Roswell Rudd: The Musical Magus Turns 75

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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"Years ago it would have seemed an impossible dream to get to record with this musical magus, but here we are... and what a thrill!" class="f-right">—Charlie Kohlhase, From liner notes to Eventuality: The Charlie Kohlhase Quintet Plays the Music of Roswell Rudd (Nada, 2001)

I see him suddenly as if in a dream. His eyes are somewhat cynical, questioning and beautiful. Wrinkles of laughter pucker up at the edges, and he reminds me of my father. His smile disappears as the mouthpiece of his gleaming trombone meets his lips. Then, all I can see is the large bell of the 'bone. His eyes widen. He sucks in a great gust of air. It seems to settle in his powerful lungs. Then the first sounds emerge. Slow, controlled notes seemingly suspended in the air. I am transfixed. His body sways and bends backward as he squeezes he notes out of his mouth... out of the 30 feet of brass pipe and out of the bell of the horn. The unique smears and near vocal arpeggios that are woven into the dyed musical fabric of "Circulation" dance maddeningly as they unfurl in diaphanous splendor, chorus after chorus, until the rest of the orchestra—too restless from comping behind him—join, bleating and crying as they dance to his magnificent solo. I am transfixed and as I listen the song's barely visible characters take shape before my eyes.

The mighty dramaturgy of Roswell Rudd's sinewy, restless music had an immediate effect on me. He does not let up, even as he brings his music to a close. I watch as the notes take shape and fill out with tone and color... shades of warm rusts and yellows... greens, reds and bIacks... I watch as the notes pirouette in the air above me. The spectacular unfolding of timbre as each instrument interacts with the other—horns and reeds, strings, piano and percussion, and most of all Rudd himself, whose trombone has always been suggestive of the human voice as it carved the air with monumental musicianship.

Rudd's sense of drama is matched by his razor-sharp sense of where he belongs in the world of sound. Nowhere is it more vivid and audible as when he weaves in and out of tubaist Howard Johnson's visceral playing on "Breath-a-Howard..." The masterly conversation between Rudd and Johnson is truly worthy of the musical adventure that is created as Rudd plies his art alongside Johnson's tuba. What a magnificent, soaring dialogue born of Johnson's superb narration of a story, aided and abetted by Rudd, as the rest of the band pick up the cue from Hod O'Brien's fingers on the ebony and ivory. "Breath-a-Howard" awakes like the great gusts of wind in a powerful hurricane. Then...silence...

The whispering of the 1-2... 1-2-3 splash across the cymbals... Beaver Harris is caressing and back-slapping the skins of his toms and tympani. He repeats a cycle then he crunches the high-hat. Nobody moves... except Sheila Jordan, as she slides into position to sing. Then she wails with the band, and the song becomes "Lullaby for Greg." The tears are streaming down my face. This has much to do with Jordon's lyrics and her vocals, but none of that would matter if it were not for the aching beauty of the music itself. Unashamed am I and moved by it all. This is as close to the perfect knot of emotion that will ever grab hold of my gut. Somehow I get this way when I listen to Roswell Rudd.

Dewey Redman, tugging at notes, now... as Jordan takes a break. He meets them halfway inside his deep guts, caresses them and tosses them in broad glissandos—soft-loud... loud-soft—then a fast arpeggio, as he seems to lick his lips. Hands flutter and flash on the triangles and a muted cowbell... William Godvin "Beaver" Harris is on song! Remembering waking, wailing babies at Gorree. Charlie Haden's fingers are flickering across the gut-stringed bass violin... Its thunder rumbles from the depths of its throat. Sirone follow suit. Dewey Redman breaks in suddenly. He lets out a series of ululations and shrieks a long and winded shriek. Then he tosses a high C wildly upward. It flies out of the bell of the horn and into the air spinning like a top and dissipates softly in an after burn.

Roswell Rudd and The Jazz Composers Orchestra playing Numatik Swing Band (JCOA, 1973), a suite of majestic compositions commissioned from Rudd in 1973 became my baptism by the trombonist and left such a profound impact on heart and soul that it echoes in my mind's ear. Four decades on, the profundity of the music—its aching melodies and sophisticated harmonies—is what truly classic music is all about... scintillating, enduring and utterly memorable. I told him that, when we spoke about a year ago, as I was preparing to honor him when he turned 75. But he was being characteristically modest. In actual fact there is much more that he gave the world of contemporary music. I discovered that when I looked deeper into his masterly repertoire that I first heard when I bought a copy of saxophonist Archie Shepp's Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1966), that same year.

Shepp had, in that one seminal album, almost singlehandedly created a snapshot of African-American history. In its title track, for instance, the composer created one of the most sterling tributes to the central familial figure in society, deconstructing the socio-political setting in which generations of African-American youth grew up, keeping the culture alive. In doing so, Shepp deconstructed the blues with the burbling flow of his glorious tenor saxophone. Rudd played counterpoint when he was called to do so. But what he also did, when he punctuated his visceral playing with almost vocal shouts and guttural smears, was to create a primordial cry of the human being tortured, yet emerging triumphant from his endeavors; an artist who reached—body and soul—for the seemingly unreachable... falling, getting up, falling again and again, until finally reaching out and grabbing at life's Holy Grail. Rudd was already a part of the great revival of contemporary American music. A torchbearer alongside Shepp and Grachan Moncur III, Charlie Haden and Beaver Harris, and every other musician whose spirit the musicians on that record were keeping alive.
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