Roswell Rudd, vanguard of the old trombone, just turned 75. It's best to approach The Incredible Honk as a birthday present he made for himself.
Being a professional trombonist at the age of 75 means that you can do whatever you want. Roswell Rudd survived the bebop revolution, tunneled his way through the avant-garde, and arrived at the subsequent world music that he has been pursuing lately while on the Sunnyside label. In other words, he has paid his dues. Can you imagine, sitting in with the Gil Evans Orchestra, staring at a piece of sheet music scrawled by Cecil Taylor, picking up one of the least graceful instruments of the brass family and actually doing what you are paid to do? My own experiences with jazz trombone were mercifully brief, so I give The Incredible Honk an approving nod. It's corny, dramatic, and slightly scatter-shot. But like I said, after 75 years, you do whatever the hell you like.
The Incredible Honk has a home-cooked feel, thwarting off close criticisms right off the bat. A varied album can sometimes be confused for an experimental one. But this album is motivated by fun, the joy that one feels when they know they can easily accomplish a musical voice with a variety of friends. The personnel list is huge, and whether or not you are moved by the camaraderie shared among everyone is mostly up to you. Some of it does feel like you are barging in on a private party, such as on "Kerhonkson: The Muse-ical", some sort of Our Town pastiche where Verna Gillis (or Sunny Kim?) begins the song by singing, "I'm gonna pee now / You can make the coffee."
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of moments on The Incredible Honk where its refusal to take itself seriously works to its advantage. Take the country waltz "C'etait Dans La Nuit", where Michael Doucet's fiddle gets the first and final word in a song that feels like it was written for such an instrument. Unfortunately, indie artist Emily Haines opens her mouth at 2:23, turning a genuine saloon moment into saccharine. The opener "Feeling Good" is one of those blues numbers without pretense, with a laid back vibe that forecasts the album's loose feel without giving away what's going to happen style-wise. Like with track two, a duet with singer and guitarist David Oquendo, "Dame la Mano" begins unassumingly enough as the two gentlemen trade soft licks before settling into an easygoing southern hemisphere groove. Oquendo's nasal, wordless incantations give hints of the boisterous stuff he's saving for the end of the track. And by the time they get there, your opinion may be battling between "inspired" or "silly". I say pick the one that makes you the happiest.
The Incredible Honk's finest moments come when Rudd taps into his recent recording adventures with Malian musician Massekou Kouyate, who specializes in the string instrument known as the ngoni. Tunes like "BRO", "Ngoni Vortex", and "Airborne" can match the psychedelia of the Beatles' trip to India -- works that are spontaneous, instinctual and true.
"Arirang" and "Alone with the Moon", two go-nowhere do-nothing ballads sung by Sunny Kim, neither add to nor detract from the album's overall quality, and "Berlin, Alexanderplatz" depends on your full attention to the stately minor chords and seemingly simple melody to rise above background. "Blue Flower Blue", a traditional Chinese tune with vocal histrionics and a rhythmically dodgy performance on the sheng by Wu Tong, is the album's sore thumb. The track's weirdness is highlighted by the fact that it comes after "Waltzin' with My Baby", a simple duet with pianist Lafayette Harris, Jr.
When you open the CD's jewel case, the back of the sleeve reads "Velocity takes a backseat. I am feeling good at 75 and I hope I am projecting that into my playing." Nothing else really needs to be said. This isn't the end of the road for Roswell Rudd, but he has made an end-of-the-road kind of album with The Incredible Honk. It's less of an album than it is photographs taken at a party.