Roswell Rudd: Song Styles of a Planet

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Roswell Rudd
By Verna Gillis

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When Roswell Rudd turned 70 in November, the legendary trombonist celebrated by throwing a party at New York's Rubin Museum of Art. The party featured a reunion with some of Rudd's earliest and most influential musical partners--not Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp or John Tchicai but Eli's Chosen Six.

Who were Eli's Chosen Six? A Dixieland band of Yale students that Rudd joined in the mid-'50s. The sextet played the boisterous trad-jazz style of the day and even made two albums, including one for Columbia, but left nary a nick on jazz history. But all of Rudd's future endeavors--including his landmark collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai and Steve Lacy--grew out of the lessons learned while playing rags and stomps for drunken college kids in Connecticut.

Back then he was a baby-faced kid with a thick mane of red hair. Now, a half century later, his face is lined and trimmed with a silver goatee, but his boyish enthusiasm for the new and surprising remains unaltered.

"The most exciting thing for me about Eli's Chosen Six," Rudd exclaims, "was the last three choruses of a Dixieland tune where everyone stands up and goes off the rails to see what can happen. That's what got me into the music of the 1960s--Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler--because it was the same thing: everyone started soloing at once and just went for the sound. I call it free counterpoint, the sending out of sound from one person to another and back again until you create an acoustic togetherness. I heard that on those old Dixieland recordings and I heard that in the new jazz of the '60s."

He heard the same thing in Carla Bley's Jazz Composers Orchestra, in Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, in Terry Adams' rock & roll band NRBQ, in the West African kora player Toumani Diabate and in the Mongolian throat singer Battuvshin "Tuvsho" Baldantseren. Rudd has recorded and toured with them all.

In fact, his latest album is a collaboration with Baldantseren called Blue Mongol (Sunnyside), credited to Roswell Rudd & the Mongolian Buryat Band. Here Rudd's trombone is surrounded by voice, flute, lute, dulcimer, zither and horse-head fiddle as the six musicians play traditional Mongolian tunes, a medley of American gospel hymns, a Malian song and five original Rudd compositions with titles like "Honey on the Moon" and "Buryat Boogie." And the album is full of the kind of "free counter on jazz history. Still, all of Rudd's future endeavors--including his landmark collaborations with Taylor, Shepp, Tchicai and Steve Lacy--grew out of the lessons learned while playing rags and stomps for drunken college kids in Connecticut.

Back then he was a baby-faced kid with a thick mane of red hair. Now, a half century later, his face is lined and trimmed with a silver goatee, but his boyish enthusiasm for the new and surprising remains unaltered.

"The most exciting thing for me about Eli's Chosen Six," Rudd exclaims, "was the last three choruses of a Dixieland tune where everyone stands up and goes off the rails to see what can happen. That's what got me into the music of the 1960s--Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler--because it was the same thing: Everyone started soloing at once and just went for the sound. I call it free counterpoint, the sending out of sound from one person to another and back again until you create an acoustic togetherness. I heard that on those old Dixieland recordings, and I heard that in the new jazz of the '60s."

He heard the same thing in Carla Bley's Jazz Composers Orchestra, in Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, in Terry Adams' rock 'n' roll band NRBQ, in the West African kora player Toumani Diabate and in the Mongolian throat singer Battuvshin "Tuvsho" Baldantseren. Rudd has recorded and toured with them all.

In fact, his latest album is a collaboration with Baldantseren called Blue Mongol (Sunnyside) and credited to Roswell Rudd & the Mongolian Buryat Band. Here Rudd's trombone is surrounded by voice, flute, lute, dulcimer, zither and horse-head fiddle as the six musicians play traditional Mongolian tunes, a medley of American gospel hymns, a Malian song and five original Rudd compositions with titles like "Honey on the Moon" and "Buryat Boogie." And the album is full of the kind of "free counterpoint" group improvisation heard in Eli's Chosen Six and the Archie Shepp Quartet.
Rudd first met the Mongolians in December 2002, when Baldantseren and his singing teacher Odsuren were passing through the Catskills, near Rudd's home in Kerhonkson, N.Y. The American invited the two Asians over, and soon the two singers and trombonist were freely improvising, even though they had no shared repertoire. It helped that throat singing and trombone playing are very similar; both can sustain a note while changing pitch and both take advantage of a droning bass undertone beneath a warbling melody.

