Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd
Steve Lacy + Roswell Rudd, 1999             Guy Le Querrec for Verve Records

Much of my last two months have been spent immersed in the music of Steve Lacy and Gebhard Ullmann, writing liner notes for forthcoming CDs. They are distinctive voices of respective generations with specific relationships to the jazz tradition; Lacy’s generation completed the transformation of jazz from dance music to art music; Ullmann’s has the double-edged task of preserving tradition and clearing the long shadows of Lacy and scores of others. With Ullmann approaching his 50th birthday this fall, and the 3rd anniversary of Lacy’s passing having just come and gone, I pondered the current changing of the guard in jazz, a process that will shape the music of the early 21st Century. What could be a metric when considering how Ullmann and his contemporaries have met jazz’s traditionalist and reactionary imperatives, with artists like Lacy as the standards of measurement?

Similarities in practice rather than in materials seemed to be a more promising gauge for this purpose. As instrumentalists, Lacy and Ullmann are quite different in regards to materials and stylistic orientation, as Ullmann is a bona fide multi-instrumentalist, fluent in several jazz dialects, while Lacy stuck to the straight horn and honed a singular voice. And, their compositional lexicons offer up more apples and oranges. Yet, when digging through Ullmann’s discography to annotate New Basement Research for Soul Note, a program of previously recorded compositions by an exceptional new ensemble with Steve Swell, Julian Arguelles, John Hebert and Gerald Cleaver, I was impressed by how many pieces Ullmann has recorded on multiple occasions for widely varying projects. Even more impressive was that he substantially revised the compositions almost every time he recorded them.

This latter practice had a Lacyian dimension, it appeared to me. Lacy had recorded many compositions multiple times over the decades. Some early recordings were acknowledged as sketches or works in progress, like the first versions of the pieces comprising Tao. Later, some compositions served double duty as art songs and blowing vehicles. In comparing recordings of pieces included in an upcoming compilation of Lacy’s Black Saint and Soul Note recordings, Lacy tended towards subtle refinements in feel and tone. Yet, Lacy significantly altered the structure of pieces like “The Uh Uh Uh,” between its first recording in 1975 (Dreams; Saravah) and the version included on Revenue, a 1993 Soul Note quartet date with Steve Potts, Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch. The frisky introduction of the original is cut, as well as the first reading of the piece’s most developed section, in which the tension of a short biting motive is increased through ascending key changes until it spills over with capering exuberance. The repeated exclamatory phrase that was the C section of the piece now served as brackets, streamlining the original A/B/C/B/C structure to a C/B/C form. There’s also a notable change in the rhythmic feel, as the rock groove of the original, which was underlined by Derek Bailey’s strident use of wah-wah, is replaced by a Latin tinge.

Ullmann has also substantially altered pieces that worked well the first time out; arguably, he’s more of a serial editor than Lacy. The upcoming album’s lead-off composition, “Dreierlei” is a good example. Ullmann previously recorded twice with Conference Call, a co-op quartet with pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, bassist Joe Fonda and a succession of drummers. The 2000 version that led off the quartet’s Soul Note CD, Final Answer, is straight up: a reading of the percolating theme, the Ornettish effervescence of the A section accentuated by Ullmann’s unLacy-like soprano, rousing solos by Ullmann and Fonda, and a reiteration of the theme. In a 20-minute 2003 Berlin club performance (Spirals; 482 Music), the loping B section of the piece is stated first, but only after a substantial improvised prelude. Further, there is a more elastic approach to pulse, facilitating expansive, envelope-pushing improvisations. Then, there’s a 2001 version by Ullmann’s Clarinet Trio (Translucent Tones; Leo) that’s in a different key and features a different bass line. Ullmann takes yet another approach on the newest version, opening the performance with bluesy, New Orleans-tinged horn polyphony. With Ullmann playing bass clarinet for the first time on a recording of the tune, buttressed by trombone and baritone saxophone, the revved-up hambone cadence of the A section has new mass and rhythmic thrust.

This practice reflects an idea that is crucial to jazz’s lasting vitality: Jazz is provisional, despite all efforts to cast it in stone. Musicians can suddenly hear their own compositions or the canon completely differently one day after years, even decades of performing it the same way. Or, as was the extreme case with Ellington, they can tinker with a chart on a practically daily basis. In Lacy’s case, revisiting compositions over the years provided threads of continuity in a vast body of work and fostered his audience’s familiarity with an otherwise challenging lexicon. Ullmann’s approach should be seen in the same light. However, despite Ullmann’s accomplishments on this count, there are still other markers laid down by Lacy and others that should cause Ullmann and his contemporaries to redouble their efforts.

The most important of these is maintaining collaborative relationships. Lacy’s work was particularly dependent on such relationships, given the specific demands of his music. Certainly, it is impossible to imagine Lacy’s career without Irene Aebi. Or Steve Potts, Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch. Or Mal Waldron. Or Roswell Rudd. The recent release of the Lacy-Rudd Quartet’s Early and Late (Cuneiform), which combines their legendary 1962 demos of Monk tunes for Columbia and concert tracks from 1999 and 2002, is a testament to a nearly half-century’s collaboration that was as vibrant towards its end as it was near its beginning. As young lions, they pioneered a slyly filigreed, thematic-based method of improvising on Monk, which became part and parcel of their respective approaches to writing and ensemble interplay. The album presents a compelling example of how musicians can honor those who came before them and then make their way to the future. That’s a steep summit for Ullmann’s generation to climb; but, Ullmann has several cohorts who could go the distance with him and, more importantly, he’s got time. He’s only turning 50.

EdgeFest 2007

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