The Blackwell Project.
an astonishing number of musical
worlds. That's partly because
New Orleans, where he was born on October 10, 1929, tends to develop multifaceted musicians: So many traditions collide and entwine there, and there's so little work, that players are forced into versatility.
Blackwell is best known for his long association with Ornette Coleman, which started in 1951 when Blackwell moved to Los Angeles, broke off in the mid-1950s when he went back home, and continued from 1960 until Coleman put together Prime Time, his mid-1970s punk-funk outfit. Blackwell's greatest achievement, in this context and elsewhere, was harnessing the infectious parade rhythms of his hometown to free jazz. Like Max Roach and Paul Motian, Blackwell reached back to the dancing lyricism and the melodic attack of Baby Dodds, who drummed with Fate Marable, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.
So Blackwell's groundbreaking work with Coleman, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton, Dewey Redman, David Murray and others involved reinvigorating jazz's pulse. Cherry puts it this way: "He started out tap-dancing in the streets, played with r&b bands and Mardi Gras parades and funeral marches, and traveled through Africa with |pianist~ Randy Weston, where he learned lots of different tribal rhythms. He puts it all together as independent beats he plays simultaneously." Or, as trumpeter Herb Robertson sees it, " He took jazz's swing and put that New Orleans groove to it, straightened it up just enough so that younger players like me, who were basically coming out of rock and roll, could find ways into contemporary jazz, so that it wouldn't feel foreign to us."
Dozens of musicians, who cut across generational and stylistic lines, repaid the debt through The Blackwell Project, a New York benefit for the drummer that ran for more than eight hours on January 7 at the Knitting Factory and for just as long on January 14 at Riverside Church. Blackwell has had kidney problems requiring home dialysis since 1973; his condition, growing acute, forced him back into hospital dialysis and, complicated by pneumonia and a hernia, left him unable to work.
Even Congress and corporate America seem ready to admit that the health care delivery system in this country is a disgusting shambles. Workers without regular" jobs rarely have "regular" insurance coverage; lack of insurance forces these workers to languish in an under funded and understaffed public hospital (if they're lucky) or to die. Most musicians-most U.S. artists-fall into this category. Then there's the additional problem of paying the rent: Extended sickness is, after all, one of the main causes of homelessness.
In attempting to pull an outstanding musician out of the health care bog, The Blackwell Project revived the jazz world's sense of community. It also demonstrated the vitality of the many different stylistic strands that we tie together as jazz, and applauded Ed Blackwell for being central to them.
The first Sunday at the Knitting Factory boasted sets by mostly younger players and working groups. Kicking things off was a powerhouse trio: flutist James Newton, bassist Anthony Cox (one of the project's organizers) and drummer Andrew Cyrille. They leapt outside in free improvisation so breathtakingly nuanced and controlled that it sounded composed-which it was, on the spot. Newton is, quite simply, the jazz flutist of our time. Taking his cue from Eric Dolphy, he has re-imagined the instrument: He coaxes and yanks a range of sounds that resembles anything from gentle recorder to tenor sax, with admixtures of shawms and bagpipes, as he splits tones, hurls multiphonics, bends chords. Cox and Cyrille, both prodigiously supple, dug into rhythms from funk to straight-ahead to African. "Mesmerizing" isn't a word I use often, but this performance was, for over an hour.
Next up, with Cox still on bass, was a contingent of M-BASErs, that jazz-funk cooperative coming out of Brooklyn: Greg Osby on alto, Gary Thomas on tenor, Graham Haynes on trumpet, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. Their set reflected the situation of many M-BASE players-early promise with little recent development. Osby, for example, has a cutting tone and a lot of chops, especially as a balladeer, but more and more his solos sound like a bird careening around a cage, looking unsuccessfully for a way out. His compositions are even more restricted by his stylistic limitations, as the meandering one-chord funky vamp the group closed with showed. Thomas, normally a dynamically barrel-chested soloist, was frequently hemmed in by outbursts from Carrington, who sounded like she misunderstood the relation between, say, Blackwell and Coleman or Elvin Jones and John Coltrane. Haynes alone played near his potential, sharply wrenching dynamics and grooves to his liking, but even he only sustained his ideas over a couple of solos.
