Eclecticism has been so much the norm in jazz during the past 30 years that you expect just about every player who comes along to have one foot in jazz proper and the other tapping elsewhere: Cuba or the Balkans or Argentina, or if not a geographical locale then a time period, like that of ragtime or swing or r&b, or another idiom entirely, classical or hip-hop or gospel. Not to overstate, but has any other work proved more philosophically on the money than Ellington’s posthumously released Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, the suite he said was inspired by McLuhan’s prediction that no culture would be able to retain its identity, and that no individual, in Ellington’s words, will “know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom”?
Carla Bley deserves credit as an early brewer of musical influences for her work on Gary Burton’s A Genuine Tong Funeral and Charlie Haden’s heartfelt frolic, Liberation Music Orchestra, and maybe even her magnum magnum, Escalator Over the Hill, which someday I plan on hearing in its entirety, though not yet, Lord, not yet. Bley colonized styles—from Weimar Germany to Spain and Asia—that became standard sources for those who followed, not least Holland’s deft, daft jester, Willem Breuker, who alternately pursued them seriously and parodied them to expose the eclectic habit as little more than a fad for a disoriented generation. The phrase “world music” had not yet been coined and Zusaan Kali Fasteau had yet to acquire her vast collection of flutes and bells. In those days, you were playing world music if you hired an “extra” percussionist, and world musicians paid homage to every American improviser.
These days, world music is fully domesticated, and according to a recent Times article, Europeans—and maybe South Americans, Asians, Australians, Eskimos—think American jazz musicians suck. Of course, they do not suck. They are simply lonely and looking for love, even if they have to travel in time or space to find it. Having exhausted the chords and the modes, they want something new: a tango circa 1913, a freilach circa 1924, a Platters hit circa 1955—anything but “How High the Moon,” unless, like Abbey Lincoln, they can do it in French. At the same time, none of these gambits are likely to make for lifetime commitments, so we get a lot of projects and movements, bands conceived to try this or that. John Coltrane had only one quartet at a time. Today, he might have as many as Dave Douglas.
One promising new project is Ted Nash’s band Odeon, a name absent from the cover of his CD, Sidewalk Meeting (Arabesque), but featured prominently in its May 31 performance in the Jazz Composers Collective series at the New School. The music could serve as a Rorschach: tango, klezmer, second-line rhythms, impressionism, Ellington voicings, marches, the Near East, the Middle East, the Far East, and, representing the West, country music and jazz itself. Sometimes it sounds as predictably unpredictable as you’d expect, but at its best it’s as smoothly blended as overpriced Scotch.
Odeon should dramatically raise the profile of one of New York’s eternal sidemen. Nash is a first-class saxophonist whose infallible technique is most often found melding with kindred reeds in big bands, for which he has also composed. An erstwhile prodigy (and the son of trombonist Dick Nash), he was touring in his midteens, paternally displayed by Lionel Hampton, Louis Bellson, and Don Ellis before nailing a chair in Mel Lewis’s Vanguard Orchestra for 10 years and then moving to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Seated, he serves the band; standing, the audience—a solid and dependable player. In 1991, he and the three musicians with whom he soon founded the Jazz Collective made a quartet album, Out of This World, which proved that he knew his Coltrane. His 1999 Double Quartet album, Rhyme & Reason, combines the Jazz Collective with a string quartet and is affecting, far more individual, and exceedingly well written, yet lacks the kind of urgency or risks that incite more than passive admiration.
Odeon pushes the envelope, its very instrumentation forcing a reconsideration of its eclectic assets. Nash plays clarinets and saxophones, combining the sensibilities of modern jazz and chamber music; Wycliffe Gordon plays tuba and plunger-mute trombone, which invokes a jazz world so prehistoric it didn’t have access to a bass; Miri Ben-Ari plays violin with a romanticism verging on the rhapsodic; Bill Schimmel plays accordion with a shine that evades the nostalgia clichés with which—even in the world of Eddie Monteiro, Guy Klucevsek, Andrea Parkins, and Zydeco—it is often associated; and Matt Wilson and (on the record only) Jeff Ballard play drums that establish bearings and connect the parts. The band had one problem live that is mitigated on the album, a matter of sound mixing: The tuba vamps were so loud that their repetitions became overbearing. Even the record has passages that make you realize how relieved bandleaders of 1926 must have been to discover the quietly elegant bass.
