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CREATIVE Orchestra Music 1976 is out of print, but you can hear the avant-garde's spirit lifting -- its music becoming more communicative, or at least more robust -- on a variety of albums of the same vintage, including Hemphill's Blue Boyé, a solo-saxophone recording from 1977 that was originally released by Hemphill on his private label (part of another period trend, reflecting both a desire for self-determination on the part of musicians and a lack of interest on the part of established record companies). Blue Boyé, restored to circulation as a two-disc set on the private label of the alto saxophonist Tim Berne, a Hemphill protégé, is an exception among solo-saxophone recordings in being only occasionally solipsistic. Hemphill "cheats" -- and more power to him -- by overdubbing one or two additional horn parts on five of the set's eight performances, including the opening "Countryside," in which his slowly intersecting lines on flute and soprano and alto saxophones create a haunting pastorale. With the notable exception of "Kansas City Line" -- nine thrilling minutes of bebop stripped to its essentials -- the tracks on which Hemphill eschews overdubbing are interesting mainly as inventories of the advanced or "extended" saxophone and flute techniques favored in loft performances during this period, such as the use of growling or humming to give the illusion of producing two or more notes simultaneously on instruments theoretically incapable of doing so. These performances are never as dry as they might be, because Hemphill -- a Texan, like Ornette Coleman -- packs even the most abstract of them with blues fervor. The tracks I remember returning to most often in the late 1970s are those featuring Hemphill in duplicate or triplicate. These predicted the voicings he would use in his writing for World Saxophone Quartet -- the rhythm-section-less cooperative ensemble he formed with Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and David Murray the year before he recorded Blue Boyé.
Essentially a chamber group -- but one delivering the knockout punch of a big band -- WSQ brought to fruition many of the ideas formulated in lofts. It became the benchmark jazz ensemble of the 1980s, and then seemed to lose much of its original character following Hemphill's departure, in 1990. WSQ's most imaginative and prolific composer, Hemphill was adamant about letting the four saxophones stand alone. For the remainder of his life (he died in 1995) Hemphill's primary vehicle was an all-saxophone sextet that frequently sounded more like WSQ than WSQ did in its subsequent encounters with rhythm sections and African drummers.
The four original members of World Saxophone Quartet are present on Jazz Loft Sessions, three of them leading their own bands; Lake performs as a sideman. Bluiett and Hemphill are represented by performances suggestive of their best work (Lake and Murray, alas, are not). Bluiett's "Tranquil Beauty" is a plangent and somewhat traditional blues and also a springboard for liberated simultaneous improvisation by Bluiett (on clarinet and baritone saxophone) and the cornetist Olu Dara, whose puckish wit was one of the era's wonders. Hemphill's "Pensive" is reflective in all but its tempo, never quite settling into a ballad. The four-man rhythm section, featuring the cellist Abdul Wadud, the guitarist Bern Nix, and two percussionists, functions as an orchestra behind Hemphill's agile, singerlike alto-saxophone lead. The rest of Jazz Loft Sessions may be uneven, but "Pensive" is a spur-of-the-moment minor masterpiece.
Lenox Avenue Breakdown -- the alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe's 1979 Columbia debut, reissued in 1998 by Koch Jazz -- has a cohesiveness that is missing from even the best of the live performances on Jazz Loft Sessions. This is perhaps because of its balance of instruments -- crucial to the success of music so dependent on spontaneous interplay, but hardly possible to match when recording on the fly.
Blythe seems to have been determined to put his best foot forward on record, and on Lenox Avenue Breakdown he succeeded in channeling his natural exuberance as a soloist into the writing of themes and backgrounds for a small group. His septet's unusual instrumentation remains part of the album's charm. James Newton's flute is voiced in such a way that it often sounds like a shadow falsetto to Blythe's alto, and Bob Stewart's mobile tuba is sometimes a string bass and sometimes a one-man brass section. James "Blood" Ulmer's guitar rumbles menacingly with its dual suggestions of heavy metal and backwoods blues, and the percussionist Guillermo Franco adds a touch of Carnival with his woodblocks and whistles. Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette are the sort of bassist and drummer who can light a fire under a soloist; here it is Blythe who lights a fire under them. Blythe likes to riff on simple chord patterns -- a practice common in jazz since Coltrane, and one that can land a soloist in quicksand. Blythe's salvation is his patience, his mastery of tension and release: you can hear him thinking several choruses ahead on his lengthier solos. His themes are deceptively simple and full of piquant details. The most attractive cuts on Lenox Avenue Breakdown are "Odessa," a lilting melody with a slightly Moorish cast, and the title track, a fast quasi-bop line minus the customary bridge.
WHY does no one, including me, remember the period represented by these reissues as a golden age? In my case, the answer could be that I was thirty years old in 1976 and had already been listening to jazz for more than a decade. In his introduction to Gottlieb's The Golden Age of Jazz the jazz critic John S. Wilson observed, "For most of us, the Golden Age of Jazz turns out to be the time when we first discovered the music." This may be true, but by the time people my age began listening to jazz, a lengthy history, available through recordings, had become a considerable part of its lure.
A problem with recordings, as with other means of reproduction, is that they permit nostalgia without memory. Starting with those fans of the 1940s who believed that the only jazz worthy of the name was the freewheeling style played in New Orleans before 1927 or so, there have always been jazz-record collectors obsessed with memories they feel cheated out of by having been born too late. This tendency is most pronounced among listeners who fell in love with jazz in the same bleak period I did -- a time darkened by Coltrane's death, Miles Davis's defection to fusion (followed by that of his star sidemen), and the inactivity, for a few years each, of Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Thelonious Monk -- not just marquee names but musicians to whom others looked for direction. We and the listeners who discovered jazz ten years later listened to the seventies avant-garde with our minds made up that things would never again be as good as they once were.
Another problem is that almost nobody remembers anything about the 1970s very fondly, partly because the 1960s were a tough act to follow. Yet the 1970s were a time of great artistic ferment, especially in the popular arts. The collapse of the Hollywood studio system enabled Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to bring their movies to the screen with minimal commercial interference (though test screenings and the millions made by Star Wars and its sequels put an end to that). The original cast of Saturday Night Live broadened the horizons of television sketch comedy. In classical music the composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass made tonality and rhythm and a large vision of the world acceptable again, after several decades of composers who made minute adjustments to the twelve-tone scale. (That Reich and Glass were supposed to be "minimalists" was one of the decade's delicious ironies.) In pop, disco sparked what may prove to have been the last national dance craze, and punk and New Wave set the tone for most of today's alternative rock. Yet all that anyone seems to remember about the 1970s is the sexual promiscuity and the polyester (it was the decade that fashion forgot).
In the years since, jazz has experienced what we are told is a commercial renaissance, but that isn't necessarily the same thing as an artistic rebirth. Most of the performers on Jazz Loft Sessions are still active, working along the same lines they were pursuing in the 1970s. Their influence is most apparent in the music of John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Bobby Previte, and others associated with New York's downtown avant-garde scene.
But the avant-garde has become marginalized again, and everyone on the business end of jazz seems happier with it safely out of sight. In keeping with what seems to be the spirit of the times, Billboard now features two jazz sales charts: "jazz/contemporary" for smooth jazz and fusion, and "jazz" for everything else -- an arrangement that doesn't leave much room for experimentation. To me, this doesn't seem to be an especially exciting time for jazz, though there may be young people just now discovering it, and going to hear it in out-of-the-way places, who will one day look back on this as its golden age. I hope so.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.