Roswell Rudd: The Musical Magus Turns 75

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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After his Latin sojourn, Rudd returned to the musical mainland of America with one of the finest albums in the history of his repertoire. Keep Your Heart Right (Sunnyside, 2007) returned the composer to the soundscape of his bold, brassy, trombone. Rudd had discovered the exceptional musicality of pianist Lafayette Harris, Jr. and together with the unbridled ingenuity of Korean-born/American-based vocalist Sunny Kim and the melodic and rhythmic gymnastics of bassist Brad Jones, he created an album of singular beauty. The purity of Rudd's melodism on this album is perhaps its most enduring aspect. "Loved By Love" becomes a ballad of exceptional beauty again, while "Bamako" is rendered with its simple melodic lines in stark, soaring patterns that swirl around, seeming to awaken the musical universe with dewy splendor. The gospel tinge also flavors the music surging just below the surface of the melodies of "The Light Is With Me," "All Night Soul" and the quirky "Suh Blah Blah Buh Sibi." And Rudd closes the set with a beautiful tribute to his partner and soul mate, Verna Gillis, with a truly moving version of "Whatever Turns You On Baby."

Roswell Rudd's Trombone Tribe

Just as it might have seemed impossible to top the past few years of Soundscape productions, Rudd seemed to find a new metaphor, one that he released with a purely trombone album. Trombone Tribe (Sunnyside, 2009) united the musician with some of his old colleagues and some newer ones as well. Bassist Henry Grimes made a reappearance on the album, as did trombonist Steve Swell. The trombone tribe also included the stylish Ray Anderson, Sam Burtis and Eddie Bert, the fat sound of Josh Roseman, the vibrant colorist Wycliffe Gordon and ever-talented Deborah Weisz.

The album unites these musicians of considerable, shimmering talent in a rousing history of contemporary American music, which ends with soaring mysticism in the long piece, "The Place Above." Here, Rudd's trombone tribe meets the blithe spirits in the form of the Ganghe Brass Band of Benin. The spectacular spiritual, inspired by a Sunday service Rudd witnessed in Colonou and bringing together the astounding musicianship of Benin trombonist Martial Ahouandjinou and his brother/trumpeter Magliore, is a five-part suite that explodes with the same energetic fervor that also came to typify the African-American Holy Rolling churches. Once again, Rudd's sense of adventure and childlike wonder, with which he seemed to experience the universe of sound, won out. What still remains a mystery is why accolades for his stellar work with Gillis in the Soundscape series continue to be woefully small. This, however, has never worried Rudd, who fills his world with musical energy and creativity. Returning to his roots of melodism, the trombonist has reached yet another milestone in his illustrious career as an American musical institution.

Celebrating his 75th year, Rudd released yet another fine album with Gillis at his side. The Incredible Honk (Sunnyside, 2011) is a masterpiece of musicality, creativity and the inimitable energy that Roswell Rudd brings to the more than six hundred year history of the 14 feet of brass tubing called the trombone. Like his 2008 masterpiece, Keep Your Heart Right, this album takes flight on the wings of musical melody. This is gutbucket Rudd, who also seems to meld the down-and-dirty with celestial beauty. At 75, the trombonist has proved that he can swing with abandon, ache with existential pain and take flight with the sounds of joy. His marvelous collaborations with legendary fiddler Michael Doucet and Beausoliel ("C'etait Dans la Nuit"), the intimate duet with Lafayette Harris ("Waltzing With My Baby"), a traditional Korean song featuring Sunny Kim's vocal gymnastics (the stirring "Arirang") and the ethereal beauty of "Blue Flower Blue" and "Danny Boy"—both of which star the Chinese sheng player/vocalist, Wu Tong—mark The Incredible Honk as the dawn of a new era in Rudd's legendary career, that has so far spanned six decades of sheer beauty.

His hair is as white as mine is today. Suddenly, the sound of his trombone comes into my mind with notes spinning, as if they are myriad dancers illuminating the melody of "Danny Boy." This time it is the voice of Wu Tong that awakens the musical universe from the skies above China, Scotland and America, as Sheila Jordan once did on the unforgettable "Lullaby For Greg." Tears rush down my cheeks, each a river of pain that glistens, as Rudd plays the melody of a song my mother taught me. I realize, all over again, how I connected with the world beyond my horizon, through the art of song that Rudd seems to bring to life every time he puts his lips to the mouthpiece of his trombone.


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