Pyramid Trio, one of several groups fronted by New York trumpeter Roy Campbell, relies heavily on quicksilver intuition to bring its leader’s world-music-flavored tunes to life, and that sort of fluid interaction literally drips from the speakers when the group’s new Delmark album Ethnic Stew & Brew is on the box. Incredibly, while bassist William Parker has been a regular compatriot of the hornman for more than two decades, drummer Hamid Drake had never played Campbell’s music until they hit the studio for the new recording. “I’ve played with William for a long time,” says Campbell. “But I naturally assimilate to musicians I play with. It’s not the length of time; it’s the spirit of the person and the spirit of the music that brings things together.
“I view music in a very spiritual sense and a lot of times it’s not about playing together, but it’s about when people can vibe together,” explains Campbell, 48. “It’s like the flow of water.” The new album, then, is a veritable gusher. Bright, highly lyrical melodies as windswept as the plains of Castilla and as sparkling as blue of the Caribbean are girded by a beautifully rigorous, muscular rhythmic heft. Campbell’s concept of wedding postbop tunes with carefully deployed ethnic spices has been explored on two previous Pyramid Trio albums, on Silkheart and No More, but the combination has never sounded more potent or effective than it does on Ethnic Stew & Brew. The trumpeter is quick to give much of the credit to Drake, a dazzling rhythmical omnivore whose aural diet includes as much reggae and African music as it does jazz; they first played together, along with Parker, in Die Like a Dog and the Chicago Tentet, groups led by German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. “I see Hamid and William the way Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison fit with Trane, in terms of rapport and musicality.” Whether laying down imperturbable grooves or splintering them into countless new directions, this rhythmic duo does, indeed, sound like a force of nature.
Of course, Campbell’s brash, powerful tone is nothing to sneeze at, either. Although you can hear Don Cherry’s pan-ethnic lyricism in his playing, Campbell is a more forceful player. His bravado comes from a hard-bop upbringing that included studies with Lee Morgan, Yusef Lateef and Hannibal Marvin Peterson, to say nothing of the years he stuck it out in New York’s largely ignored early ’80s free-jazz scene, the true roots of what’s now dubbed ecstatic jazz. Campbell belongs to a generation where stylistic hegemony faded away in favor of bustling pluralities, pushing the envelope by stuffing it with all sorts of disparate stuff. “If you had a bookcase, would you only want the knowledge of one shelf of books, or the knowledge from all of the books?” asks Campbell. It only takes a cursory listen to his recorded work to discover that he has chosen the latter option.
He plays tough, genre-blind free jazz in Other Dimensions in Music and elegant postbop in his Tazz Ensemble. His sideman duties have included sessions with everyone from avant-garde chanteuse Ellen Christi to indie-rock paragons Yo La Tengo. Campbell spent three years in Rotterdam in the early ’90s and while there he played with musicians from all over the globe: Turkey, Africa, Indonesia and, naturally, Holland. “I really got to use everything in my vocabulary,” he says. “It was a very interesting period for me because I got to use it all in one place.” It’s an aesthetic he’s still trying to put into practice in New York, where every possible musical variant exists, but frequently only in isolation. Yet Ethnic Stew & Brew suggests that Campbell is finding his own way to accomplish the synthesis; it’s his most cogent mix of disparate traditions as well as his sharpest mixture of composition and improvisation. Ideally, however, there would be no discussion of where one element ends and another begins. “As musicians we’re all in a well, no matter what place you’re at in the well.”