Monday, July 04, 2016

Not sweating it: The George Adams / Don Pullen Quartet

There is a great struggle in jazz, or at least in the discourse surrounding it, between the imperatives of art and entertainment. In learning about bebop, we discover that it represented the point when jazz broke away from its genial "society" function, music for dancing, and became something self-consciously radical, avant-garde. The story goes that hardbop swung jazz as a whole back toward the popular pole and that Ornette, Cecil, Trane and others re-radicalized the music and led the way toward the gritty '60s.

After that comes the largely uncanonized period that I never read much of any value about until the Great '73–'90 Revolution spearheaded by Douglas, Iverson, Smith and others, and chronicled/rubber-stamped by Chinen, which has guided and shaped my jazz listening during the past decade.

We're coming up on 10 years since "'73–'90" really took hold, not to mention 10 years still I started this blog, and I'm still getting my head around this period. What a vast goldmine there still is to hear. (I feel like I could spend a lifetime just studying the Black Saint and Soul Note catalogs, to say nothing of ECM.) I bought a used copy of the George Adams / Don Pullen album Breakthrough the other day for $3 at Black Gold in Carroll Gardens and started thinking that fact all over again.

I've since gone a bit mad for this group, which Steve Smith namechecked in his '73–'90 roundup above. I'd heard bits and pieces and always knew they were there, waiting for me, but never really dove in, until now. I'm not necessarily surprised by what I'm hearing, so much as delighted. This isn't a hard band to get one's head around. Much like the best work by the group's patron saint — Mingus [see note following this post], of course, the former employer of Adams, Pullen and drummer Dannie Richmond, who make up the Adams/Pullen 4tet along with bassist Cameron Brown — the appeal of the music is very much on the surface. Maybe more than any other, this band represents one thing that seemed to happen in jazz in the '70s and '80s, which is that the music's various factions and substyles — as reflected in the whole art v. entertainment discourse cited above — all just seemed to sort of swirl together. In the work of Adams, Pullen, Richmond and Brown, I see a kind of rolling up of the sleeves, a notion that we've got all this music to draw on — not just decades of jazz and blues, but centuries of classical music, which are going to be on the table anytime you've got a pianist as versatile and virtuosic as Don Pullen on the bandstand — and the gig's coming up in a few hours and we'd be fools, and fools with much more time on our hands than we actually have, to sort of chop it up and categorize, classify and segregate it. In other words: let's play.

The Adams / Pullen band was not sweating it, and by "it," I mean the idea of what jazz is for. This music bellows, yawps, if you want to get Whitman-y, which I think is appropriate given this band's lusty abandon, their mix of fun and thrust and potency and vitality. What jazz is for is for playing. You get up there and you dig in and you make something happen, and all the ideas and currents just sort of course through you.

Simply put, you should set aside an hour and watch the whole video above, a complete set by this band at a Cologne club in 1986. The opening blues is just pure sweaty pleasure — I love Adams's presence on the mic — but check out what happens from about 20:00 on. Richmond sits down for a smoke, and it's Don Pullen Master Class time. He has a lot of places he wants to take the music, but he's careful to leave a breadcrumb trail, a way in for the attentive listener. The music sparkles and swoops, quiets, swells, reaches some kind of ecstatic avant-barroom frenzy around 24:00, scribbling, flurrying. Out come the sides of the hands, the elbows. Richmond wades fearlessly into the shark-infested waters around 26:30, and in one of those moves that seems straight out of the Mingus playbook — when you bring the rhythm section back in after a break and just start burning/churning — he, Brown and Pullen effortlessly shepherd the music into ass-kicking uptempo bop territory. Adams digging in, throwing a "Rhythm-a-Ning" quote and then blasting off into an indescribably nasty and glorious duo with Richmond. Jazz rarely sounds rawer or better to me than during this kind of stripped-down sax/drums episode, perfected of course by Trane and Elvin, and Adams and Richmond put their own stamp on it here. Adams is a fountain of Monk quotes, throwing out "Round Midnight," "Well You Needn't" and others, while maintaining a molten post-Coltrane flow.

This is what I mean about the abolishment of "school" or faction or sub-movement. You marinate in the music your entire life — think about Don Pullen doing this with Milford Graves in '66 and this (on organ) with Charles Williams five years later — and by the time you've paid your dues and you're in the mature phase of your career, as Adams, Pullen, Richmond and — to a lesser extent at this stage — Brown obviously had and were, you're just strapping on the horn, or sitting down at the drums or piano and just sort of letting it rip. It's the perfect marriage of abandon and authority, and that's what I hear in Pullen/Adams/Brown/Richmond. It's a concept that again flows straight out of Mingus, a man whose bigger-than-big tent encompassed jazz, American music — music, period — from its earthiest to its most ethereal. (See also: the Total Piano school exemplified by obvious Pullen forebear Jaki Byard; Roland Kirk's irreverent, soul-drenched avant-gardism.) It must be stated that the Adams/Pullen 4tet also had no qualms about laying claim to a more-tepid but undeniably enjoyable aesthetic middle ground, often complete with after-work-margaritas-appropriate flute, such as that which shows up here around the 2:00 mark.