Veteran bassist Dave Holland's trio includes M-BASErs Steve Coleman on alto and Marvin (Smitty) Smith on drums; the group often sounds bigger than it is. Smith is an at-the-ready drummer full of odd-meter, African-derived attacks and sonic touches, and he locked up with Holland's amazing speed, technical control and sheer zest to create telepathic rhythms. Unfortunately, Coleman's adept solos were overlong and strangely emotionless, as if he, like his friend Osby, were stuck in what he already knows. That was underlined by the contrast with Holland's solos, which were at once so sure-footed and daring that they almost made Coleman's seem plodding. Still, their set was shot through with epiphanic moments.
Trombonist Ray Anderson led guitarist Allan Jaffe, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff through gutbucket funk that rode either sprung rhythms or second-line struts. Plagued by technical difficulties, their set couldn't really build, but Dresser overcame a broken string to play a dazzling solo punctuated with two-handed taps and slides, and AkLaff filled the time it took for Dresser to change strings with a remarkable excursion that used deftly buzzing cymbals as a foundation drone while expanding explosively. Bassist Mark Helias is a growing composer whose mosaiclike structures juxtapose feels and themes. His quintet boasts crackerjack soloists: pianist Anthony Davis, altoist Tim Berne, trumpeter Herb Robertson, drummer Tom Rainey. The combination created an unbroken incandescence. Berne's jagged romps, fierce with boppish angles and blues cries, balanced Davis's more cerebral classicisms to open a space for Robertson's daredevil trumpet, which updates and extends Cootie Williams's vocabulary of growls and snorts into a speechlike arc.
Multireed wielder Marty Ehrlich finished with the indefatigable Cox and drummer Bobby Previte, and the trio ended the first night of The Blackwell Project on a high plane. Ehrlich has mastered so many instruments, played in so many groups with so many greats, that it's about time he got more recognition; he's a consistently probing inventor. An iconoclastic composer, Previte drums with conceptual shape and bristling energy. And Cox reiterated that he can fit in with, push and prod virtually anybody and anything. Not surprisingly, sparks flew and ignited their long, roiling improvisations.
The following Sunday found The Blackwell Project uptown at Riverside Church, where mostly older players, many of them Blackwell's cohorts, took the stage. First up was Tailgater's Tales, led by trombonist Craig Harris and featuring clarinetist Don Byron, guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Ralph Peterson and special guest multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill. As a composer Harris interweaves sharply contrasting themes and sections, usually with a startling and challenging freshness-a carnival feel chased by a funky street beat, for example. As a bandleader he has attracted top-notch sidemen: Byron pushes his ax far beyond Buddy De Franco via mellifluous, rangy leaps; Ross is successfully plotting his way around Bill Frisell; and Peterson and Davis manhandled the changing grooves with easy precision. Harris himself growls and laughs and smears as he gracefully darts around the pulse, and Threadgill-well, Threadgill is a genius as an instrumentalist, arranger or composer; he's inherited the mantle from Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, and his playing with Harris resounded with canny humor, arching lyricism and aching, edgy blues. Where Tailgater's Tales was pretty tightly plotted, Structure IV-vibraphonist Karl Berger, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Anthony Cox, altoist Carlos Ward, tenorist Dewey Redman and drummer Lewis Nash-was a blowing session that unfortunately went slack. Redman, for instance, started "Take the A Train" with fluidly enjambed lines that gradually lost their bite. There were excellent moments, though. Cox and Nash sharpened incisive beats, whether behind Ward's spiraling Trane-isms or Berger's flat-footedness. And Allen, another M-BASEr, continues to grow: juggling rhythms that she then zigzagged across, rolling barrelhouse chords that thickened and mutated into minor-mode smears a la Cecil Taylor, clustering Monk-isms, Oriental motifs and boppish cascades with stunning confidence, she stole the set.
