Art Davis and the Circle of Five
Five Knitting Factory Main Space, March 28, 2002 Art Davis (ab), James Carter (reeds), Dick Griffin (trom), Dave Burrell (ap ep), Cecil Brooks III (drm), Candido (cong)
September 11, devastating in its effect on New York and the world, had many smaller and less significant ramifications. While it was hard to think of music and clubs, more than a passing thought had to be given to the Knitting Factory, perilously close to the site of the attacks. For at least a few weeks, the club was closed and months passed before its attendance was again at normal levels. Canceled were concerts planned for the mid-September. Art Davis and the Circle of Five, a much-anticipated show at the time, was the one of the logistical casualties amongst the many tragic physical ones.
Almost seven months later, Art Davis made his first trip to New York in 16 years in a project celebrating the music of two equally important, if quite different, innovators: John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. Not to be missed is the opportunity to see living Coltrane collaborators, even when they may not be playing at the same level as they were under his leadership. Fortunately for the very full crowd at this expensive, high-profile show, Art Davis still plays quite well, effectively mixing traditional reservation with exuberant originality.
Davis put together luminaries from several generations of jazz for his group. Candido, the elder statesman of the group, began his American career in the early '50's with Dizzy Gillespie. Dave Burrell is well known to connoisseurs of American Free Jazz expatriotism in the late '60's. Cecil Brooks III is one of the fine rock-influenced drummers of the '90's. James Carter, quoting Davis, is "one of the finest young sax players in the world." Davis commands a pedigree of numerous albums recorded with such legends as Max Roach, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and of course Coltrane himself, most notably on the landmark "Ascension".
The choice of material for this almost hour-and-a-half set, through the filter of musicians coming from such disparate backgrounds, was bizarre. The show began with two Hendrix pieces, "Driftin" and "Machine Gun". While Davis began the set conservatively, playing sparse accompaniment, the rest of the group wasted no time in displaying their musical acumen. Griffin especially was hot early, highlighting the opener with an extended display of trombone multiphonics, a technique which is as difficult as it is thrilling. "Machine Gun" found Burrell playing an ugly sound on his synthesizer, a riff reminiscent of Iron Butterfly or Cream but instantly recognizable to any Hendrix fan. Brooks’s approach was loud and raucous, underpinning the heavy rock. Griffin and Carter, both trying to be Hendrix on their respective instruments, traded wild licks during the song’s solo segments. Davis, quite acclimated by this point, added his own frenetic solo. A masterful display showing that music is ultimately about musicians not styles.
Tacking sharply, the group launched into a mesmerizing version of the Coltrane classic "Africa". For those who have forgotten what a monumental work this is, this would have sent you running for your LP. The whole piece bristled with energy, Davis’s thick arco complementing Carter's spirited Coltrane emulation. Davis, commenting that the original version had two basses so he would have to perform both parts, played with enough enthusiasm for two uprights, exhibiting how significant his time with Coltrane was for his career. The piece continued to swell, peaking with Carter and Griffin blowing as hard and as with as much spirit as possible, and Brooks' aggressive drumming pushing the limits of the music. After a typically atonal solo by Burrell over simple drum and conga, Davis did his best Peter Kowald impression through a protracted solo on the highest register of his bass before returning the group to a rousing recapitulation of the original theme.
Unfortunately, the set bottomed out after this hard-to-follow highlight. The playing of a cheap and derivative version of "Purple Haze" was inexplicable. Performed by every shabby bar band, this version was no better. The closer "ANS" was built around a single bowed note by Davis, creating an Eastern drone that set the stage for free blowing by Carter and Griffin. Unusual at first, the lack of musical tension derived from progressions eventually became tedious. The stop and start ending was a brief respite from this, but came off as excessively dramatic.
Seeing Davis playing well and having the chance to see players like Burrell should be enough for any show. And at least for two numbers the band played spectacularly. Griffin and Carter complemented each other quite nicely, alternately pushing each other to new levels of inspiration. Perhaps the choice of certain material required more thought, as it may not have been the best vehicle for seeing this all-star group at its best.