Wednesday, May 15, 2013

'call it art': The vindication of the NYAQ

The New York Art Quartet isn't a household name. Even among my fellow free-jazz enthusiasts, they're still something of a cult-favorite group. That seems a little odd, because the three principal members, saxophonist John Tchicai (R.I.P.), trombonist Roswell Rudd and drummer Milford Graves, have all made major marks in the roughly 48 years since the NYAQ first disbanded. But the fact remains: In the shorthand history of free jazz, you're talking about Ornette, Trane, Cecil, Ayler, Sun Ra, etc.

I've always thought this was a bit of a shame. I've loved the NYAQ's self-titled ESP debut for a long time; to me it's a core-collection free-jazz document. I haven't spent as much time with the follow-up, Mohawk, but it's sounded great when I've sampled it, and the 35th Reunion album is also surprisingly sturdy.

There have been stirrings in the NYAQ camp over the past couple years. First came the Cuneiform release Old Stuff, an archival set that features Tchicai and Rudd with a different rhythm section (including the great Louis Moholo), and then, more recently, the mothership landed: call it art, a new five-LP box set from Triple Point Records.

Some readers of this blog are likely familiar with Ben Young. I will say up front that he is a friend of mine and also a mentor, dating back to my early college days at WKCR. I will follow that by saying that he is absolutely exemplary scholar and advocate of jazz in general—and of free jazz specifically. You might recall the Albert Ayler box he put together for Revenant, or Dixonia, which set a benchmark for Bill Dixon research. Having only cracked open call it art, his latest project, last night, I feel comfortable saying that it's a new pinnacle in the Ben Young oeuvre, and a cause for celebration for anyone who's ever felt that the NYAQ deserves a lot more recognition than they've gotten.

What we have in this set is a trove of unreleased NYAQ recordings. Some are outtakes from the studio sessions we already know, but others are live tapes, either in a concert or radio setting. I'm only on the second LP so far, but the music is divine (and, for the record, the sound quality is excellent, rivaling that of The New York Art Quartet and Mohawk); I already feel my passion for this group reigniting in a serious way.

Speaking of passion for the NYAQ, the book that comes with the set—and though not book-length, per se, it is a book, meaty and hardbound—is a phenomenal work. I mentioned the term "advocate" above, and what we have in these liner notes is a passionately argued advocacy of the NYAQ's central (i.e., rightful) position in the development of free jazz. It is a setting straight of the record, in a sense, but more importantly, this essay is a tying-together of many different threads, an exegesis of the entire scene surrounding this group. As anyone who knows Tchicai, Rudd and Graves's histories could tell you, the NYAQ did not come together in a vacuum; it grew directly out of, e.g., Rudd's so-called School Days collaboration with Steve Lacy (the famed Monk repertory band); the New York Contemporary Five, which included Tchicai along with Archie Shepp and Don Cherry; and the Bill Dixon–Archie Shepp Quartet, which ended up roping in both Tchicai and Rudd. Young's essay takes us through the entire musical history of each NYAQ member, touching not just on the aforementioned groups but also on activities that will be news to all but the most die-hard enthusiasts of these great men. For example, I knew that Milford Graves came up playing Latin jazz, but I had no idea that he led his own group (the Milford Graves Latin Jazz Quintet) in the early ’60s which (A) included a young Chick Corea and (B) appeared at Town Hall in support of Cal Tjader and Herbie Mann. In this booklet, you'll see not only a photograph of the band, but an advertisement for the concert. The research is that deep.

It isn't just facts that we get. We get a case, as it were, an argument about what exactly it was that made the NYAQ special, revolutionary even. I love this observation: "We would want Ornette Coleman's music of the Eisenhower administration to be Free Jazz's big bang, but finally his new style was still wearing a suit that belonged to an older Jazz pattern." Nothing against Ornette, whatsoever, but this is absolutely true. When you're talking about the freedom of jazz, you're talking about the rhythmic explosion—not necessarily some incendiary meltdown, but the literal freeing up of the time, which was a post-Ornette occurrence. The Cecil Taylor–Jimmy Lyons–Sunny Murray group, captured live in those brilliant 1962 recordings, is a major next step, and as Young points out, so is the Ayler–Gary Peacock–Murray band heard on 1964's Spiritual Unity. But the NYAQ was onto something different, something subtler. This is how Young puts it:

"The NYAQ's perfection of the New Thing impulse depended on omitting Ayler's thrust. Where Ayler played strong lines to lead his band, the NYAQ floated translucent phrases into a bubbling pool that diffused attention."

