The New York Art Quartet reflected the richness of the avant-garde. The spirit that spawned Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler’s fire also produced the subtle, contemplative sound of the NYAQ (alto saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd, drummer Milford Graves and 11 successive bassists). NYAQ lacked the shock value of those other innovators; add to that the lack of time, tonality or even solos-the band’s core was collective improvisation-and the music’s cool temperament makes it harder, not easier, to parse. Still, they were original, and nearly 50 years later remain stubbornly unique.
But if (as producer Ben Young suggests) they were “quietly revolutionary,” it was quite a minor revolution. The quartet existed from mid-1964 to late ’65, playing just over two dozen gigs and releasing two records during that span (a 1965 concert recording also appeared in 2010), and received slight attention. Yet the box set call it art features five LPs (four hours) of previously unreleased material, roughly triple the band’s lifetime output, and a 150-plus-page coffee-table book that gives them messianic treatment. At best, it’s of questionable necessity; realistically, it’s closer to ludicrous.
The packaging, it must be said, is splendid. Outside is a box of birch wood, naked save a sticker that bears the title and limited-edition copy number (of 665). Inside are five matte-sleeved pieces of 180-gram vinyl and a black, clothbound 11-by-11-inch book full of glossy pages and arresting color and black-and-white photographs. In producing a collector’s item, Young could hardly have done better: Collectors will drool.
The musical content is odds-and-ends stuff: a studio alternate take, concerts, loft sessions and one live radio broadcast on New York’s WBAI. Most of it is quite good, including a number of pieces that the NYAQ never otherwise recorded. The band shines: Graves is particularly brilliant as a frontline drummer with percussive color, while Rudd and Tchicai demonstrate remarkable sensitivity to each other’s sounds. Various versions of their best tunes, the trombonist’s “Banging on the White House Door” and “Old Stuff,” demonstrate their passion and delight with this music and betray a sizable Coleman influence. The excellent “Four Days in December” performance of New Year’s Eve 1964 (Records I and II) could have been an album in its own right. The set’s highlight, however, is Record II’s WBAI broadcast with Eddie Gomez on bass. Clearly an aircheck (albeit a high-quality one) with its light tape warp and too-high mic levels, it features Tchicai’s probing “Ballad Theta” and a fascinating abstraction of “Now’s the Time” along with three entrancing poems read by Amiri Baraka.
Still, there’s something fetishistic in releasing these recordings: Good as they are, they provide little new insight into the short-lived band (aside from its “Now’s the Time” refraction). Even the studio alternate of “Banging on the White House Door” is most notable for being inferior to the one on NYAQ’s second album, Mohawk. And some of the material spent 50 years in the vault for good reason: Records IV and V mostly consist of a tape made at Marzette Watts’ East Village loft; except for Alan Shorter, sitting in on trumpet, the musicians are recorded at sub-bootleg levels.
The book amplifies the fetishism. It’s an absurdly complete history, including summaries of the members’ pre-NYAQ careers, listings of every gig the quartet ever did, and photographs of their scant press clippings-mostly gig advertisements-sheet music and written notes to each other.
It’s obviously disproportionate to the band’s status. Perversely, it also emphasizes how comprehensive call it art isn’t: Such extensive documents should go with complete recordings, not leftovers.