Overdue Ovation: John Lindberg

A circle still in progress

Ten Freedom Summers, What Is Democracy, Roulette, May 2, 2013

John Lindberg (photo by Alan Nahigian)

The booklet for Born in an Urban Ruin, the more recently recorded of John Lindberg’s two concurrent, self-produced releases on Clean Feed, includes a photo of the bassist-composer taken in November 2015. He stands in front of a graffitied wall, on a crumbling walkway that overlooks an asphalt space, once a parking lot, now littered with debris. It used to be the entrance of the Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, where he was born in 1959.

In the album’s liner notes, Lindberg testifies: “Creative resurrection arises from the ruins, and this album is birthed from a distinctly post-industrial rust belt aesthetic, which is within every note and sound on this record. It’s survival, it’s endurance, it’s the spirit emerging forever triumphant.”

These days Lindberg lives in Battle Creek, Mich., a metropolis of 52,000 souls that is best known as the home of the Kellogg Company’s cereal manufacturing empire. It sits 120 miles west of Detroit and 20 miles west of Marshall, where Lindberg spent his childhood and the first half of his teens. “It’s a full circle,” said Lindberg, who relocated to western Michigan a couple of years ago, four decades after leaving home to pursue his destiny as a musician. “My mother is 94, and needs someone to look after her.”

During his years away from Michigan, Lindberg recorded 24 albums as a leader and eight more as co-leader of the String Trio of New York, while residing in, among other places, Paris, Los Angeles, New York City and the upstate towns of Saugerties and Kerhonkson. In 2012, he built and lived in a cabin in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where he served as an ambulance driver in a community rescue squad. A photo of Lindberg on his South Dakota property appears in the booklet for Western Edges, the other Clean Feed CD, recorded with baritone saxophonist Pablo Calogero and drummer Joe LaBarbera in L.A. in 2012, toward the end of Lindberg’s first year teaching at the California Institute of the Arts.

Back in Battle Creek, Lindberg reconnected with Wendell Harrison, the Detroit-based saxophonist and clarinetist with whom he’d performed duo and trio concerts around 2000, while Lindberg’s son was attending school in Bloomfield Township. Last April, he convened Harrison, playing only clarinet, and New Jersey-based percussionist Kevin Norton, on vibraphone, in a Kalamazoo studio to interpret the melodically contrapuntal pieces that comprise Born in an Urban Ruin. Lindberg triangulates and guides the flow, displaying, as Norton puts it, “the energy, accuracy, guts and earthiness” that have characterized his tonal personality throughout his career. He doles out his fireworks efficiently, with concision and restraint, like an old master with nothing to prove.

In contrast, Western Edges is a freewheeling, collaborative encounter to which Calogero contributed three of the seven selections. LaBarbera, whose CalArts office was next door to Lindberg’s, navigates the open space as though the freedom principle was his default m.o., as drummer Ed Thigpen had done on three of Lindberg’s mid-’90s albums for Black Saint. “When I got to L.A., I was excited for the opportunity to reconnect with Pablo,” says Lindberg, who came to CalArts via faculty member Wadada Leo Smith, for whom Lindberg had filled in when Smith took a sabbatical in 2008. In November 2011, during Lindberg’s first semester, he played on Smith’s acclaimed Ten Freedom Summers, the fifth of eight recordings for which the trumpeter and composer has retained his services. The most recent is last year’s America’s National Parks, which hit the market in proximity to Celestial Weather, a Smith-Lindberg duo session recorded in 2012.

“Between teaching and touring Ten Freedom Summers, I had a lot to do,” Lindberg continued. “But Pablo and I were working on each other’s pieces, including things we’d played in informal settings during the ’70s.”