What Young seems to be getting at here is that there's more than one free-jazz paradigm. We've come to know and love the so-called "energy music" designation, but we've also learned that it's been a double-edged sword in the long term, this notion of free-jazz as some sort of quasi-religious expressionism, some heroic shout to the heavens that inevitably takes at least an hour to exhaust itself. I'm not taking aim at Ayler or Trane here. I'm just taking issue with the idea that free jazz has to be very obviously cathartic to be great.

Enter the NYAQ. I'm not sure I can do better than the "bubbling pool" designation above. Their music has this sort of unsettled but also sublimely unhurried quality. It wiggles; it tests the water; it pauses; it digresses. There truly is no leader. There is a ton of space. The music can be fast or slow. The constant, though, is a sense of deep listening, of non-autopilot improvisation, of working together in a very real kind of freedom, a freedom which, crucially, encompasses the freedom not to conform to a clich├ęd Free Jazz orthodoxy, which, even back then, was already crystallizing. You hear musicians conversing in this music, searching, exploring what their instruments can do, and how their aesthetic personalities can interact: Graves's fragmented yet remarkably supple flow; Rudd and Tchicai's vocal-like unspoolings, thoughtful and spare. There's an amazing sense of patience and delicacy to this music that is not the same as tentativeness. It's simply a taking of time, even when the music is, so to speak, cooking. (And thanks to Graves, it does very often dance in its own abstractly buoyant way.) I know what Young means when he speaks of the NYAQ "omitting Ayler's thrust." It's thanks to this omission that this music has aged beautifully. Hearing it now, you don't hear any of that ’60s-ness that's so often spoken of, in many cases rightfully so, when, say, Ayler or late Coltrane comes up, the sense of free jazz as the soundtrack to widespread social unrest. The NYAQ weren't screaming; they were probing.

The music I have on right now is from record 1 of the set. It's a recording of Rudd's "Rosmosis," made live on 12.31.64 at Judson Hall on W. 57th St. during the Four Days in December concert series. Any student of free jazz has likely heard of this series, presented by the Jazz Composers' Guild. (The NYAQ played on the last of the four bills, along with Sun Ra; 12/28 featured bands led by Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon; 12/29 paired Paul Bley with the Jazz Composers' Guild Orchestra, led by Carla Bley and Mike Mantler; and 12/30 included the Archie Shepp Quartet and The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble.) But did any of us have any idea that this material had been recorded? It's amazing what a work of scholarship like call it art does; it brings this history—which previously seemed shadowy, mythic, unattainable—right to your door. And it isn't just the sounds; we also get reproductions of Rudd and Tchicai's scores, letters sent between the members of the group, period advertisements, stunning photographs.

I could say more about this set, but as I've indicated, I'm still very much in the process of digesting it. It was important to me to record my initial awe, though. Given the price, call it art is obviously a connoisseur's piece, but if you are one of those connoisseurs, someone for whom either the NYAQ or the early history of free jazz matters, I feel absolutely assured in informing you that you need to get your hands on this set. Ben Young's Albert Ayler box delved deeper into the life and work of a widely recognized genius; call it art, on the other hand, reclaims from relative obscurity a music that was every bit as game-changing, and—now, almost 50 years on from its making—still has the power to arrest, to induce wonder, to make you marvel at its wit, its dexterity, its inquisitiveness, its sense of play and wonder, its living optimism. This is a vindication.


*Learn more about call it art and Triple Point Records here.

*Rudd and Graves will perform together, along with frequent NYAQ affiliate Amiri Baraka (featured prominently on call it art), at The Vision Festival on June 12, 2013.

1 comment:

oofaratsta said...

This is a nice piece, sums up to perfection the sets musical and scholarly impact !--Marc Medwin