NEW YORK ART QUARTET

35th Reunion
DIW 936

Reunions can be a chancy proposition. Whether it’s the Modern Jazz Quartet getting together after 10 years or the Guess Who recombining after 20, nostalgic expectations can often exceed reality. This can be especially serious if, unlike some rock band “reunions” which occur regularly as soon as bank balances dip, combination, as on this CD, literally bring together players who often haven’t seen one another for many decades.

Sometimes the results are spectacular, oftentimes not so. And 35TH REUNION has examples of both.

Over the years, especially on the evidence of its lone ESP-Disk from 1964, it’s become increasingly clear that the New York Art Quartet (NYAQ) was the paramount group of the New Thing. Unlike preeminent soloists like Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp or John Coltrane, the NYAQ was a sum of its parts, with each man contributing to the excellent whole.

The good news about this CD is that the succeeding three decades haven’t lessened the individual musical talents of any of the participants. The bad news is that some parts of this session don’t hang together, because certain parts of the equation have got out of whack.

Poet/playwright/essayist Amiri Baraka was the “fifth” member of the NYAQ on its seminal ESP release, where his reading of his poem, “Black Dada Nihilismus” on one track contributed to the LP’s subsequent fame. The main problem with this new disc is that the doubled playing time from the earlier session appears to have given Baraka license to insinuate himself onto nearly every track. This isn’t so bad if you think of him as merely adding another sound to the mix, but his poetics seem to be snared in some 1960s wayback machine.

Obviously one shouldn’t ignore the past, but Baraka seems to be unaware of the present century and appears unable to make valid points about anything since then. Additionally merely repeating names like Trane, Ayler, John Kennedy and Rap Brown doesn’t do any more than suffuse the poems with retro hipness, rather than making a point, while, to take another example, the repetition of “pee pee, doo doo” on “Seek Light At Once” is more word irritation than sound poetry.

The other minor drawback here is Graves. More upfront than he was in 1964, his drumming is still as faultless as it was then, with polyrhythms a particular standout. But his vocal interpolations, such as the one that launches the first track, could be eliminated without problem.

Conversely, years of experience have made each NYAQer a better musician than he was in the 1960s. Tchicai long ago abandoned his alto to play tenor saxophone with a austere, senatorian authority; Rudd’s coarse, squalling tone is given a good work out on tracks such as “VG’s Birthday Jamboree”; and allowed the space, Workman can sound like an entire string section by himself. Each man contributed two compositions, all of which are uniformly interesting.

In short, this CD will probably be required listening for anyone who followed the careers of the musicians in the 1960s and will disappoint few who concentrate on the music. Just be warned though, that like Kramer’s entrances on the Seinfield TV show, Baraka’s poetics will frequently pop up out of nowhere to alter the mood.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. A Meeting of Remarkable Journeys 2. Reentering 3. Llanto del Indio 4. VG’s Birthday Jamboree 5. Visiting Ogun 6. Perceiving Passerby’s 7. Seek Light At Once 8. Music’s Underwear

Personnel: Roswell Rudd (trombone); John Tchicai (tenor saxophone); Reggie Workman (bass); Milford Graves (drums); Amiri Baraka (voice)