After eight U.S. presidents have come and gone, the New York Art Quartet finally gets around to letting us hear two European performances from the golden era of free jazz.
Forty-five years is a long time for unreleased music to gather dust before anyone gets a chance to hear it, but the genre of free jazz is littered with these types of time capsules. With each passing year the list of long-lost recordings grows with entries from Mingus, Monk, Coltrane, and other giants. These recordings, in addition to giving people something new to listen to, serve as a reminder of just how different things were back then. For example, by late 1965, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane had already unleashed some of the most challenging jazz that anyone had heard by that time. Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was already five years old, and that gauntlet had been picked up many times over by the mid ‘60s. The era of free jazz was proving to be very fertile, especially in big cities where life was just plain crazy, and each musician had a need to express their crazy side. As a result, many acts have come and gone from that era without getting a chance to make a big name for themselves. So when I tell you that it’s the New York Art Quartet’s turn to drop some forgotten documentation of two 1965 performances this year, I can’t blame you for responding “Who?”
The story can be traced back to Danish saxophonist John Tchicai, who performed on Coltrane’s Ascension. Tchicai emerged from these sessions with an itch to form his own free jazz band, so he did. Enter trombonist Roswell Rudd, fresh off of Bill Dixon’s band from the early ‘60s. These two co-lead the New York Art Quartet with the powerful rhythm section of drummer Milford Graves and a rotating cast of bassists including Don Moore, Lewis Worrell, and Reggie Workman. They recorded two albums in a little less than a year and a half, then called it a day. There was an eventual 35th year reunion concert released on the DIW label, but that’s another chapter.
It was just before the New York Art Quartet was about to slip into retirement that the recordings of Old Stuff were cut. Tchicai had gone back to his native Denmark to book some gigs for his new quartet. For whatever reasons, Moore and Graves could not tag along, leaving Tchicai and Rudd no choice but to find a whole new rhythm section. Finn von Eyben ended up providing bass, while Louis Moholo, formerly of the Blue Notes, pounded the skins. So as it stands, this live album of two Copenhagen gigs both greatly benefits and slightly suffers from four musicians who hadn’t spent a whole lot of time together.
The lack of practice serves as a benefit because, well, circumstances for spontaneity don’t get much better than that. Add in the fact that an audience is involved, and a band can really soar. The lead off track, “Rosmosis”, a Rudd original from the quartet’s first album, has all the makings of a classic free jazz standard: an accessible melody, syncopated interplay between horns, a commanding drummer shifting gears mid-song, and plenty of fiery solos in between. The title track, which gets played at each of the gigs presented, goes its own merry way by halting the song intermittently to allow for Tchicai and Rudd to fill the space with trills and interval leaps. It’s one of those moments that remind you of all the other things jazz can be if everyone just stopped covering “Autumn Leaves”.
But the limited-time bond between these musicians works against them, slightly. One may think that in free jazz there is no such thing as sloppy playing. But even if one is playing experimental post-bop in a desire to say "nuts to the old formula," you and your band still need to adhere to a formula and know each other’s abilities. For the second date, the quartet trades in a small club for a larger concert hall. It could be that the different surroundings (the two shows were only 10 days apart) changed their mentality. “Karin’s Blues” finds Tchicai and Rudd too unsure of themselves or unsure of how to match each other. The mix tends to favor the drums over the bass, and it sounds as if the ensemble just wasn’t meshing the way that they did ten days prior. They still give it their all, trying their best to thrive from the generous audience, who offer up more applause than the previous crowd. But one gets the feeling that tracks seven through 11 of this 70-minute CD don’t show this band at the top of their game.
All things considered, these are two very promising shows from an obscure band buried under many legendary names from one of the 20th century’s most difficult musical eras. The level of interest in a release such as Old Stuff is bound to be narrow. But that’s not to say that it lacks any potential to reach a wider audience. In fact, it may be resurrected curiosities like Old Stuff that will give free jazz a shot in the arm for a new generation of listeners. The upstart music labels just need to keep releases like this coming, so as to give us all an idea what it was like to watch experimental music unfold back in the good old days. In fact, a re-release of the New York Art Quartet’s long out of print second album Mohawk would be a good place to go next. How about it, Cuneiform Records?