"I'm a frustrated singer playing the trombone," Rudd says, "so I love being around great singers. If there ever was a brass instrument that was close to the human voice, it's the trombone.

"I've always loved the singing from Mongolia and that part of the world, not just the throat singing but the plains singing and the mountain singing. They are great outdoor singers. You know that saying, 'like all outdoors'? That's the sound I like. Because the sound disappears so rapidly outdoors, you find yourself listening more intently to the vibrations inside you, because there's not much being reflected back.

"These Mongolian musicians have developed that inner sense of musical vibration," Rudd adds. "That's what we all strive for, to have the sound shaped as carefully as possible before we put it through a horn. The horn is there only so you can get the sound into another person's body. That's why I like to practice outdoors and play outdoors. Plus there are inspirational things to look at: mountains, trees, clouds, skyscrapers, billboards."

When Baldantseren returned to the U.S. in early 2004, he brought along a small ensemble of Mongolian musicians who were steeped in the nation's folk traditions but were also conservatory trained. This combination, which Rudd dubbed "art folk," appealed to him, for it promised not only the "folk" impulse to spontaneity but also the "art" technique to take that spontaneity to the very limits of the instruments. More group improvisation led to new arrangements, new compositions, a new recording and a new name, the Mongolian Buryat Band.

The album's title track, for example, begins slowly and simply, with Rudd's trombone and Baldantseren's flute drawing out sustained breaths over the rattling arpeggios from Kermen Kalyaeva's lute. One by one Rudd, Baldantseren and singer Badma Khanda take solos on the theme, but by the end of the piece all the musicians are improvising at once, echoing and changing each other's inventions in a dizzying bout of give and take. It's almost as if it were a Dixieland blues, with the flute sounding like a clarinet, Khanda's throaty soprano sounding like a trumpet, the lute sounding like a banjo and Rudd's trombone sounding, well, like itself.

Roswell Rudd grew up in Sharon, Conn., the son of an amateur drummer who liked nothing more than to put on his old Dixieland and swing records and play along. The father's face would light up so brightly at such times that the son grew up wanting that same flush of pleasure. Rudd studied the French horn in school, but when he realized there were no French horns on jazz records, he switched to trombone. The catalyst was a 1948 Woody Herman side, "Everywhere," that featured Bill Harris seeming to croon, stutter and laugh through his trombone. Rudd loved the song so much that he made it the title track of his first solo album in 1965.

Rudd's inclination to vocalize through his horn was encouraged by the Dixieland revival of the '50s. Though the revival was in large part a conservative backlash against bebop innovations, the trad-jazz scene did keep gutbucket blues and group improvisation alive in the jazz world, and it did encourage trombonists to take advantage of the instrument's honks, moans and giggles.

This was at a time when J.J. Johnson had revolutionized the instrument by developing a technique so precise that it could articulate individual notes in a rapid bop cadenza. By absorbing the sound of prebop trombonists such as Kid Ory and Jack Teagarden, Rudd was able preserve a trombone sound that would prove invaluable when free jazz upended bebop from the left as the Dixieland revival never could from the right.

Eli's Chosen Six broke up after college. Trumpeter Lee Lorenz became an art director and cartoonist for The New Yorker; pianist Dick Voigt became a therapist. Clarinetist Leroy Parkins became a producer, overseeing albums by the likes of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Benny Carter and Richard Stoltzman. Bassist Bob Morgan became an A&R guy who co-founded Good Music Records.
Rudd moved to New York and soon found work with trad-jazz revivalists such as Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison and Bud Freeman. It was in Dixieland jam sessions that he befriended two young revivalists, one who played piano with an odd touch and another who played the soprano sax, a then-neglected instrument remembered only from old Sidney Bechet sides.

"I was really curious about improvisation," Rudd says, "and that led me to Herbie Nichols and Steve Lacy. Herbie was interested in the same things I was--the experiments, the accidents. When there were trainwrecks on stage, Herbie would be smiling. He would analyze what happened and take something from it to use in his next composition. He liked the pickup bands, the rough stuff, and it was always interesting to hear his responses while the brouhaha broke out. He could pull the sound all together in a moment; he could hit it on the head as if he had been there waiting where the sound was going.

