a column by
George Adams ©Michael Wilderman©2011
The booklet credits for the reissue of Heiner Stadler’s Tribute to Bird & Monk (Labor) includes the usually innocuous, obligatory mention that the project was partially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The simple, perfunctory statement resonates quite differently now than when the album was released by the cutting-edge Tomato label in 1978. That was the year of the fabled White House jazz picnic, where a volcanic Cecil Taylor solo caused Jimmy Carter to leap from his blanket and run after the applause-shunning pianist to heap praise on him. The premier New York taste-making institution was Joseph Papp’s forward-leaning Public Theater, not the Luddite Lincoln Center. Industry behemoth Warner Brothers inked a deal to manufacture and distribute ECM titles in the US. Every indicator suggested that not only was jazz alive and well, but that a new pluralism was permeating among musicians, producers and media. Call it the Indian Summer before the Reagan Winter.
Tribute to Bird & Monk reappears at a radically different moment in the US. The NEA’s flagship Jazz Masters program – born in the teeth of the Gipper-induced recession of ‘82 – is fresh kill; odds are that the Endowment will face an existential threat if Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue come January 2013. Given the anti-government fever and anti-immigrant bigotry currently surging through the country, the revelation of the NEA granting money to a non-citizen would be a month’s fodder for right wing media. Subsequently, the fact that Stadler, a German with a Green Card, received support for the arrangements for Tribute is a real measure of the merit-based funding policies prevailing at the Federal level prior to the Hiroshima-like Mapplethorpe scandal. This is additionally noteworthy given that Stadler was tangential, if not unconnected to the network of artists who rotated through the NEA’s peer evaluation panels during the ‘70s, dowsing any speculation about cronyism. To this day, Stadler does not know who was on the panel.
The real hurdle Stadler had to clear for funding was conceptual, as the funding priority was original work. Even though arrangers played a major role in shaping jazz through mid-century, their impact was waning by the late ‘70s; few now have the stature of even second-tier composers. It was a decade where composers were expanding the contextual parameters of jazz on practically a daily basis; and retooling tunes by Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk was, at face value, an ordinary proposal. However, Stadler staked out rarely traversed territory between composition and arrangement. “Recomposition,” a term most widely circulated by Ran Blake – Jerry de Muth used a variant in his 5-star Down Beat review of the original 2-Lp set – comes close to what Stadler did on Tribute. Stadler used Parker and Monk’s compositions as lenses through which he filtered his sensibility, a process equally well served by standards like “Straight, No Chaser” and lesser known Parker pieces like “Air Conditioning” and “Perhaps.”
Rife with chromaticism, polytonality, and pungent and arcane quotations, Stadler’s charts remain bold and erudite after more than 30 years. Yet, what makes Tribute more bracing than the vast majority of recent recordings of any stripe is the chemistry between Stadler’s charts and the musicians he picked for the project. It’s a sextet that speaks well of the ecumenical tone of the times, particularly the front line of Thad Jones, George Adams and George Lewis. It is a front line that most probably could have only been assembled at that moment; Jones soon and suddenly left the States for Copenhagen, even though the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra was at the height of its popularity, winning a Grammy for Live in Munich (A&M Horizon) later that year.
Arguably, Jones was the linchpin for the project, and not because he was the one musician on the date that had played with either Parker or Monk (he plays on the ‘59 Riverside album, 5 by Monk by 5, and performed at the ‘63 Lincoln Center concert, released on Columbia as Big Band and Quartet). Stadler first heard Jones in concert at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964 as part of a specially assembled George Russell Sextet, a group that made such a profound impression on Stadler that he later engaged three other musicians from the group – Joe Farrell, Garnett Brown and Barre Phillips (Tootie Heath rounded out the Russell band) – to perform on tracks for Retrospection (Labor). Jones’ ability to make advanced jazz swing on that occasion stayed with Stadler. From the opening salvo of “Air Conditioning,” it is clear why Jones was asked onboard: the cornetist galvanizes the music; his tone gives the unison statement of the theme a brilliant highlight; his solo is sleek but hard-hitting, and his contribution to the collective horn improvisation and the subsequent reconstitution of the theme suggests that he listened as intensely as he played.
