Saturday, October 25, 2014

Solidarity on Loisaida: Oliver Lake-Baikida Carroll Quartet, October 23, 2014

For me, coming up as a young adult in the second half of the 1990s and getting into jazz and improvised music when I did (around 1997 as a late teenager), it would’ve been easy to make the conclusion that, for the most part, a lot of the music I’d be spending time with would be historical. There’s a lot of truth to that – while I am engaged in the critical discourse around contemporary improvised music (now), that interest is built on listening to numerous recordings from the past, reading deeply on the subject, and talking with people who were “there.” So while I often have the opportunity to see and support music made by my peers, I also can speak with individuals who actually witnessed Coltrane at his height. Yet I also assume that, going from recorded documents made in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s unlikely that I would hear some of history’s great combos take the stage again (there are, of course, exceptions). One can imagine the raised eyebrows that came with the news that saxophonist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Baikida Carroll would be reuniting for a performance at the Stone in October as part of the saxophonist’s residency – though I’m not sure when they last played together, they hadn’t made a record in about twenty-five years.

Lake and Carroll’s history together goes back to 1968, St. Louis, and the environment that fostered the Black Artists' Group, which also gave rise to musicians like trombonist Joseph Bowie, altoist Julius Hemphill, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw (and whose rich history is detailed in Benjamin Looker’s 2004 book Point from which creation begins: The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis). A number of the BAG musicians expatriated to Paris in 1971, including Carroll and Lake, though both returned to New York by 1975 and became crucial figures in New York’s loft jazz scene. Carroll has worked less frequently in the last decade, while Lake has remained incredibly active with a number of ensembles, including the lauded Trio 3 (with drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman).

Back to the Stone: Lake and Carroll were joined for their single set by drummer Nasheet Waits and violinist Jason Kao Hwang. Hwang came up in the post-loft scene in New York leads or co-leads a diverse array of weighty ensembles, while Nasheet Waits follows in his father Freddie’s footsteps as a drummer who balances equally the emotional and structural requirements of post-bop and the avant-garde. The quartet played one long improvisation based around a short, few-note cell, balanced precariously between spare, deep-listening communication (like the AACM, the BAG promoted the use of “little instruments,” though such coloring devices weren’t present here), dense fiery swells, and areas that hearkened back to traditional prewar jazz (cue the drum-and-bugle corps at the sound of a whistle). Carroll’s sound is fat, warm and economical, almost cornet-like, while perhaps a little more fragile than history would attest. There’s a wise depth to his phrases and a gentle, authoritative comment that he brings out in response to other players – quite simply, he has one of the most beautiful tones I’ve heard on a trumpet in a live setting. Often when he wasn’t playing, Carroll would stand with his ear cocked upwards and his eyes closed, holding his trumpet and listening – both to the ensemble and to whatever external force would encourage the next sound, as though focused on his vessel-like role.

Lake, while retaining the bitter joy of his alto and curved soprano, is similarly a musician who exudes presence and depth, a participant as much as a conductor. While his tone and the physics of his phrasing can cut through the densest group texture, he uses his horn to spur and center as much as lead the fray. To hear Lake and Carroll together is to hear two musicians who seemingly haven’t missed a beat since the 1980s or 1970s – it’s as though, older and with perhaps more direct control over their ideas, and with more experience, they’ve picked up where they left off. While perhaps not as celebrated a front line as Dolphy and Hubbard, Coleman and Cherry, or Carter and Bradford, they’re certainly as distinctive and unified.

Hwang’s amplified violin provided sinewy, burnished counterpoint to the horns, sometimes in guttural staccato, at other instances in braying, reddish sweeps. Proximally close to Lake, the vocal blend of alto and violin offered a dense carpet to Carroll’s pursed stabs and Waits’ rubberized motion. This is a drummer who is equally at home with pianists Jason Moran and Andrew Hill as he is with reedist Peter Br√∂tzmann, and without the traditional rhythm-section mate of a bassist, he carried the quartet forward with a deep understanding of tradition and a healthy relationship with abstraction. One can hear the “Max” in Waits, as well as the “Elvin,” and I also caught “Rashied” and Steve McCall. With Lake and Carroll, the ear might want to compare Waits with “Bobo” Shaw, although they’re apples and oranges – to that notion, Waits has a tidal effect, yet it’s exhibited with extreme economy, and as variegated as his approach is, it’s never overbearing. He was the perfect drummer for the job.

Following nearly an hour of improvisation, moving through solos, duets, trios and quartets, they closed with a hushed quirk of an encore (“a short piece” equaled about a minute). My feeling throughout was that the group captured the sonic and communicative essence of what BAG music (and some of the post-BAG units) felt like during those heady years, but in an utterly contemporary way. A lot of music and life has passed since Orange Fish Tears (Palm, 1973), and the co-leaders are arguably more seasoned, reflective and selective in their work. It will be interesting to see if a recording or more concerts result from this reunion, but in any event, it's rare to hear new and historical streams brought together in quite this way. Certainly this was one evening to remember.

L-R: Waits, Hwang, Lake, Carroll. Photo courtesy Don Mount

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