"Herbie had no management, and he was no go-getter, not what you would call a showman. And then he died, so he never got the recognition he deserved, but I've never heard another pianist with a touch like that; I've never heard anyone play so thoughtfully.

"Steve was growing out of his roots in Dixieland and moving toward more modern music. That's what I wanted to do, so Steve proved a great inspiration. He was already playing with Cecil Taylor, and no one was doing what Cecil was doing."

The trad-jazz of Wild Bill Davison and the modern jazz of Cecil Taylor shared a commitment to collective improvisation but were still far apart, and a bridge was needed to get from one to the other across the wide river of bebop. Rudd and Lacy found that bridge in Thelonious Monk. The two friends, who hadn't started writing their own music yet, formed the Steve Lacy Quartet with drummer Denis Charles and bassist Henry Grimes to play Monk's music.

"We found that Monk's melodies fit really well on the soprano saxophone," Rudd says, "and there was always a beautiful counter theme you could play on the trombone. What fascinated me about Monk was he had this very deliberative quality, this very thought-out, in-place structure. But when you played it, it was just the opposite; it started to take off and fly. Very few composers can do that--maybe Ornette Coleman. It really helps to have a good theme, because you can use a theme like a springboard; it can lift you into space."

Within a year, Rudd was in the middle of some of the most adventurous jazz being made on the planet. He joined Lacy, Charles, Taylor, Shepp, Billy Higgins, Clark Terry and Buell Neidlinger for the January 1961 sessions that yielded three landmark albums for Candid: Taylor's Jumpin' Punkins, Neidlinger's New York City R&B and Taylor's Cell Walk for Celeste. Rudd joined Lacy, Taylor, Shepp and Grimes for Gil Evans' Into the Hot (Impulse) that same year. Rudd, alto saxophonist John Tchicai, bassist Lewis Worrell and drummer Milford Graves formed the New York Art Quartet, which released two albums in 1965.

"There wasn't much paid work to speak of," Rudd notes wryly, "so we kept up our musical progress by having rehearsals. We were trying to learn things about orchestration, arranging and composing, but improvisation was the bond. The energy and information you get from that improvisation gives you life; it feeds you and allows you to do a lot of other stuff. I don't know what I would have done with my life then or what I would do with my life now if I didn't have people to improvise with. In 1966, after many years of improvising and rehearsing, Archie took us [Rudd, Worrell and drummer Beaver Harris] out to San Francisco for our first real gig." That gig resulted in the Impulse album Live in San Francisco and led to such albums as Three for a Quarter/One for a Dime and Mama Too Tight.
But by the '70s, the avant-garde movement's momentum was stalling. While it's fun to be a starving musician in New York City when you're 24 and everything is brand new, it's not so much fun when you're 39. So Rudd left Manhattan in 1976 to take a teaching job at the University of Maine. His tendency to share his new enthusiasms for Indian ragas or African polyrhythms with his students didn't endear him to the classical faculty, and he was denied tenure in 1980.

He moved to the Catskills and by 1986 was so desperate for work that he joined David Winograd & the Granit Orchestra, the house show band at the Granit Hotel. The man who had helped spark groundbreaking music by Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp was now reading show-tune charts for a ballroom full of elderly vacationers. "I enjoyed it," Rudd insists. "It was a way to keep playing and a way to keep learning. There was a lot of sight reading; it gave me a chance to perfect my knowledge of standards, and it provided me with a living."

Rudd still did occasional projects with Carla Bley, and he befriended Terry Adams, NRBQ's eccentric keyboardist and also a Monk fan. Bley, Adams and Rudd all shared an increasingly rare trait in "America's Classical Music": an irreverent sense of humor. "All the music I like has that in it," he says. "Humor is all about surprise and so is improvisation, so of course they go together. I think humor is very serious; I don't see anyone out here surviving without it."

Since 1964, Rudd had been working off and on with folklorist Alan Lomax, collecting, analyzing and editing music for a project called "Song Styles of a Planet." It was in that role that he helped a young graduate student named Verna Gillis complete her master's degree in ethnomusicology at Union College. They stayed in touch as she ran the Soundscape, a nonprofit performance space in Manhattan that doubled as a production company that brought world-music acts such as King Sunny Ade, Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita to the U.S. for the first time. In 1999 they became both business partners and a romantic couple, and Gillis set about reintroducing Rudd to the world.