Throughout Tribute, Jones’ playing is as cutting-edge as Adams and Lewis’; those knowing him primarily as the composer of “A Child is Born” and other expertly faceted gems will be caught off-guard. Still, Jones had a triangulating, though hardly moderating presence in a front line that was otherwise comprised of tornado-like forces. Of the two, Adams was the better known, but the tenor saxophonist could still be fairly characterized as an emergent voice, then almost exclusively known for his searing work with Charles Mingus’ quintet of the mid ‘70s. Though he was working regularly with Gil Evans and McCoy Tyner, almost a year had elapsed since his last session with Mingus for Cumbia and Jazz Fusion (Atlantic); the group with which his legacy securely rests – the quartet he co-led with Mingus associate Don Pullen – was more than a year away from beginning its gloried run.
On paper, Adams seems to be a bit of an odd choice; his approach to the material favoring the blazing virtuosity associated with John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin over the natural feel that Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Rouse brought to Monk’s music. Adams, however, was perfect for Mingus; able to turn on a dime, not only in terms of tempo, attack and tone, Adams’s representation of the protean Mingus is in a league with Jaki Byard and very few others. There’s a Mingus tinge in Stadler’s orchestration and ensemble backdrops on Adams’ feature, “Perhaps.” It’s fitting that Warren Smith plays tympani on this track – he played vibes and concert percussion at Mingus’ 1962 Town Hall orchestra concert. Smith’s dramatic exchanges with Lenny White connect the first sections of the arrangement – a supple ensemble with Adams on flute, flugelhorn, trombone and bass followed by a Kirkish flute solo accompanied only by Reggie Workman’s robust walk – with Adams’ trenchant tenor solo, punctuated by jagged shards of the Parker solo; Smith then supplies orchestral heft to the final ensemble.
Lewis was brought into the project in part because he had played Parker tunes at breakneck speed in Anthony Braxton’s quartet; additionally, Stadler wanted a trombonist with great facility using mutes to broaden the sextet’s timbral palette. Stadler hoists the bar for Lewis on “Au Privave,” both as an ensemble player and as an improviser, and he clears it on both counts. Lewis nails the tricky counter figures Stadler plopped into the polytonal exposition. Banking that any resulting imprecision would yield interesting results, Stadler specified that Lewis’ solo veer between tempo and half tempo lines, using ritardandos and accelerandos. The hunch paid off handsomely, in no small part due to the responsiveness of White, Workman and pianist Stanley Cowell. Though Stadler’s charts are ripe with arch scored elements like the quotation from Richard Strauss’ “Til Eulanspiegel’s Merry Pranks” at the end of “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” (a delicious nod to Monk as merry prankster) or the canons woven through “Straight No Chaser,” shifts in rhythmic feel between and within both notated and improvised passages are equally central to Stadler’s concept. The epic interpretations of the aforementioned Monk compositions – “Ba-lue” clocks in at almost 22 minutes; “Straight” at almost 19 – exemplify how Stadler meshed materials using a flexible approach to rhythm.
On both tracks, Cowell’s performances are welcomed reminders of his formidable playing in his own groups and Charles Tolliver’s Music Inc. during the 1970s. On, “Ba-lue,” Cowell stops short of the avalanches that were Pullen’s calling card; still, his thunderous bass chords and jagged blues phrasing convey a barely contained ferocity. On “Straight,” Cowell’s two-fisted playing, a mash of territory blues ingredients, triggers a rollicking, funk-driven polyphonic passage. Tribute will floor listeners who know Cowell primarily for his latter work as the pianist for the Heath Brothers and the leader of blue-chip trio sessions like Close to You Alone (1990; DIW) with Cecil McBee and Ronnie Burrage. In these settings, Cowell’s fire was contained in a solo’s culminating chorus or a round of fours. Even during the ‘70s, Cowell infrequently had the arced-switch intensity he has on Tribute; his sunny lyrical streak extended to his writing, which is why compositions like “Effi” and “Equipoise” are his best-known. But, the entire sextet Stadler assembled arguably played beyond their established parameters. That’s another reason why Tribute to Bird and Monk has not simply endured, but has grown in stature since its initial release.