the bones of the old vaudevillian Rudy Wiedoft, whom one had thought Coleman Hawkins laid to rest at around the dawn of time. Everything is grist.

Jackson is one of the most stimulating of the many gifted young pianists to come along since Geri Allen opened the floodgates. Unlike Jacky Terrasson, who contains his equally ebullient technique in formalistic mazes, Jackson can hardly keep the stopper on. Like his mentor Don Pullen, he inclines to huge woolly gestures encompassing the entire keyboard, which he smashes with astonishing precision. Born in Canada of black and Chinese parentage (his birth name is Robert Cleath Kai-nien Jackson, and ”didi” is Chinese for ”little brother”), he studied classical music at Indiana University, where he also played in the ensembles of jazz educator David Baker, and earned his master’s at the Manhattan School of Music under the tutelage of Jaki Byard. His postgraduate studies with Don Pullen led to his first important tour, with Jane Bunnett, and subsequent work with, among others, Carlos Garnett, Andrew Cyrille, Vincent Herring, Hamiet Bluiett, and David Murray, who in a Voice wrap-up of young artists called him ”the most innovative musician of his generation.” His most impressive collaboration with Murray is Long Goodbye: A Tribute to Don Pullen–on DIW, if you can find it.

Paired Down suggests one measure of his authority as a performer in his selflessness as an accompanist, and in the overall design: encounters with Carter, Murray, Bluiett, Bunnett, Billy Bang, Hugh Ragin, Ray Anderson, Santi Debriano, and Don Byron, all of whom are heard at the top of their respective games. But they also underscore his weaknesses. His balladic originals are soft and indistinct, relying on Keith Jarrett–style gospel glisses to the point of sentimentality (Pullen deflected such cliches in his punishing attack and rangy harmonies). This is especially true of his laments. ”One of the Sweetest” is sticky with blues notes, displaying the affect but not the substance of a reflective song. The threnody for Pullen, ”For Don,” is even schmaltzier, although offset in his increasingly poignant improvisation, heightened at the dramatic finish by Bluiett’s pitch-perfect cries and the whisper of air rushing through his baritone sax.

Unmitigated delights are plentiful, however. One compositional angle Jackson has mastered is the vamp, and he is full of good ones, reflecting a close look at the champions, notably Horace Silver (”African Dreams” has more than a glancing acquaintance with ”Song for My Father”) and Abdullah Ibrahim (notably ”Peace of Mind,” a rolling, pounding surf supporting the indefatigable Murray). One musician who should get a particular boost from his contributions is the undervalued trumpet player Hugh Ragin, who reveals a gift for thoughtful pastiche in two memorable pieces (all others are by Jackson)–”Ballad for Miles” aptly borrows ”Motherless Child,” and the marvelous ”Fanfare and Fiesta” (the vamp of which suggests A Love Supreme) is just that, a parade of alarums that delivers on its mariachi promise. Ragin combines tremolos, growls, blasts, and a broadly expressive timbre, and Jackson is prodigious, working thunderous bass rumbles against skittering frills. Ragin is also heard on one of Jackson’s best tunes, ”Subliminal Messages,” weaving a full tapestry of lightly-tongued and staccato phrases and diverse vocalisms. Perhaps Jackson’s most confident showcase is ”Chick-isms,” a nod to the Corea of ”Spain,” in which he solos with a succinct and focused clarity, clearly enjoying his unmistakably ringing sound, and bluffing Debriano as playfully as he does Carter.

Billy Bang is featured in his merry Stuff Smith mode on ”Bang’s Dream,” an exercise in swinging abandon with a fine a cappella episode, and the highly dramatic ”Pleasure and Pain,” which offers very little pain, building darkly on a deft six-note piano vamp that anchors him in a carefully constructed rhapsody that spins outward in a widening yet staunchly disciplined orbit. Ray Anderson rocks with buoyant aplomb on ”Catch It,” skimming Jackson’s melody and chords, and Don Byron exhibits a beautiful conservatory tone on ”Time,” one of Jackson’s prettiest melodies, in a subtly Middle Eastern vein that acknowledges the clarinetist’s trips down klezmer lane. Murray is Murray, essaying his sweetest sound in gospel-tinged numbers that imply a benediction in ”Easy” and near Ayler-esque lunar-lyricism in ”Love Song.” Jackson emerges from these discs as protege and advocate, and you feel he has scarcely begun to show all he can do.