Pianist Don Pullen's solo spot showcased his rubber-wrist, scrubbrush-across the-keyboard attack that creates an eerily imploding feel, almost as if the piano is folding in on itself like a Mobius strip. Individual notes sink into whimpering, startled by sudden left-hand thumps in an almost ragtimey/stride vein as imagined by Henry Cowell. Long overlooked, Pullen is idiosyncratic but captivating and technically breathtaking.
The World Saxophone Quartet-tenor man David Murray, baritonist Hamiet Bluiett, altoists Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe-followed. With the departure of founding member Julius Hemphill, the W.S.Q. seems to have settled into a rather bland combination of relentless riff tunes and solos-plus-section drones. It may be that's the dead end waiting for such a lineup, though Hemphill, probably the group's most inventive arranger, found ways around it. It may be that their growing popularity dictates easy-to-grasp hooks that can launch their spectacular solos: Murray can still astonish with his hurtling runs from low-end blatts to r&b squalls to dog-whistle squeals, and nobody can touch Bluiett in extending the baritone's range. But the undeniable virtuosity sounded like flash because of the lack of variety in their material. Branford Marsalis led the ever-present Cox-who was stage-managing when he wasn't onstage himself-and drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts through an exuberant set full of the young tenor's heavy debt to Sonny Rollins. Marsalis has adopted the jagged phrasing and oddly floating spaces Rollins took from Monk, and prodded by the energetic rhythm section, he stretched beats and reached for fetching substitutions: He's becoming a better narrator by miming a master, though he hasn't yet found his own voice.
But the high point of the benefit came with its close: the reunion of Cherry, Redman and bassist Charlie Haden, all of whom, with Blackwell, had played with Ornette Coleman and later formed Old and New Dreams. Fittingly, holding Blackwell's chair was Paul Motian.
As a sizable chunk of Blackwell's musical legacy, Coleman's tunes, from "Blues Connotation" to "Happy House" to " Lonely Woman:' had threaded both benefit dates and were often stunningly played. But for this set it seemed like the rich history resonating through these stellar musicians transported them. Cherry's puckered whimpers and angular dartings, Redman's now-burly, now-whinnying tenor, Haden's deep-toned lyricism, Motian's elastically melodic drumming, Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos's tasteful embroidering, set up a charged sonic force field that warped tempos and lines, suspended pulses and detonated expectations in a truly magical way. Joined for a final jam by Coleman's drummer son Denardo, and by Pullen and Marsalis, the lineup became a living embodiment of Blackwell's wide ranging musical contribution.
At the show's end an enfeebled Blackwell, clearly moved, said simply, "I must be loved." With reason: He's a cornerstone of postwar jazz, and in one way or another all the participants at the benefit are his lucky heirs. So are his listeners.
Which is why The Blackwell Project continues. According to producer Gregory Rukavina, the four sets attracted some 1,300 people; after expenses the project should clear $10,000 to 12,000 for Blackwell. In Minneapolis, drummer/producer Phil Hey held a similar two-night benefit, on January 9 and 16, which should net around $3,500. Aldo Romano planned a Blackwell Night at Paris's New Morning club for February 5. And, Rukavina says, down in Blackwell's hometown pianist Ellis Marsalis and clarinet great Alvin Batiste are interested in putting a benefit together, while Don Cherry is talking about staging something in San Francisco.
Even if you missed the New York benefits and can't get to the others, you can help. Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to Ed Blackwell/World Music Institute, 49 West 27th St., Suite 810, New York, NY 10011; or call (212) 545-7536. And write your senators and representatives about overhauling our disgraceful health care system.
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|Title Annotation:||Knitting Factory and Riverside Church, New York City; musical benefit for drummer Richard Blackwell|
|Article Type:||Concert Review|
|Date:||Feb 19, 1990|
|Previous Article:||My House is on Fire.|