Roswell Rudd: The Musical Magus Turns 75

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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During this time, Rudd also began a teaching career first as a member of the ethnomusicology faculty at Bard State College, a fertile stint that began in 1972 and lasted until 1976, when he moved to Maine and taught at the University of Maine between 1976 and 1982.

It was during that decade of the '80s that Rudd seemed to withdraw from active recording, focusing his energy on first teaching and later on composing, practicing and honing his monumental skills on the trombone. Wood-shedding was also combined with an unusual gig. As the performance scene in New York dried up to a smidge, living in the Big Apple became untenable for Rudd and he moved upstate to work in an ensemble at The Granit Hotel, a tourist attraction for retirees from Florida. By his own admission, Rudd played music to back up comedians, singers, dancers and fire-eaters. Years of living the life of an ethnomusicologist, combined with the experience and austere discipline as an assistant to Alan Lomax, Rudd also developed the ability to retain the qualities of a sponge. He listened and absorbed the sounds of humor and the elastic setting in which he existed. This would prove eminently useful as he emerged on the B side of this experience, cresting a new wave—a high he would continue to be on for the next two or three decades.

It was first during the late '70s that Rudd first came into contact with Verna Gillis, another extraordinary ethnomusicologist and founder of Soundscape at a performance that Rudd was involved in, with his wife and his wife. Descending from Upstate New York from time to time Rudd often crossed paths with Gillis and participated in the occasional musical adventure with her. Also, by the time the '90s swung around, Rudd was back on the block, performing and making a series of albums, with the British saxophonist Elton Dean, Rumours of an Incident (Slam, 1996) and, a year later, Newsense (Slam, 1997). Rudd also made all-but-forgotten albums, Terrible NRBQ with Terry Adams (New World, 1996) and Out and About (CIMP, 1996), with trombonist Steve Swell, who he credits with enabling his return to New York City's gradually reawakening music scene.

It was during the '80s, and possibly even before that time, that Rudd began to revisit the music of Herbie Nichols. His fascination and utter devotion to one of the true and unsung geniuses of modern music began to take flight again. Relocating Herbie Nichols' music to the landscape of the trombone, Rudd created one of the most definitive tributes to the pianist and composer. On three days in November, 1996—from the 18th to the 20th—Rudd recorded fifteen charts composed by Nichols in a trio setting that included Greg Millar, on guitar and percussion, and John Bacon Jr. on drums and vibraphone. The small ensemble recast Nichols' extraordinary music with all its written melodic drama, without piano or bass. This bore out Rudd's theory about Nichols, whom he saw as a sublime melodist who enabled that aspect of music to flourish unfettered in the bass line of his music. The Unheard Herbie Nichols, Vols. 1 and 2 (CIMP, 1996 and 1997 respectively) not only enhanced Rudd's reputation as an arranger exponentially, but have also added to Nichols' own repertoire in much the same way as albums by Rudd's old Yale cohort, Buell Neidlinger, Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg and the music of the Herbie Nichols Project, performed by a group led by pianist Frank Kimbrough. Sadly, however, like most of Rudd's music these two albums have also passed like ships in the night, unnoticed even by some of the musical cognoscenti.

During the '90s and into the early part of the new millennium Rudd also reconnected with his old friend, Steve Lacy. In what was to become one of their last recordings together, Rudd and Lacy, together with Lacy alumni/drummer John Betsch and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel—as well as with bassist Bob Cunningham and the great drummer Denis Charles—recast some of their music together with the music of Monk and Nichols on Early and Late (2007), a double-album feature caught on tape by Cuneiform Records. This was a valuable addition to the music the two men had recorded on those other repertory records of considerable repute—Regeneration (Soul Note, 1982) and Monk's Dream (Verve, 2000)—albums that were recorded more than a decade apart.


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