The most successful tracks are those that Nash arranged but did not compose. Indeed, “Premiere Rhapsodie” and “Amad” are too good to miss. Debussy wrote the former in 1910 as a conservatory exam for clarinet and piano, and later orchestrated it as a clarinet concerto. Sue me, but at pretty near the same length as Debussy’s, Nash’s inventive version is less redundant and more eventful. His resourceful voicings are ever-changing, and the instrumentation itself evokes all kinds of tangents—like Gordon’s ya-ya (as opposed to wa-wa) trombone calling to mind Tyree Glenn’s brief but memorable stay with Ellington; and Nash’s phrasing of the key motif creating an accord between Debussy and Kurt Weill that would probably have pissed them both off, and an arrangement that gives equal parts to all five players—a neat trick for a clarinet concerto. His tenor solo has an elated bite, rumbling within the confines of chords that sustain the original harmonic plane while pushing at the borders of free jazz—a neat trick for Debussy. The secondary motif, the one that was lifted for “Some Day My Prince Will Come” (“how thrilling that moment will be”) has never sounded so, well, Snow White.
“Amad,” the climactic punch in Ellington’s Far East Suite, is wittily faithful, but tosses off its own allusions with canny blends that go further east. The accordion introduction fuses an Ellington figure with Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. Wilson’s drums are perfectly in sync, driving the constantly shifting Ellington melodies. Unlike the original, which is almost entirely composed until the closing trombone solo, Nash’s version opens quickly for a vivaciously bowed violin invention, bouncing over the thematic vamp, followed by equally effective solos on bass clarinet—much poise, even dignity—and accordion, an instrument that, thanks largely to the Piazzolla craze, has been thoroughly liberated from “Lady of Spain.” Gordon’s tuba—no trombone here—maintains the gait in a dialogue with drums, ending it with two harrumphs.
The most appealing of Nash’s five originals is the title piece, “Sidewalk Meeting,” which is so generically country or gospel—in any case, Southern—it may remind you of any number of tunes; one listener asked me if that was Patsy Cline’s “Why Can’t He Be You,” and damned if there isn’t a resemblance. It opens with a super trombone cadenza—virtuoso plunger stuff with trilling growls and chortles, funny and brazen—that would have gotten him a job with Ellington, who loved novelty bits. He comes out of it to visit wa-wa (as opposed to ya-ya) Nashville, backed by bass clarinet. In concert, Odeon climaxed in New Orleans with a Dixieland reprise, but on the record the Dixie segment is a separate track. “Tango Sierra” is also attractive, especially in performance, merging gypsy violin with klezmer clarinet and ending with what could pass for a French apache dance.
The rest is less effective. “Summer Night in the Deep South” was fired up in concert by Ben-Ari’s violin; it’s a slow march, a dirge, prone to nostalgia and intriguing mostly for a breathlike accordion vamp, which inhales and exhales as only a squeezebox can. Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” has moments, most of them in Gordon’s responses to Nash’s tenor, but his tuba underscores a second-line beat and cadences that are banal compared to what Monk had in mind. “Reverie” is a handsomely played duet for clarinet and accordion, and finishes with some Ellingtonian tremolos, but feels more like an exercise than the Debussy exam. “Jump Line” spends too much time marching in place to a tuba vamp, yet comes alive with dancelike jollity in passages when it breaks free. At its best, Sidewalk Meeting does more than break free. It makes you think of possibilities Odeon has yet to explore. It recharges the eclectic impulse, and mandates a follow-up.