After years of languishing in a Catskills resort orchestra, Roswell Rudd is actively reasserting his eminence both as Herbie Nichols’ torchbearer and a free jazz raconteur. On The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Vol. 1, Rudd boldly interprets seven of the many compositions Nichols gave the trombonist during their tragically shortened friendship. A reunion with saxist Elton Dean, a late ’70s Carla Bley bandmate, resulted in Bladik, a program of hard-boiled improvisations well-suited for Rudd’s incomparable blend of bluesiness and bluster.
Both albums find the underheralded New Thing pioneer in excellent form. Nobody knows better than Rudd that Nichols was not a simple modernist, that the unfettered swing of Nichols’ often complex music was shaped by the music of the ’20 and ’30s, and that of his Caribbean roots. Rudd incisively conveys this insight in a wide variety of compositions, ranging from the darting “Freudian Frolics,” the unsettlingly romantic “Valse Macabre,” and the frothy “Jamaica.” Yet, Rudd’s arrangements also reflect his own idiosyncratic genius, as these performances veer far away from the standard head-solos-head mold. To this end, the contributions of guitarist Greg Millar and John Bacon Jr., who adeptly doubles on drums and vibes, are essential; as soloists, they more than meet the test of Nichols’ music. To cap off the program, Rudd hands in two beautiful solo performances that exemplify the humanity of Herbie Nichols’ music.
Whoever said that collective improvisation is best realized in duos and trios hasn’t heard enough albums like Bladik. Rudd, Dean and the members of Mujician-saxist Paul Dunmall, drummer Tony Levin, bassist Paul Rogers, and pianist Keith Tippett-judiciously draw on their respective assets to create richly detailed, hard-hitting pieces that are neither florid nor cluttered. Anyone familiar with Mujician’s three previous Cuneiform discs won’t be surprised by the session’s cohesion and cogency; what is striking, however, is the seamless incorporation of bluesy chord patterns and vamps that tap the jazzier facets of Dean and Rudd’s work. Hearing Rudd soar exultantly in this setting may very well prompt you to dig out his vintage recordings; it’s a shame that so few of them are available on domestic CDs.