Bluiett and the Baritone Nation: BlueBlack

Bluiett and the Baritone Nation
Justin Time

One baritone sax always makes its presence felt, whether it be Harry Carney with the Ellington orchestra or some honking, early ’50s rhythm and blues combo. Four together might seem a little (ok, completely) excessive, especially when there is just a drummer to offer contrast. However if such a proposition is going to succeed at all, then Hamiet Bluiett is the most likely candidate to make it do so. For not only is he a gifted musician, but he has long experience of making unusual experiments accessible and even fun. When one considers that the trio he has with him includes the mighty James Carter and that the drummer is none other than the ever inventive Kahil El’Zabad, there are grounds for an almost complacent optimism.

That state of expectation is almost but not fully rewarded. This is an attention grabbing and at times highly engaging album, but it is not a complete triumph. It is a good second division modern jazz session. What stops it from being at the very top of the tree, where Bluiett usually resides, is a certain scrappiness and a suspicion of self-indulgence. I may be wrong, but I don’t think this record is quite as clever or cutting edge as it appears to believe itself to be.

Blueblack has passages of breathtaking daring and is awash with exuberance and panache and boasts unbridled energy. Yet it lacks something in the way of finesse and, oddly for so passionate a set of performers, emotional variety. It is the sort of set that would undoubtedly blow you away live, but on disc veers too often towards shapelessness. It still runs rings around much of what counts as jazz these days, but is unlikely to go down as the St. Louis veteran’s finest hour.

Proceedings open promisingly enough with a tune called “You’re Still My Girl in Spite of Everything”. This is an irreverent treatment of the Temptations’ “My Girl”, which starts with a swaggering (tongue-in-cheek but relatively conventional) reading then mutates into a deconstructive, Ornette Coleman-after-six-pints session of free blowing. It is glorious on first hearing, with that mixture of humour and avant-gardism that is a Bluiett trademark, but loses some of its robust charm after the third or fourth play. It is not the quality of the execution which, as throughout the album, is first-rate, nor is it the excess of baritones (each sax man can be distinctly identified — having been recorded so that you can at all times identify who is where). It is just that the conceit is less fresh than it perhaps seemed in the studio and in the end you almost wish they had opted either for straight blowing or all out atonalism. The same is true of the R&B blastathon that is “Zipping” which would certainly have benefited from a tighter structure.

On the slower front, the four horns (Bluiett, Carter, Patience Higgins and Alex Harding) offer a number called “Humpback”, which is an aural rendition of, I assume, whale song. Again, it is initially attractive, but begins to smack of novelty and gimmickry after a while. There is surely more to jazz than sound effects, no matter how wittily constructed?

After that it is gruff modernism all the way. Ironically, these more “difficult” tracks are generally satisfying, if you have the patience to stick with them. The group interplay is astounding and as individual soloists each musician is in good shape. The compositions are mostly Bluiett’s or Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and I would welcome hearing more of the latter’s work with a more day-to-day line-up.

Adept as the musicians are and intriguing as such pieces as “Lament for JJ” and “Angles” often are, the whole sound cannot help becoming much of a muchness some of the time. Sheer gusto and lung power almost saves the day but, I warn you, prolonged exposure is quite exhausting and may not always seem worth the effort. Pleasure comes in marvelling at the complex four-way exchanges, which do weave a wayward magic all of their own. Then there is the title track which has crucial input from El’Zabar and is weird in all the right, imaginative ways. If Tom Waits played baritone sax he would sound like this. The mood is half way between an After Hours session and Shock Corridor. Magnificent and more than a little scary.

Finally there is the demanding but very powerful solo piece “Sasa — Here and Now” which closes the set. Here Bluiett makes his case as both a composer and performer of the highest stature — it is a tonal and textual tour de force. Some of these sounds appear to have come from no previously known musical deposit box and the result is very invigorating. It does perhaps suggest that one baritone was indeed all that was really ever needed and that there was indeed something of overkill in the blueprint.

Modernist aficionados and baritone fetishists will have a field day. For this listener though, a little went a long way and I must confess myself rather steam-rollered by the full scale experience. In small doses very exciting, but some leavening would not have gone amiss. Bluiett freaks will know what to expect and will be duly grateful. Risk taking is part of the excitement of jazz and Bluiett is one of the best at that game, but listen to what he can do with slightly more standard trios (last year’s The Calling for instance) and you may wonder whether this sax only course, which he has promoted now for over 20 years, is any longer his wisest option.