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Tim Armacost: Rhythm and Transformation

By Published: February 26, 2004

It has taken me almost a decade to get this stuff out of my head...What happened here tonight was a long time in the making. It is the result of choices I made along the way.

Tim Armacost talks about 'choices [he] made' that determined the path he has taken as a musician. His direction was not always self-evident and its constant evolution has taken him from the US to Japan, to the Netherlands, to India, and back to the US, where has been for the past decade.

In his home base of New York, Armacost can be seen playing regularly with critically acclaimed pianist Bruce Barth, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. In addition he has worked fairly frequently with legendary drummer and D.C. native, Billy Hart.

Recently the tenor saxophonist received a grant from Chamber Music of America to compose and perform an original work for an ensemble of his choosing. The grant was made possible by that jazz-loving branch of the Doris Duke Foundation and from 'Rhythm and Transformation,' the four part suite which resulted from said grant, takes the listener on a journey from Afro-Cuban influences to Indian traditional music and the blues.

The world premiere of Rhythm and Transformation took place in Washington D.C. two weeks ago at Blues Alley. As Armacost took to the road, he returned to the city where he had spent his adolescence. While a teenager in nearby Bethesda, MD Armacost was in the midst of honing his sax chops and was exposed to a vibrant DC jazz scene. As he was selected as a student for elite jazz groups at the county and state levels, it was during this time that he started considering jazz as a career.

On Wednesday February 4, 2004 Armacost and a star-studded group including Barth, Okegwo, Hart, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, percussionist Andrew Daniels, and tabla player Ray Spiegel took to the stage of Blues Alley to commence a musical journey.

The first set started off with Monk's 'Worry Later.' As the tenor's descending melodic line contrasted with the Henderson's solid-toned sustained line, I realized that this group was comfortable with each other. The players had a definite rapport that the audience could feel. Having never heard Billy Hart live, I soon realized why his reputation was so good ' the sound he got out of a relatively simple set was huge. Hart would periodically erupt into flushes of rhythmic fury that propelled the soloists in different directions than they originally thought they were going. His sheer joy to be playing and more importantly to be reacting as an integral member of the group is virtually unmatched today (except maybe by Al Foster or Bill Stewart).

'I'm Happy Anyways,' which followed was written as Armacost waited on layover at a Japanese airport. The tune had a modal feel but involved much more rhythmic pulse than other compostions by Miles, Herbie, and Bill Evans that readily come to mind. In his solo Barth brought his lush voicings from mezzo-forte down to pianissimo. As he approached silence Hart brought him back up by pushing him with cymbal crashes ' louder and louder until a furious climax as Barth, forearms turned inwards violently pounded down on the keys ' as he could reach. Then as if the act had wiped the piano out, the bench gave way, sending Barth backwards onto his backside. After finding he was not hurt, the audience gave a thunderous laughing applause.

This was followed by the exquisite Charles Mingus ballad 'Duke Ellington's Sound of Love,' which Armacost led beautifully with tasteful obligato from Henderson's harmon-muted horn and a caressing piano solo from Barth. The last tune of the first set 'Indian News,' was the first to specifically use Spiegel's masterful tabla (a long two-ended Indian drum). From a haunting sax-tabla-piano line, the tune morphed into an 'Ornettish rhythm changes.'

Going into further detail he explained, 'Ornette wrote a bunch of heads which were loosely based on rhythm changes.' Armacost cites "Chronology" on The Shape of Jazz to Come as his favorite example. 'He played over the form, but the harmony is loose. In the case of 'Chronology', the tonal center is F major, which they use as the home key, and play freely - in and out of it.'

Though he didn't explain all this to the audience, the piece's Indian aspects gave the audience a good introduction of what was to come in the second set (which to my shock and amazement did not incur an extra cover charge).

The entire second set was the premiere of Rhythm and Transformation. As my hand was tired ' my notes dropped off after intermission. Rather than critique every little thing as one would normally do of a new piece of music, I chose just to listen and absorb. What I heard was an eclectic work that reflected each stop along Armacost's journey. I didn't write notes on the second half ' instead opting to just listen and try to absorb as much as I could from such a long work. The main thing that I brought out of my experience was that Armacost is truly a first-rate all-around musician. His sound is enormous. And while his facility around the horn is akin to modern technicians Mark Turner and Michael Brecker, his harmonic approach taps into his an idiosyncratic style all his own ' doing the opposite of the expected.

'I went to Pomona College in southern California,' Armacost recollects. 'I never put down the sax, but especially when I was in college I was undecided as to whether or not I wanted to devote all my time to being a musician.'

After spending his junior year in Japan and getting over a desire to become a Buddhist monk, Armacost finished up college and promptly made the move to Europe. Amsterdam to be exact. In the seven years that followed he was able to build a musical resume gigging in that city and around Europe.

Seven years of practice later, he left Europe as a newly-wed and went to India, where his wife had received a grant to do research. By tagging along Armacost was introduced to a host of new influences and he began playing with native musicians sparking a love affair with Indian music.

'It has taken me almost a decade to get this stuff out of my head,' laments the saxophonist. 'What happened here tonight was a long time in the making. It is the result of choices I made along the way.'

Thanks to Chamber Music of America and Doris Duke ' he finally made it happen.

Learn more about grants through CMA and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.



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