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Tim Armacost: Rhythm and Transformation

Matt Merewitz By

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It has taken me almost a decade to get this stuff out of my head...What happened here tonight was a long time in the making. It is the result of choices I made along the way.
Tim Armacost talks about 'choices [he] made' that determined the path he has taken as a musician. His direction was not always self-evident and its constant evolution has taken him from the US to Japan, to the Netherlands, to India, and back to the US, where has been for the past decade.

In his home base of New York, Armacost can be seen playing regularly with critically acclaimed pianist Bruce Barth, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. In addition he has worked fairly frequently with legendary drummer and D.C. native, Billy Hart.

Recently the tenor saxophonist received a grant from Chamber Music of America to compose and perform an original work for an ensemble of his choosing. The grant was made possible by that jazz-loving branch of the Doris Duke Foundation and from 'Rhythm and Transformation,' the four part suite which resulted from said grant, takes the listener on a journey from Afro-Cuban influences to Indian traditional music and the blues.

The world premiere of Rhythm and Transformation took place in Washington D.C. two weeks ago at Blues Alley. As Armacost took to the road, he returned to the city where he had spent his adolescence. While a teenager in nearby Bethesda, MD Armacost was in the midst of honing his sax chops and was exposed to a vibrant DC jazz scene. As he was selected as a student for elite jazz groups at the county and state levels, it was during this time that he started considering jazz as a career.

On Wednesday February 4, 2004 Armacost and a star-studded group including Barth, Okegwo, Hart, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, percussionist Andrew Daniels, and tabla player Ray Spiegel took to the stage of Blues Alley to commence a musical journey.

The first set started off with Monk's 'Worry Later.' As the tenor's descending melodic line contrasted with the Henderson's solid-toned sustained line, I realized that this group was comfortable with each other. The players had a definite rapport that the audience could feel. Having never heard Billy Hart live, I soon realized why his reputation was so good ' the sound he got out of a relatively simple set was huge. Hart would periodically erupt into flushes of rhythmic fury that propelled the soloists in different directions than they originally thought they were going. His sheer joy to be playing and more importantly to be reacting as an integral member of the group is virtually unmatched today (except maybe by Al Foster or Bill Stewart).

'I'm Happy Anyways,' which followed was written as Armacost waited on layover at a Japanese airport. The tune had a modal feel but involved much more rhythmic pulse than other compostions by Miles, Herbie, and Bill Evans that readily come to mind. In his solo Barth brought his lush voicings from mezzo-forte down to pianissimo. As he approached silence Hart brought him back up by pushing him with cymbal crashes ' louder and louder until a furious climax as Barth, forearms turned inwards violently pounded down on the keys ' as he could reach. Then as if the act had wiped the piano out, the bench gave way, sending Barth backwards onto his backside. After finding he was not hurt, the audience gave a thunderous laughing applause.

This was followed by the exquisite Charles Mingus ballad 'Duke Ellington's Sound of Love,' which Armacost led beautifully with tasteful obligato from Henderson's harmon-muted horn and a caressing piano solo from Barth. The last tune of the first set 'Indian News,' was the first to specifically use Spiegel's masterful tabla (a long two-ended Indian drum). From a haunting sax-tabla-piano line, the tune morphed into an 'Ornettish rhythm changes.'

Going into further detail he explained, 'Ornette wrote a bunch of heads which were loosely based on rhythm changes.' Armacost cites "Chronology" on The Shape of Jazz to Come as his favorite example. 'He played over the form, but the harmony is loose. In the case of 'Chronology', the tonal center is F major, which they use as the home key, and play freely - in and out of it.'

Though he didn't explain all this to the audience, the piece's Indian aspects gave the audience a good introduction of what was to come in the second set (which to my shock and amazement did not incur an extra cover charge).


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