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How do you manage the mavericks?

By Ron Wynn

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Maverick musicians who essay multiple genres and styles are not only rare these days, they pose a marketing problem for those image-conscious labels willing take the risk in signing them. Even in jazz, where album sales and name recognition are supposed to be less important than creative integrity, artists who aren't easily identified with particular niche groups--hard bop, downtown school, smooth jazz, etc.--sometimes find their recording and concert opportunities severely restricted.

Saxophonists Steve Coleman and David Murray, clarinetist Don Byron, and the String Trio of New York are among a core group of jazz musicians who shun conventional wisdom in favor of provocative, original music. They may not experience the kind of success or attention showered on their colleagues, but they're making some of the most forward-thinking, freewheeling music of the '90s.

Steve Coleman, approaching his 42nd birthday, has served as mentor, guru, and influence to numerous musicians over the past two decades. Born and raised in Chicago, he began as an R&B and funk instrumentalist, deeply indebted to the work of ace James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker. He was also impressed by longtime Windy City jazz great Von Freeman and later played with Freeman's son Chico. Upon moving to New York in 1978, Coleman first performed on the streets and in the subways. As word spread of his skills, he demonstrated his versatility by playing everything from standard big-band gigs with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra to loft and free-jazz dates with Sam Rivers and Cecil Taylor.

But Coleman preferred making his own music, and he had distinct ideas about forging alliances and controlling his creative destiny, much as the early boppers did. He started discussions with other musicians who were interested in jazz but not solely limited to that idiom.

Many now familiar names made their debuts with Coleman: saxophonists Craig Handy, Steve Williamson, Ravi Coltrane, and Greg Osby; vocalist Cassandra Wilson; Black Rock coalition cofounder and former Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid; keyboardists Geri Allen and Andy Milne; trumpeter Graham Haynes; and guitarists Jean-Paul Bourelly and Kelvyn Bell. Coleman also developed a musical and philosophical concept known as the Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations (M-Base), which like Ornette Coleman's harmolodics is far easier to appreciate on record than it is to understand on paper.

In essence, Coleman's music mixes harmonic and melodic elements from jazz with rhythmic ingredients culled from R&B, funk, hip-hop, reggae, and Afro-Latin settings, at times adding visual elements and choreography. Over the course of many albums, most for European and small American labels, Coleman has led numerous ensembles, cutting dates that span the musical gamut--sometimes very traditional, at other times extremely radical or experimental.

His newest project, Genesis and The Opening of the Way (BMG), was recorded late last year but only recently came out. It's a two-disc set spotlighting two of Coleman's current musical incarnations. The first record, Genesis, features The Council of Balance, a large orchestra containing an Afro-Latin percussion ensemble and a string section, along with several saxophonists, trumpeters, trombonists, and rhythm players. Together, the eight tracks document the story of creation, yet they differ considerably in feel and scope. Some cuts, notably "Day Two" and "Day Seven," are assertive and dynamic, with Coleman, Osby, Coltrane, Greg Tardy, and others matching saxophone thrusts, screams, and shouts, while complicated rhythmic accents and slashing strings provide a dynamic background. Other tracks, such as "Awareness" and "Day Three," are calm and soothing, though equally captivating.

Genesis represents Coleman's mostly improvisational side, while the second disc, The Opening of the Way, features another ensemble, the Five Elements. Here, the musicians offer bombastic, more direct beats; shorter, though no less furious solos; and less harmonically intense, more melodic pieces and interaction. Featuring such standout tracks as "First Cause," "Rite of Passage," and "Organic Movement," Genesis and The Opening of the Way is as ambitious, engaging, and ultimately rewarding as any Coleman release ever. It's among the year's best records.

Tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist David Murray keeps changing his musical surroundings; he has long since moved beyond the purely free style he championed in the '70s, when he moved from Los Angeles to New York, and is now comfortable in any context, from swing to traditional to avant garde. Indeed, Murray's current material is so broad that no American company seems interested in releasing it, so both his wonderful last release, Fo Deux Revue, and his newest, the equally compelling Creole, have come out on the Canadian label Justin Time.

On his previous date, Murray's band went to Africa. This time, they're in Guadeloupe, with Murray and cohorts blending furious jazz licks with the traditional Cape Verdean vocals and rhythms of veteran singer Fran¨ois Landreseau, drummers Savon de Toilette and Michel Cilla, and percussionist Klod Kiavue. Flute soloist James Newton's soaring, dipping answering lines and evocative statements parry Murray's dauntless sax and bass clarinet voicings.

Murray was once roundly criticized for playing everything the same way--vigorous and wild. Now he has learned to temper his sound, to raise or lower his volume at appropriate times, and he has become both a great ballad interpreter and superb up-tempo belter. Creole is another fine example of cross-cultural understanding, and another first-rate work from Murray.

Clarinetist Don Byron is a critical favorite and an outspoken renegade. Sometimes, as on his acclaimed Tuskegee Experiments album, Byron's rhetoric has angered more conservative listeners, but he refuses to moderate or downplay his statements. Byron has also shown on releases such as Bug Music, Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, and No Vibe Zone that he can't be pigeonholed; he's adept in situations ranging from traditional New Orleans songs to klezmer and free compositions.

Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note) may be the only jazz album of 1998 to carry a parental-advisory sticker. The 14 selections include graphic and occasionally vulgar commentary on racism, the O.J. Simpson and Abner Louima cases, open housing, busing, and black/white interaction. Left-leaning fans will find the comments sometimes amusing and mostly on the mark; those from the right will probably be offended and outraged.

Besides the prickly sentiments expressed by Byron and poet Saddiq, the album offers brilliant clarinet work along with arresting funk, reggae, Latin, and mainstream jazz segments. No other clarinetist can match Byron's tone, his range, his ability to hit high notes, or his swing and verve. The band nicely covers three songs by Mandrill, a criminally neglected '70s East Coast funk band, also offering incisive extended works like "Schizo Jam," which is spiced by simultaneously irritating and amusing contributions from rapper Biz Markie. No matter your political conventions, though, there's something on Nu Blaxploitation that should hook you.

It has been 20 years since the original String Trio of New York--bassist John Lindberg, guitarist James Emery, and violinist Billy Bang--started shattering notions about what strings could and couldn't do in a jazz context. Though a structured group, the String Trio could collectively improvise with anyone; they also included beautifully notated songs and classically influenced works in their repertoire. When Bang departed, subsequent replacements Charles Burnham and Regina Carter maintained the group's high level of quality.

Faze Four: A Twenty-Year Retrospective (Black Saint) not only celebrates the trio's two-decades-long existence, it welcomes yet another new violinist, Diane Monroe. While not as dashing a soloist as Bang, nor as comfortable in the surroundings as Burnham and Carter, Monroe is a solid player whose lines and support provide bluesy foundations or stirring counterpoint. Emery's guitar and Lindberg's bass are so well-attuned that they often sound like one instrument. Each reacts to the other so quickly and decisively that they take listeners on sonic trips that at times delight, as on Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and Mingus' "Pithecanthropus Erectus," at other times dazzle, as on Lindberg's "Frozen Ropes" and Emery's "Jump Start."

Monroe contributes one number to the album, "Groovin' Roots," which also offers her finest solo. She sometimes has to adjust to the interaction and intensity, as well as the familiarity between Lindberg and Emery, but on works like "Introspection" and "Circular Views," she's more involved in the trio's direction. As Faze Four shows, the String Trio's ability to play hard-edged, aggressive music or softer, more pastoral material remains impressive. So does its ability to thrive in improvisational contexts without any rhythm instruments.


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