Talking Horns

Midwestern loyalist, trumpeter Malachi Thompson takes issue with what he sees as the impression left by Ken Burns' PBS Jazz series that "the jazz story is 'over'" and "the only good artist is a dead jazz artist".

Citing numerous examples of the series' flaws and misinformation in an essay in the CD booklet, he not only refutes the idea of limiting fame to certain almost- trademarked Jazz Giants, but also dismisses the myth of New Orleans as jazz's birthplace. For Thompson, Chicago and St. Louis had more influence on jazz history than the Crescent City and he supplies a mini-history of the musical legacy that came from those places.

Challenging fanciful legends that have become the commonly accepted jazz story is a valuable avocation. But, in a way, the trumpeter needn't have bothered. For the fine music he and his Chicago- and St. Louis-born confreres make here is proof of enough of those two cities' jazz roots and talents.

Native Chicagoan Thompson, with his straightforward open tone, has been making it his business to celebrate his city's tradition since a near-fatal illness forced his return from a successful sojourn in New York a few years ago. A proud, longtime member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he conceived this session as a confab between AACMers like himself and two of the most celebrated members of St. Louis' Black Artists Group (BAG). BAGers Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett are probably most famous as two-quarters of the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ). Freed from WSQ formalism, though, the two are able to display a versatile, soul-tinged sense of fun and rhythm that is probably anathema to Burns- supporting neo cons.

"Way Back When We Didn't Understand", for instance, shows off burnished mahogany baritone saxophone riffs from Bluiett that would be more recognizable at a chitlin circuit club in East St. Louis than among the elite at New York's Lincoln Center.

Those chesty baritone horn choruses also appear on "Fred Hopkins", named for the recently deceased AACM bassist, but here they mix with some of the trumpeter's plunger mute approach plus a stop time, Eric Dolphy-like solo from Lake. Pianist Willie Pickens introduces some Thelonious Monkish dissonance for a while, until an arco bass solo ends the tune on the proper note of melancholy.

Pickens, who has been a member of drummer Elvin Jones' combo, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Reggie Nicholson, come on as powerfully as any Windy City sports team, keeping the beat nicely centred and romping along, especially on the nearly 12 minute freebop workout, "Lucky Seven".

Thompson on trumpet, sekulu, shell, cowbell, shaker, and rapping vocal has "Talking Horns" all to himself. Despite the simple, repeated, vocal phrases and relentless percussion though, you don't imagine it as some trendy jazz-hip hop fusion, but as yet another example in the long tradition of one-man-bands who populate urban Black experience.

That's the dangerous irony behind the whole Burns-sanctioned neo con movement. Forcing musicians like Thompson to defend what they play as avant-jazz perverts history. Except for the odd advanced solo flight, most of what takes place on this CD could easily as fit into the book of any number of revered hard boppers. Only "Circles In The Air" with its repetitive alto line, triple reed tonguing, pecking brass flurries and keyboard swirls could be heard as far out. But even it has a definite, protracted, winds-blended ending.

If the first tune, "Woody Dream" is homage to the late Woody Shaw, a dependable straight-ahead trumpeter, perhaps this situation is a nightmare not a dream. No rule breaker, but someone who was able to play as easily with Dexter Gordon in the 1970s as Dolphy in the 1960s, does it mean that Shaw's work has somehow, in retrospect, become suspect avant garde as well? Creating an official jazz canon of backwards looking sounds and consigning advanced modern discs like this one to the fringes, force musicians like Thompson to take bitter, verbal stands.

Hopefully many will see past the Lincoln Center-PBS Jazz retrogressive charade and realize TALKING HORNS is as an unthreatening as it is satisfying.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Woody's dream 2. Brass and Oak 3. Scope 4. Way Back When We Didn't Understand 5. Fred Hopkins 6. Talking Horns 7. Lucky Seven 8. Circles In The Air

Personnel: Malachi Thompson (trumpet, sekulu, shell, cowbell, shaker, voice*); Oliver Lake (alto saxophone); Hamiet Bluiett (baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet); Willie Pickens (piano); Harrison Bankhead (bass); Reggie Nicholson (drums)