Roswell Rudd: The Musical Magus Turns 75

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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What attracted the young trombonist to the great pioneer of American music was not just his trumpet playing, which had a seductive, primordial quality to it, but also Armstrong's vocals. The trumpeter was not only a monumental instrumentalist, but he was also one of the foremost interpreters of song. A mighty vocalist, Armstrong had an innate ability to tell a story and had an inimitable sense of phrasing, at the cutting edge where the human voice met the art of song. There were other vocalists who stole Rudd's heart away. Duke Ellington Orchestra alumnus, Al Hibbler was one; the others were Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald—all voices who not only defined the music of the day, but ignited the planet as well.

This ability to literally let his trombone melt into the cadences of the song is what characterized Roswell Rudd's playing right from his earliest playing and his earliest associations with musicians. In the early 50's Rudd attended Yale University and was part of a music ensemble, Eli's Chosen Six. The band recorded a seminal album for Columbia entitled Eli's Yale University Dixieland Band (Columbia, 1955). Another album with the band appears to have fallen off discographies almost everywhere and is likely to remain so. Rudd did revive the band briefly during his 70th year celebrations with a performance at the Rubin Museum of Art in 2002. From the very beginning of his vocation in music, Rudd's tonal vocabulary has included growling cries, smears woven into the lyrical wow and flutter of his playing that is so eternal that it seems to come from some of the oldest sounds on the planet—the creaks and grumbles and tremulous vibrations that emerge from the nebulous soul of the earth.

For someone who was so connected to the hymn of the universe, it seems fortuitous that Rudd should come to be associated with Alan Lomax, one of the seminal figures in American music. From the early '60s, Rudd worked off and on as a research assistant with Lomax. This culminated in his involvement in two monumental projects. The first was the Cantometrics Project, a global song-style endeavor that sought to study how all folk music traditions are linked in some way. The designers of the project used 37 parameters to analyze the recordings of folk music that they made over the years. Rudd was in his element academically here, working with Lomax who had first spoken of Cantometrics. The ethnomusicologist first formulated this method of studying social interaction through the study of folk music. Lomax attempted to relate the statistical analysis of sonic elements of traditional music, or folk songs, to the statistical analysis of sociological traits. He did this by finding ways to link the vocal quality of folk music—color, timbre, normal pitch, attack and type of ornamentation—to all of human character within a social context.

Despite the part-time nature of Roswell Rudd's association with this project, the trombonist seems to carry on and live the premise of the project in his music in the most innate sense. His music, both monophonic and polyphonic, explores a dramatic spectrum of color. In the gutbucket manner of his exploration of the trombone voice with and without his own in tow, he has extended the timbral values of that ubiquitous instrument. Growling up and down the register of the trombone he has stretched the already elastic pitch of the instrument, varied his embouchure and attack with such invention that he has created a whole new melodic ornamentation, something virtually no other trombonist (barring Steve Turre) has achieved on this, or any other instrument.

It was this unique palette of sonic color that first attracted Herbie Nichols to the Rudd. The great pianist forged a close alliance with the trombonist, exchanging ideas and rehearsing and playing together regularly, or whenever Rudd would find them Dixieland gigs. However, the two musicians spent much time together, learning from each other—Rudd more than Nichols. In fact, Rudd credits Nichols for "learning" all about the art of creating unforgettable melody in the bass-line of song, something that Rudd has carried with him throughout his musical life so far. The association also prompted Rudd to create some of the finest repertory music around the recreations of Nichols' music, an achievement that is only matched by similar recreations of the music of that other giant of modern music, Thelonious Monk.


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