Lindberg met Calogero—and guitarist James Emery, his future partner in the String Trio of New York, along with violinist Billy Bang—in the fall of 1975, at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y. Then 16, he attended CMS on the recommendation of Roscoe Mitchell, who was residing in Laingsburg, Mich., a village 60 miles from Marshall. Around 1973, Mitchell was presenting duo concerts at the Michigan State University campus planetarium, with the likes of Joseph Jarman and Phillip Wilson. Lindberg—who had recently converted from drums to bass after hearing Wilbur Ware’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” solo on Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard—approached him for lessons, offering to paint and work on Mitchell’s farmhouse in exchange. “Roscoe had me playing insanely difficult, wide-intervalled fast pieces like ‘Nonaah’ on the bass before I even knew all my scales,” Lindberg says. “He told me either to go to Creative Music Studio or join the Army—I’d get a great musical education.”

Rather than finish high school after his season in Woodstock, Lindberg hit the road, working in Norfolk, Va., and in Kansas City with musicians from CMS. Later, he hitchhiked from spot to spot, plywood bass strapped to his back, before finding a steady lounge gig in Miami with a singer. He saved a few hundred dollars, then moved to New York, crashing in Calogero’s parents’ Upper West Side apartment before taking a $135-per-month rental on the Lower East Side. It was located across the street from the La MaMa theatre’s Annex and one block west of Ornette Coleman’s bassist for much of the ’60s, David Izenzon, with whom Lindberg developed a familial relationship that lasted until Izenzon died in 1979.

“I’d always wanted to study with him,” Lindberg says. “I was interested in bassists who created a strong improvising voice with the bow, so Slam Stewart and Major Holley were of extreme interest, as were Paul Chambers and Scott LaFaro. When I heard David with Ornette Coleman, I couldn’t believe how he placed his classical technique and sound in a jazz-improvised music realm to create a completely different world than the tradition of bowed jazz bass playing. David said, ‘Sometimes tradition isn’t anything more than bad habits that never got broken,’ and I always remembered that. We all take things from tradition, but the traditions exist to be extended upon, to create a voice that leads to new places.”

Once ensconced in New York, Lindberg found an outlet through the late St. Louis-born drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw, then living in the Annex. When Lindberg was evicted from his flat, Shaw invited him to move into a room within the space, and recruited Lindberg to play in the Human Arts Ensemble, with Emery, trombonist Joseph Bowie and saxophonist Luther Thomas. On a spring 1978 sojourn in Europe, they crossed paths with Anthony Braxton, who enfolded both the Human Arts Ensemble and Smith’s New Dalta Ahkri into a concert documented on Creative Orchestra (Köln) 1978. Not long thereafter, Braxton hired the 19-year-old to take over for Dave Holland in his quartet, placing Lindberg at a crossroads. “David told me to get my GED and go to Manhattan School of Music, where he had contacts,” Lindberg says. “We banged heads over that for a while. But I was as hardheaded as he was. Instead of sitting in class as a college sophomore, I played with Braxton. From elementary school on, academic settings never agreed with me. I wanted to get out and do it with the people who were doing it, not the people who were teaching about how somebody else did it. That was my path, and I wouldn’t trade the education I got for anything.”

“You won’t find anyone like John,” Smith says. “Whenever we walk onstage, we know that, no matter what the deal is, we’ll conquer the situation and give the music a potential to reach everybody who was there. His ability to find the right teacher, the right method and the right material all speaks to his character as a human being, and also the sincerity of his artistic journey.”

His remarks about coming “full circle” to the contrary, Lindberg anticipates full-throttle musical production ahead. And he cites Smith’s process as a model. “It speaks to Wadada’s dedication and focus that he did his stuff for 40 years before starting to get more major recognition,” Lindberg says. “He kept doing the work, and whatever occurred, that’s what occurred—he kept going. It’s a coronation of the idea that true art can rise up in purity and be recognized, and an absolute tribute to endurance and sheer grit and determination on his part.”

Recommended Listening

John Lindberg BC3 Born in an Urban Ruin (Clean Feed, 2016)

John Lindberg Raptor Trio Western Edges (Clean Feed, 2016)

Wadada Leo Smith & John Lindberg Celestial Weather (TUM, 2015)