Last night at the Community Music Center, Outsound Presents offered the last of the three “preliminary” events leading up to a week of five evenings of adventurous music that will constitute the seventeenth annual New Music Summit. Last night was the first West Coast screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, a documentary about the New York Art Quartet made in 2013 by Alan Roth. The New York Art Quartet was one of the pioneering ensembles in the free jazz movement. It was formed in 1964, about three years after the release by Atlantic Records of Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.
The group was founded by saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and drummer Milford Graves. Their original bass player was Lewis Worrell, and that group became part of the original roster of jazz artists to be recorded and released by ESP-Disk. (The album was ESP 1004. ESP 1006 was the recording of Ornette Coleman’s Town Hall concert on December 21, 1962, featuring his post-Atlantic trio with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on percussion and “Dedication To Poets And Writers,” composed for string quartet.) One of the tracks on the New York Art Quartet album was “Black Dada Nihilismus,” named after a poem by Amiri Baraka (then called LeRoi Jones), who recited his text against the free improvising by the musicians.
Following that release, the quartet went through several other bass players, including Reggie Workman. The following year it released Mohawk on Fontana Records and did not last beyond the end of that year. 1965 was also the year in which John Coltrane led the recording sessions for “Ascension,” a large-group free improvisation piece, whose players included both Tchicai and Workman.
Roth’s film takes, as its point of departure, the 35-year reunion of the quartet in 1999 and Baraka’s participation, which included a revival of “Black Dada Nihilismus.” Footage includes concert performances interleaved with extended conversation of all five participants over a meal around a kitchen table. There is also footage of jazz historian Ben Young discussing historical background for a WKCR broadcast in New York.
As a listener I have been fascinated with free improvisation ever since I experienced my “first contact” through Coltrane’s Ascension album. That was over half a century ago, and I am still struggling with identifying and cultivating those listening skills that guide the mind behind the ear through the complexities and uncertainties of what makes the genre so “free.” One concept that recurs frequently in the conversation and “talking head” sequences in Roth’s film has to do with the skill that each of the four musicians had in listening to the others.
Nevertheless (and somewhat ironically), the film also leaves us with some sense of a disconnect between what they say about listening and what they actually do. Watching Roth’s footage of performances, one gets the impression of an ongoing dialectical opposition between each musician playing his heart out and the ability of the players to be aware of each other. However, this is where those “kitchen conversation” scenes turn out to be valuable for those of us “on the outside.”
It turns out that their verbal style is highly argumentative, sometimes even devolving into one guy trying to shout down another. This then translates to listening to them play; and, sure enough, it is easy to recognize when individual assertions of domination rise to the surface only to be confronted by counter-assertions. Roth’s footage suggests that these musicians play among each other they way they argue with each other, a premise that can serve as a valuable signpost for the listener struggling to figure out just what in hell the music is doing.
From this point of view, I was struck by Baraka’s presence both in the kitchen and on stage. Given the intensity and controversy of his poems and plays in the Sixties, not to mention the merciless caustic rhetoric he could bring to the reviews he wrote for Down Beat, I was struck by how Baraka seemed to emerge as the “elder statesman” around the kitchen table. This was a far cry from the Baraka I had encountered near the end of his life when he gave a reading at City Lights Bookstore. However, the text he was reading was about the Newark riots, a grim reminder of the intense heat that brought race relations to a boil. In the company of the New York Art Quartet players around the kitchen table, on the other hand, Baraka was a much cooler individual, contrasting sharply with the way in which, in performance, his verbal outbursts could both challenge and reinforce the outbursts of the musicians.
These days it would probably be fair to say that fewer people are willing to “accept” free jazz than those willing to take on any number of different innovative approaches in the concert hall, whether they involve electronics, large ensembles, or chamber music. One reason is that the latter categories enjoy more exposure than free jazz. Try finding Coleman or “experimental” Coltrane on the radio, even when the signal comes from Sirius XM Satellite Radio or the Music Choice cable channels. Things seem to be a bit better in Europe and Asia; but, here in the United States, free jazz is still wandering in that same wilderness that kept even suggestions of atonality at a great distance from most listeners during the third quarter of the twentieth century. At least we now have a documentary that makes a good case that the wilderness is not as hostile as we may think.