Flexible Flyer

Trombonist Roswell Rudd soars up from the underground.

Amid the neglect and copious disagreement over the value of jazz's avant-garde developments in the 1960s, one thing is sadly certain: Precious few veterans of the music survived. When you consider further that there were a mere several significant "outside" trombonists, it's all the more important—and not just historically—that Roswell Rudd, at 63, is in a state of renewed, excited activity.

Roswell Rudd

Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, February 1

The Yale graduate was associated closely with then-unknown post-bop pianist Herbie Nichols in the very early '60s, and went on to lock horns with soprano sax innovator Steve Lacy and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp. Amidst his career first as a field musicologist working with Alan Lomax's documentary folklore projects and then as a University of Maine professor of music ethnology, Rudd also co-founded the vaunted New York Art Quartet and played a strong role in the activist Jazz Composers Orchestra.

For all that, Rudd, like so many '60s figures, had all but disappeared from the musical map, settling in upstate New York's Borscht Belt and playing repertory gigs there for years. Now, Rudd is back on the literal and figurative jazz road, packing a bevy of what he's been recording as the "unheard Herbie Nichols" (check out the two thus-titled CDs on CIMP Records for more) and new material developed with his West Coast quartet. "More people are getting exposure to what we did in the '60s," Rudd notes in a recent phone interview. "It took a long time for it to trickle down."

Trickle down it has, and Rudd is in demand, both as a provocative compositional voice and as a phenomenal, free-associative, and broad-minded improviser—traits he gleaned in part from his years studying with Nichols (whose reputation has been restored as a partial result of a 1997 three-CD Blue Note reissue). "Herbie was doomed to the underground. And that's what brought us together," Rudd says. "We were two people doomed to the underground, but he was 20 years my senior."

That age difference made Nichols the de facto mentor, a force that compelled Rudd's Nichols reinterpretations for years, in bands ranging from the CIMP quartet to the quintet co-led by Steve Lacy (which released the awesome Regeneration on Soul Note in 1982) to the energetic Dutch ICP aggregate anchored by pianist Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, both strong Nichols enthusiasts.

So what drives jazz players in the so-described "underground"? "Some people come from a note-reading, very disciplined, prestructured kind of introduction to music, and I'm coming from the mystery," Rudd observes. "I've always been attracted to the unforeseen elements in the performance." For Rudd, the unforeseen regularly veers toward rich bursts of tone that he maintains throughout his most lovely solos—particularly the one on "Waltzing in the Sagebrush" from his 1974 album with Sheila Jordan, Flexible Flyer, reissued on the Black Lion label.

Thanks to his wit and power, Rudd is still making splashes. He's influenced a younger generation of trombonists, folks like Steve Swell and even Ray Anderson, and he's finding a receptive, eager audience in England and Europe. His former Carla Bley band members, including saxophonist (and Soft Machine co-founder) Elton Dean and pianist Keith Tippett, are all over Rudd, bringing him across the pond for at least a month of European cooking a year. He's seen three CDs with Dean released in the last couple of years, the hyped, free-jazz outbursts of Bladik (Cuneiform) as well as Rumours of an Incident and the rich, lovely Newsense (both on Slam), which couples Rudd with a trio of trombonists rounded out by Annie Whitehead and Paul Rutherford.

As for leading his West Coast touring group, Rudd has the unique ability to walk onto a stage and blow everyone's gourds, whether he's rehearsed with them or not. "This is new music that we're doing," he reflects. "Even the Herbie Nichols that we play, it keeps changing on us."

This constant, modulated reinvention, with existing music getting interpreted completely anew with each pass, is rare in jazz these days (instead, you get unbridled free improvisation—which, by its nature is new every time—or you get highly concocted rehash). Even when you try to pin Rudd down on the specifics of what he'll do when he plays his upcoming Seattle show, his replies, like his playing, are all hopping slides: "My own personal history in the music will be there. Retrospective, in some aspects, and the near past, the nearer past, and the present and the future, and the present future."

Which is to say that this note-bender bends time, too.

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