Smith joined the AACM back in 1967, and has witnessed the whole life cycle of the avant-garde from its origins on the fringes to its second career in academia. The outsiders somehow managed to become insiders -- and I'm not just talkin' chord changes! Smith himself is now Director of the African American Improvisational Music Program at Cal Arts. But this music doesn't belong in the ivory tower . . . not a bit. Smith lingers at the meeting point between free and modal on this track. "Rosa Parks" begins and ends with extended solo trumpet sections, understated and haunting. But in between, the listener is tossed into a cauldron of grooving sound. The trumpeter, for his part, feeds off the energy of a world-class rhythm section. Smith's so-called "Golden Quartet" has changed its personnel over the years, but this lineup of Iyer, Jackson and Lindberg keeps things edgy and full of surprises. Old jazz revolutionaries never die . . . they just take another chorus!
When the Art Ensemble of Chicago showed up at a studio in Ludwigsburg, Germany to record for ECM, it was as surprising (at least to jazz fans) as the Berlin Wall coming down. To many advocates of Free Jazz, ECM was the Evil Empire, dismissed as a reactionary attempt to infuse too strong a dose of European influences into the jazz vocabulary, thus watering down the music's inherent vitality. (Phew, that was a mouthful.) Such rhetoric may seem a little overheated today, but back in the 1970s the current pluralistic, open jazz environment had not yet been established, and those at the cutting (bleeding?
) edge tended to believe that jazz presented a linear progression that allowed no turning back!
But here we found the leading avant-garde band of the era showing up as "nice guys" and joining hands with their European brethren -- in a release appropriately named Nice Guys
But the Art Ensemble didn't get too
nice -- and things get very edgy if you try saying this song title after your second drink at the nightclub. The lengthy "Folkus" track includes all their usual stock-in-trade: lots of dissonance, minimalist interludes, criss-crossing horn lines, background-music-as-foreground-music, and enough percussion instruments to fill a museum of membranophones and idiophones. Not nice enough, perhaps, for many ECM fans, but a historic moment by any measure . . . and an event signaling both the end of ECM's early years and the arrival of the new postmodern jazz world of peace and brotherhood.
"Composition 67 (+147 +96)" comes from the majestic (yet out of print!) Willisau set. Beginning with a "sound environment spiral," the listener might be reminded of Steve Reich as the tightly wound group ostinato slowly devolves with the players shifting away from unison. What follows can almost be thought of as an aural parlor trick. The composition unwinds, layers are added – and things make more sense. By the time Braxton has switched from flute to contrabass clarinet to sopranino, with Crispell and Hemingway simultaneously maintaining the pulse while adding commentary, and with Dresser framing everything in - the complexity that has taken over makes perfect sense. Amazing stuff.
George Lewis—the wunderkind trombonist, electronic musician and composer from Chicago—was 26 when he premiered “Homage To Charles Parker” at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music’s annual festival in 1978. It is a work of sincerity and vision, one that affirms an aesthetic credo of his hometown organization—that a connection with tradition strengthens new, original music. The meditative first section of the piece, consisting of low synthesizer tones and processed cymbal sounds, creates an immediate context for reflection on Parker’s life. The series of improvisations that follow reference Parker’s music in format—soloist with accompaniment—but forgo the conventions of his style. You sense the musicians’ love, sympathy and respect, beyond idiom.
Since the mid-'70s, Braxton has periodically recorded “in the tradition,” playing standard repertoire with piano-trio accompaniment. His 1987 set of Thelonious Monk covers is a curious offshoot of that series, focusing on a composer whose work had once been considered avant-garde but was subsequently assimilated into the jazz mainstream. “Four In One” is a notorious whirligig of a tune, and Braxton charges breathlessly in. Waldron’s solo complements the leader’s perfectly—where Braxton further scrambles the melody, Waldron streamlines it, a masterful Monk interpreter getting right to the heart of the song
In the late ‘60s, Braxton aspired to create a solo language for saxophone akin to that of the piano. His controversial 1968 recordings (released on the unprecedented double album For Alto
) document the effort; “For John Cage” testifies to its success. At first pass it may sound chaotic, but there is an internal logic to the self-contained system of the piece. Braxton sets a benchmark of intensity at the outset—the ferocity of attack is immediately striking—then deviates from it dramatically, generating structural tension. He manipulates basic musical elements to develop a vocabulary all his own—distorted sounds, jagged rhythmic shapes, an elastic sense of time—and the result is a triumph of creativity.
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