Reunions are usually nostalgic occasions, filled with glowing, if not distorted reminiscences about the good old days. The New York Art Quartet's 35th Reunion is a different affair altogether. From the opening salvo fired by percussionist Milford Graves, trombonist Roswell Rudd, tenor saxophonist John Tchicai, the group's second bass player, Reggie Workman, and the NYAQ's adjunct member, poet and JazzTimes contributor Amiri Baraka, it is obvious that this is a long-deferred gestalt, not a bull session of backpatting and tall tales. This album of prodding, exultant music and provocative verse reconfirms the New York Art Quartet's unique standing among the progenitors of the '60s revolution in jazz.
Now, as then, the NYAQ has a unique cultural lens that filters free jazz's twin beams of energy and structure: in the '60s, it foreshadowed the Art Ensemble of Chicago and others, and now it provides historical grounding for ensembles like Other Dimensions in Music. Each of the three remaining original members had specific insights into pan-African music from the outset of their collaboration. While Graves' cutting-edge use of African and Caribbean drum music was articulated at the time, Tchicai's affinity for African music was not given its due, nor was Rudd's unique absorption of the wisdom of generations of musicians whose cultures are now all but gone. Yet these sensibilities were and are the NYAQ's primary colors, which, when blended with hues provided by Workman and Baraka, constitute a vivid, if not electrifying, palette.
Graves is not only exuberant but also an active, responsive listener. Tchicai has made the tenor his main horn, but has not simply brought to it the matte finish and pliant line of his alto, instead adding a bulked-up tone. Those who pronounced Rudd's chops slack when he re-emerged a few years ago will ease off the limbs they are out on upon hearing his gregarious and hearty work here. Workman's magnetolike drive is very much in evidence, and Baraka remains the voice of righteous utterance.
35th Reunion is cause to celebrate.