Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Basra lives: RIP Pete La Roca

I'm not an authority on the work of drummer Pete La Roca (born Peter Sims), who, as Ethan Iverson, A Blog Supreme and Sonny Rollins have reported, passed away this past Monday. But I am a fan of his work. I remember some friends turning me on to Basra—La Roca's 1965 debut as a leader, and the only session he led for Blue Note during that period—in college, and it grabbed me hard. I've returned to the record periodically, and it's had the same effect every time. I spun it yesterday when I heard the news, and it seemed stronger than ever—dark, swirling, heady, raw but incredibly tender. The tones of the instruments are so present and unadorned; you feel like you're right there within the mix.

It's because of this kind of record that I get queasy when I see all-time "Best Jazz Albums" lists that stick to the same old narrow canon. Kind of Blue is a great album; I like A Love Supreme very much. But not only are there tons of respective Miles and Coltrane records that I love more, there are so many classics that you'd just never see on a list like this, records that might hit neophytes harder that the so-called staples. Basra is one of these records.

Re-listening yesterday, what struck me about Basra was its droney expanse, the patient way it constructs a mood and just lets it ride. Iverson used the word "folkloric" to describe La Roca's left hand, but I'd apply that term to the entire feel of this album. Listen to the title track, how it sprawls out, like an improvisatory incantation. The rhythm section brings out some of the freest, most speaking-in-tongues playing of Joe Henderson's career, not via commonplace fire (I think here of La Roca's astute critique of free jazz in the interview Iverson links to, e.g., "Free music is in a constant state of surprise and, consequently, presents no surprise at all.") but via hypnotic drift, an authoritative yet almost ghostly pulse, like a James Brown groove slowed way down so that the funk becomes merely implicit. The Henderson figure that starts at 4:43, this overblown, Spanish-sounding thing, just slays me; and then listen how he trails off into this writhing tail of a phrase. What I feel when I hear this saxophone solo is that it is a sort of conjuring on the part of the rhythm section, i.e., that these strange sounds are being drawn out of him by Sims, pianist Steve Kuhn and bassist Steve Swallow. Not to take any credit away from Henderson—just to say that this is a band discovering sound together in real time.

Listen around 5:37 as Sims begins to imply a backbeat feel, faint yet stealthily funky. Then into a kind of bass-drums joint solo, with La Roca limiting himself to hand work: snare rolls that remind me of Tony Williams and the occasional thunderous, Elvin-style tom thwack. But the dynamics and the groove are all his own; he's soloing, yes, but also protecting the pocket, riding the drone. When Henderson reenters at 8:55, the entire band sounds like it's in a stupor, hypnotized by La Roca's faint, earthy churn and Kuhn's eerie high-end textures. I really can't think of any other jazz like this, so engaged with the drone and the sprawl, the way-sublimated funk. And this vibe is no accident, heard on this track alone; it pervades the entire album. La Roca was in search of a mood here, and he nailed it. Blue Note albums, as wondrous as they tend to be, don't often feel fully coherent, holistic in this way, which is why a deliberate concept album like Wayne Shorter's The All-Seeing Eye (recorded just five months after Basra) seems like such an anomaly among the BN discography of that period. I think Basra deserves to be called a concept album as well; its concept is its sustained mood, the one that propels Henderson to an ecstatic trance state, sounding, to me, more unfettered and in-the-moment than on any other of his countless sessions.

La Roca does provide some clues to Basra's otherworldly mood in the aforementioned interview, citing how his two early records as a leader—the other is Turkish Women at the Bath, an interesting LP but not the intoxicating powerhouse that Basra is—were built around "ethnic themes." He cites "Basra" in particular as a Middle Eastern melody (the title comes from a city in Iraq), though it seems to be credited to La Roca himself in the various discographies. Does anyone know if this is a traditional tune of some sort?

The opening track on Basra, "Malagueña" (by Cuban pianist-composer Ernesto Lecuona) uses a very different rhythm than the title track—a classic, Elvin-y 6/8 swing feel—but the vibes of the two pieces are similar, and Henderson reaches that same place of ecstatic incantation. I love "Malagueña," dearly, but during my pass through Basra yesterday, the other track that stood out most prominently was "Lazy Afternoon." I'm not sure that it's possible for a ballad performance to conjure more mystery or more grace than this one does. It feels to me as though the entire quartet is dreaming the same dream, drifting along on the same cloud. Pieces like this, where you stop feeling the genre, the style and start feeling total mood immersion, are the ones that really sold me on jazz in the first place (Andrew Hill's "Black Monday" is another one that hits me this way) and the ones that still fuel my devotion. Listen to how La Roca's brushwork starts pushing ever so slightly harder at about 4:10, like a whisper growing more passionate without getting very much louder. And then by 4:50, back down to that hushed dream state, which sounds like it could last forever. That's how I think of Basra as a whole, as a reverie with no defined beginning or end. It's a sensation you step into, along with the players: a group trance, a collective prayer.

When I hear the record now, in light of the sad news, I imagine it as an ongoing present, where Kuhn and Swallow—both still with us—continue to coexist with the late masters Henderson and La Roca, tapping into that otherworldly flow. La Roca is gone, but Basra lives.


*I recommend this brief take on Basra, from last August, by the outstanding metal drummer Aesop Dekker (Agalloch, ex-Liturgy), via his fine Cosmic Hearse blog. Dekker cites the "exotic, yet grave" feel of "Malagueña" and has this to say of "Basra": "The title track is an absolutely gorgeous landscape of sound, sultry, sexy, and altogether mysterious."

*Anyone heard this 1997 La Roca/Sims session, SwingTime? The samples sound really nice.

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