She did so by reuniting the trombonist with his most crucial early collaborators. Rudd and Tchicai reassembled the New York Art Quartet for the 35th Reunion (DIW) album in 1999. Rudd and Lacy created the duo album Monk's Dream (Verve) in 2000, and Rudd rejoined Archie Shepp's band for Live in New York (Verve) in 2001. Gillis also arranged the reunion of Eli's Chosen Six for Rudd's 70th birthday.

"Verna asked what I'd like to do," Rudd explains, "and I said, 'Well, I started with these people and at a certain point for whatever reason we went in different directions. I want to know if it's possible to pick up those collaborations again.' We had to work from where we are now, but our experience from the past carries over; it wasn't like starting from scratch. We're not the same people we once were--our energies are different and our experiences are different--but what we did back in the day makes it easier to pick up again."

Gillis also helped Rudd release an album of ballads, 2000's Broad Strokes (Knitting Factory), and collaborate on a 2000 CD called Eventuality: The Charlie Kohlhase Quintet Plays the Music of Roswell Rudd (Nada). But the most important thing she did for Rudd was introduce him to her former world-music clients. In 2000, she took him along on a self-financed trip to Mali, and in Timbuktu they visited Toumani Diabate, a kora virtuoso who more than holds his own on a new duo CD with Ali Farka Toure, In the Heart of the Moon (Nonesuch).

"I went to Toumani Diabate's compound," Rudd says, "and he started throwing sounds out from the kora. I tried to match him, to see how I could complement what he was doing with my trombone. I had to be careful because the string sound can be easily masked by the brass sound, so I had to play with more restraint than usual. But I discovered that Malian music will keep repeating the same rhythmic phrase as long as a soloist is in flight, so I felt right at home. Toumani enjoyed the experience so much that he called the French Cultural Center and set up a concert for the next night."

As later happened with the Mongolians, these open-ended improvisations led to a recording, 2002's Malicool (Sunnyside), and a tour. Once again, Rudd reached back to his Dixieland past for guidance.

"Playing with musicians from Mali or Mongolia is not all that different from playing in a pickup Dixieland band," he claims. "I call it 'entering a found situation.' There's a certain amount of intellectual preparation you can do, but at a certain point you just have to throw yourself into the music, find a part for yourself, see how to fit in and how it can make the whole band sound better. If everybody is listening with sensitivity, you can generally get some good music out of it."

Listening Pleasures:

Bahia: Traditional Music and Moments of Brazil (Pulse of the Planet). It's a collection of folklorist Jim Metzner's 1976 field recordings of samba parades, fisherman chants, cowboy songs and martial-arts music. "I love the ad hoc nature of the music making on it," Rudd says.

When he and Toumani Diabate performed as Malicool with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow in September, the orchestra played Conlon Nancarrow's "Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra" and Kevin Volans' "Strip-Weave for Orchestra." "I was so fascinated by those two pieces," Rudd says, "that I've been listening to [a copy of the BBC broadcast] ever since."

Gearbox:

Rudd plays a Bach 36 Stradivarius tenor trombone with a wide slide. The latter feature is crucial for him. "If there's not enough distance between the mouthpiece and the pipe along your shoulder," he says, "when your neck expands as you play it's going to push the horn sideways across your mouth. That will mess up the embouchure and can even cut your lip. In 1965, I redesigned my horn by bending the pipe away from the mouthpiece, but that pushed the bell into the slide. So I lifted up the bell. Everyone said I was imitating Dizzy, but I was just trying to get the pipe away from my neck. Finally I found a manufactured wide-slide model. By making the slide shorter and the distance in the U-turn greater, they increase the distance between the mouth and where it goes across the shoulder."

He uses two different Harmon mutes that he has modified a great deal, but he still buys his plungers in hardware stores. "You've got to hang on to your plungers," he counsels, "because they're easy to lose and hard to find, and they don't manufacture anything that works very well. In hardware stores, you can still find some plungers with more hollow depth than you can get with music-company plungers."

At home, Rudd uses two pianos for composing, ear training and analysis: a Hammond electric piano with four octaves and a "kind of beat-up" Steinway baby grand. The latter was "the house piano for years at Soundscape on West 52nd Street in Manhattan," Rudd says, "so it's been played by some great improvisers, including Sun Ra, Hilton Ruiz, Dave Burrell and Marilyn Crispell."

Originally published in January/February 2006

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