February 8, 2002
THE MUSIC ENSEMBLE
The Music Ensemble
Roaratorio Roar 03
History, especially jazz history, is a set of shared anecdotes and popular assumptions usually organized years after the fact. This approachs shortcomings are made clearest when conjecture is transformed into cant, as was demonstrated by Ken Burns JAZZ series. Musical history — especially one as complex as improvised music — cant easily be reduced to a theory of great men and neat transitions. Pesky details on the margins mess up these neat concepts, just like an exceptional jazz solo plays with the criterion of a conventional melody.
Which brings us to the slice of musically important history that is this CD. Recorded in 1974 and 1975, when conventional narratives would tell us that nothing else was happening on the jazz scene but pop-jazz-fusion and bebop revivalism, heres the sounds of a precisely integrated, so-called avant garde band playing as if it was 1965 or even 1995. Not only that, but of the six performers, three would be celebrated as standard-bearers of New York-centred ecstatic jazz by the late 1990s.
Billy Bang, long before he joined the String Trio of New York, demonstrates his unique approach to the violin. Daniel Cater, decades way from being a linchpin of TEST and other Manhattan bands is here playing different saxophones, flutes and percussion. Bassist William Parker, who even then had already recorded a notable session with tenor man Frank Lowe, was beginning a career that would make him the most ubiquitous musician and organizer of present day free music.
Drummer Peter Baird, who recorded the session, is now involved with other music. However bassist Herb Kahn —who is only on the first track — and trumpeter Malik Baraka, who died soon afterwards due to a drug habit, are merely names.
Considering the sound was captured in two different New York area schools on a cassette recorder with a single stereo mike, except for some sections, its surprisingly clear and immediate. In fact, the only really negative aspect of this disc is that the improvisations on it have remained unreleased for more than a quarter of a century.
Made up of a core group of committed musicians, The Music Ensemble practiced regularly and intensively. It shows. At least the four joint tracks on this CD sound like compositions with definite themes, sections and codas, not as excuses to jam or grandstand.
Throughout Baraka, whose tone is thin technically, but expressive, sort of like Donald Aylers, blends impressively with others in the front line. Whether hes wreathing in counterpoint around the surprisingly Bird-like alto lines of Carter on the nearly 32-minute Stance Dance (Courage), creating a third meshed part with Bang and Parkers strings or moving harshly and straightahead on Arithmetical Mystic he definitely has something to say. Its a shame well never know if his vocabulary would have developed further.
Even then Carter was versatility personified. Besides his outstanding saxophone work on the disc, his ethereal flute work on Echoes Wind Transpire is so close to Bangs fiddling that its sometimes hard to distinguish one from another. Some of the massed percussion bottom favored by inside/outside performers of the time likely comes from his hands and wrists as well.
Bang can be romantic in sections as on Echoes, or slash away on the top of his range on Stance, as Parkers bow scrapes the bottom lines. Responsible for keeping the forward motion of the tunes going despite the dense, buzzing concentration of the front line, Parker does so powerfully and memorably. Only rarely does he step forward, though, as he does on Stance where he delivers a lilting cello-like aside. Meanwhile unheralded Baird extends the percussive carpet with steady strokes from all over his expanded kit, sometime accenting the bass drum as on Radiatory Fineness or bringing out the tablas on Stance for contrast.
Dont look for some of these musicians or the session to be noted in the next boilerplate jazz history or TV special. But do try to find this CD to get an insight into how —and when — the music really evolved and changed.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Stance Dance (Courage)* 2. Arithmetical Mystic 3. Echoes Wind Transpire 4. Radiatory Fineness
Personnel: Malik Baraka (trumpet); Daniel Carter (alto and tenor saxophones, flutes, drums percussion); Billy Bang (violin, percussion); William Parker, Herb Kahn* (bass); Roger Baird (drums, percussion, tablas, flutes)