The Out-of-Towners


Back when I taught, one of my pets was a grad student from England, already a BBC stringer, who was going to Mardi Gras on spring break and wanted to know if interviewing a local musician would suffice as a term paper. Smart kid—he figured he’d also get a radio piece out of it. I set him up with Kidd Jordan, a veteran New Orleans saxophonist who gently put him wise regarding the current state of jazz in its supposed birthplace. Tourists clamored for Dixieland and zydeco and r&b, Jordan explained, and the clubs in the French Quarter were happy to oblige. But there was no more work for cutting-edge players like himself than there was “wherever y’all are from.”

I thought of this whenever I saw jazz listed among the possible casualties of Katrina. Jazz is a religion, and New Orleans is its creation myth. But in the evolutionary scheme, the city began to fossilize the night Louis Armstrong followed King Oliver to Chicago, in 1922. There’s a modern strain of New Orleans jazz, sure—and the place to hear it is anywhere in the general vicinity of Wynton Marsalis.

Jazz came into being concurrent with radio and electrical recording; regional accents faded as musicians roamed the country and eventually the globe, preceded by their records. But just because regionalism seems to be a thing of the past doesn’t mean we don’t still yearn for it, the same way drivers on interstates hunger for back roads and truck stops and stations unaffiliated with either Clear Channel or NPR.

I’m romantic about Philadelphia, my hometown, and even more so about Chicago, where I have no rooting interest. Chicago jazz has never been limited to one genre; good luck at coming up with a definition that applies to both the Austin High Gang and the AACM. It has more to do with rugged individualism carried to extremes—this is the city that nurtured Lennie Tristano and Sun Ra, who operated like cult leaders. If only to an outsider like me, Chicago seems blessedly immune to the market forces that exert conformist pressure on both coasts.

Fred Anderson’s extended tenor solos on Timeless convey a vivid sense of place—the place being the Velvet Lounge, the South Side tavern where Anderson once tended bar, then owned and operated for 25 years, until its entire block was razed a few months ago. The Velvet, which has subsequently reopened at a new location close by, occupies a central niche in Chicago lore for countering the notion that black audiences are hostile or indifferent to avant-garde jazz. Paced beautifully here by Harrison Bankhead on bass and former Chicagoan (now citizen of the world) Hamid Drake on drums, Anderson tends an unusually earthy version of free jazz. In his city’s tenor tradition, he fits somewhere between Gene Ammons, who pounced on the beat, and fellow stay-at-home Von Freeman, who gallantly lets it pass. His tone and attack are as forthright as Ammons’s, strictly meat-and-potatoes. An ongoing dilemma in free jazz is finding improvisational guidelines to replace the chord changes and the steady pulse you’ve thrown to the wind. Anderson’s solution is to ride Bankhead’s rolling basslines and Drake’s against-the-beat accents, subjecting a handful of phrases to changes in shape and pitch for upwards of 10 minutes, creating suspense within the bounds of a rigorous thematic integrity. Though the payoff usually comes when the trio finally settles into the groove they’ve been implying, the suspense is just as gripping on “By Many Names,” where they reverse the process, starting off in a groove and gradually spreading out.

Though musicians wander as much as ever, and depend nowadays on Europe for most of their income, they don’t necessarily have to prove themselves by setting up shop in New York anymore. Take Odean Pope, a Philadelphia tenor who never uprooted even during the years he toured with Max Roach. I’ve lived in Philadelphia my whole life, and damned if I know exactly what locals and the rest of the world mean by “Philly jazz,” except that John Coltrane embodied it, it has something to do with musical improvement as a means to spiritual enlightenment, and Pope may be its leading contemporary exponent. The Chicago-born tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, a longtime New Yorker who had a way with neologisms, once complained to me that even the Philadelphians he most admired, presumably including Coltrane, tended to be “too etudial”—prone to practicing their scales in front of a microphone. Pope’s a cappella split tones and circular breathing on “Epitome,” the opening track on the Locked & Loaded album his Saxophone Choir recorded at the Blue Note in 2004, is probably the sort of thing Jordan had in mind. But by then, the cascading saxophones have parted, the bandstand’s been lifted, and Pope is showing us around heaven. He’s extremely generous to big-name guests Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and James Carter, allotting them more space than he does himself. They return the favor with solos supercharged (Brecker on “Prince Lasha” and “Coltrane Time”), sensitive (Lovano on “Cis” and “Terrestrial”), or both (Carter on “Muntu Chant,” his honks and smears creating the illusion the massed horns and rhythm section are bouncing off him, instead of the other way around). But the story here is Pope’s writing for nine saxes—unisons and stacked harmonies as fierce and purposeful as those of Sam Rivers and as gorgeous as any since Benny Carter’s. Coltrane’s ghost hovers over all of it, not just Pope’s ecstatic arrangements of “Central Park West” (“Giant Steps” reimagined as a ballad) and “Coltrane Time,” a pounding rhythmic exercise its composer never got around to recording (the only previous version I know was by pianist Marilyn Crispell, who presumably learned it the same way Pope did, from Coltrane sideman Reggie Workman). Philly jazz? All I know for sure is it’s state of the art.