The last three years must seem to Henry Grimes as the busiest period in his career, almost equal to his prolific output in the 1960s when he contributed to such epochal albums of the avante garde as Spirits Rejoice (Albert Ayler), Unit Structures and Conquistador (Cecil Taylor) and Complete Communion (Don Cherry). On Friday night, November 10, Grimes maintained his busy schedule by performing in the 2006 London Jazz Festival with guitarist Marc Ribot's group Spiritual Unity alongside Roy Campbell on trumpet and Chad Taylor on drums.
Ribot's group, as its name might imply to some insiders, is something of a tribute band to the great saxophonist Albert Ayler, who broke new ground in the mid to late 1960s with his innovative, free approach to music. "The Truth Is Marching In" was one of about five pieces the group performed, along with what sounded like Ribot originals composed with Ayler very much in mind. The band performed with the kind of focused energy you'd expect from a group of musicians paying tribute to an influential trailblazer like Ayler.
Grimes was superb throughout, demonstrating the same commanding technique and large, authoritative tone that dominated his recorded work of the 1960s. Some of the audience may have been a little taken aback by the fierce energy and intense, complex sonic textures of the music, but this writer witnessed a telling reaction by a young woman who was attempting to explain after the concert how she felt about the music to her friends. She knew she liked it and that it affected her in a way other music hadn't but wasn't able to verbalize this feeling. I knew where she was coming from. This music has that kind of impact upon the first-time listener.
Later that night Grimes, Taylor and Campbell were joined onstage at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho by none other than British Jazz Godfather Evan Parker for a brief, ten-minute performance being recorded for a radio broadcast. Parker played tenor with the group, and the result, despite the fact that this was the first time these four men had played together, was tantalizingly magical. I immediately thought of the Don Cherry group on albums like Complete Communion, which comprised Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, Ed Blackwell and our man Henry Grimes. I didn't recognise the single piece they performed, but it was a mid-tempo composition with an out-of-tempo ensemble opening, loose-limbed solos and a return to the theme (albeit a reimagined version). It was pure gold. An experience that was over so quickly but one that will linger for a long time to come.
As an addendum to this piece, a brief conversation with Henry Grimes after the late night gig revealed his feelings about working with musicians such as Cecil Taylor. Grimes recounted that Taylor's standard of musicianship was so high that playing with him automatically lifted your own performance and, as a consequence, that of the entire group. Henry Grimes himself is now that man who inspires greatness by example.