Back to the concert above, around 44:00, where Dannie Richmond is laying down this fiercely funky Bo Diddley gone bebop gone breakbeat groove. (A stock word such as "infectious" seems almost profane in reference to such a display — the plain fact is that you cannot sit still when Dannie Richmond is playing drums.) At this particular moment, it's party time in the Pullen/Adams universe. A time for revelry, a time for exuberance, a time for butt-kicking, a time for precision. A time, again, for the decimation of category. The buffet is open and it's all-you-can-eat and Fine Dining and Down Home are equally represented. It is the mid-'80s, but, say, the '40s and the '60s, when aesthetic battles were being fought in the shadow of racial and cultural ones, are far from forgotten. In fact they're the immediate context for much of what's happening here, the source of the vocabulary that courses, unfiltered, out of the instruments. In other words, the struggle that was so apparent in the Coltrane Years now looks, and sometimes sounds, deceptively similar to "mere" entertainment, literal bar-band music, but spend any amount of time with the Adams/Pullen 4tet and you feel a deep pride, a cocky defiance, a profound purpose radiating from the group. We're still in As Serious as Your Life territory.

These men banded together at a time when all jazz could be vernacular music, especially in Europe, where musicians from Sidney Bechet to Ben Webster to Albert Ayler to the Art Ensemble of Chicago had received such a warm and loving welcome, when — at least in the best of scenarios, such as the Pullen/Adams band, a working group that led a long and fruitful collective life — aesthetic debate took a backseat to "Let's just play." This is jazz that needs no translation, jazz not in a fallow, wayward period, but, maybe, jazz at a summit, jazz with nothing to lose, jazz which not even the most faction-conscious listener could argue with — jazz at its actual free-est (not bounded even by "free jazz") and most voracious.

I could imagine Ray Charles sitting in with this band, or Cecil Taylor, or Sonny Rollins, or David S. Ware, or Jason Moran, or Pat Metheny, or Ornette, or Charlie Haden, or B.B. King, or Dr. John. It's the whole thing on one plate, and no one's sweating it. What they're sweating is the spirit and the feeling and the communication and the fun and the severity and the madness and inspiration of the moment. (Just like Mingus taught them.)

It feels quintessential somehow: not the "best" that jazz ever got, because what does that even mean, but, just maybe, the broadest and most bighearted.


Note: It occurs to me that the Adams/Pullen band was to Mingus what Old and New Dreams was to Ornette, a sort of self-governed franchise operation (different in mission, I sense, from an explicit tribute band like Mingus Dynasty, though I'm not familiar with that catalog) in the absence of the figurehead, which in some cases seemed, almost, to achieve a liberation and depth unavailable to the bands in which those figureheads themselves featured, perhaps at the very slight expense of focus and piquant eccentricity.


*Here's a big playlist I made of all the Adams/Pullen I could find on Spotify, including the fascinating duo album Melodic Excursions. This makes for a hell of a shuffle. As far as the individual albums, I'd love to hear people's favorites, but Life Line really grabbed me on a first listen, in addition to Breakthrough, which was reissued here. Incidentally, Ehsan Khoshbakht has some sharp thoughts on the video above here.

*A Dannie Richmond video interview, which predates this group, but nevertheless seems relevant and extremely valuable.

*If anyone has a firm handle on the Don Pullen solo discography, as well as other collective efforts like Warriors, I am, again, all ears. I only know bits and pieces.

*Same goes for George Adams. I'm fascinated by Phalanx, with the incredible lineup of James Blood Ulmer, Sirone and Rashied Ali, but I'm just starting to explore in earnest. This band seems to marry Adams's post-Mingus aesthetic to Blood's post-Ornette one.

*I'm just starting to get a firm handle on the mid-'70s Mingus period that directly birthed the Adams/Pullen band. This is an extraordinary bootleg, in which both Adams and Pullen are both fully on board and very much off the leash.

*Great Don Pullen interviews, from '76 and '80, respectively. Note complex feelings toward Cecil Taylor: admiration tinged with resentment at the comparisons constantly made between them. '76: "We appreciate each other, we dig each other as people." Then, in '80, re: CT's infamous concert w/ Mary Lou Williams: "I am furious that he climbed on the stage, in one of the grandest music-halls in America, with this great lady, this great lady of jazz, aged sixty-eight, in order to reduce her to nothing."

There's also this, from '80: "If I played popular music at this time, it was because I needed to survive." I do hear, as I've indicated above, if not a "poppy" aspect to the Adams/Pullen 4tet, at the very least a populist or vernacular one, which I feel accounts for so much of the fruitful creative tension the band had to offer. Apparently, though, DP drew a sharp distinction between these currents, at least when it came to his overall career arc.

I claim no authority on this matter, but watch Don Pullen groove at the keys around 2:15 here and tell me he wasn't an artist deeply invested in the idea of music that could both enlighten and entertain.


Anonymous said...

Thanks. Great post, great video. Lots in common with with Old & New Dreams--both have hot drummers doing their own deal, both rooted in the blues, both very democratic with everyone playing their asses off. Wish I could find more bands making music like this now.

Philip Watson said...

Another interesting post (and playlist), Hank, this time on a group that I also have a great fondness for. I was always a fan, though nobody else much cared for the album I seem to remember (perhaps because Cameron Brown’s bass is so ridiculously upfront in the mix), of the early, extraordinary and almost wilfully diverse 'Don’t Lose Control' (especially the near 16 glorious minutes of “Double Arc Jake”), released on Soul Note in 1980. “Everything that has been good in jazz over the past two decades comes roaring out in their music,” wrote Lee Jeske, in the liner notes, “along with good healthy doses of blues and funk”. And, as you suggest, a whole lot more. It’s a band and a body of work ripe for re-listening, re-exploring and re-appraising.

I’m not sure if this will further aid your investigations at all, but here’s a link to an “Invisible Jukebox” blindfold test-type session I did with Don Pullen for The Wire way back in March, 1993. It’s Pullen on, among others, Monk, Mingus, Andrew Hill, Larry Young, Cecil Taylor and, well… Liberace (“It takes guts to dare to do something different, to go out on stage in whatever he wanted to wear. I like that kind of wildness.”) He was to die, of course, at the age of 53, just two years later.