Because of his self-anointed position as the ambassador of all jazz, Wynton Marsalis served as musical advisor on Ken Burns’s episodic documentary on the genre for PBS. By deleting any real discussion of the music’s experimental arm, it was understood to be a death blow for avant-garde jazz. At that point, the entirety of jazz was atrophying, despite Marsalis’s acclaim. He attempted to cut off what he deemed an unneeded appendage to save the body he loved. Marsalis has further slashed at free jazz in the ensuing years, perhaps unable to believe his initial assault did not mortally wound the sound.
Across the last decade and a half, critics have embraced a resurgence in jazz internationally, something hoped for, but not achieved during Marsalis’s ascent. That 80s jazz resurgence was sidestepped by the lush and vapid sounds of Bobby McFerrin, Kenny G. and Diana Krall. Marsalis was stranded atop a mountain of incredulity, dabbling in classical music, and, since 1987, overseeing an important series of jazz concerts at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.
But Wynton Marsalis is not the voice of jazz. He is a voice in jazz. Someone needs to underscore that incalculable difference for him. I’m going to step past his pontifical notions for the fairer aesthetic pastures of Buffalo’s Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, founded by a group of artists, among them Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, and housed in a former church. Here, Steve Baczkoswki guides his own concert series, a series which challenges Jazz at Lincoln Center in both musical diversity and perspective. While Hallwalls is not entirely devoted to music, Baczkowski is, and his partnerships with other musicians have produced thrilling pollinations. He’s opened for Kim Gordon. He’s performed mesmerizing solo shows in abandoned grain silos and he’s toured internationally. Last March, Baczkowski, along with frequent accomplice Chris Corsano on drums, and bassist Brandon Lopez, delivered a time stalling set on the saxophonist’s home turf. This is not Baczkowski’s band. It is an equilateral triangle. And they surge angularly through the seven songs of Old Smoke. Though furious at times, this live set is ultimately a meditative slice of oblique expressionism. Even if you don’t listen to Old Smoke repeatedly, it will carve passages your synapses return to time and time again. Pop songs only achieve that level of imprinting through the constant echolalic onslaught of accumulated playback. Regardless of genre, real music, like the stuff found on Old Smoke, claws at your cortex within the first few listens.
Before getting into the specifics of Old Smoke, here is a quick and incomplete primer on free jazz. At its core, the music is the product of profound improvisation between musicians with a jazz heritage. It comes as a sound exploration stripped free of what originally made jazz jazz, like chord structures, strict tempos, and easily discernible tones. It replaces those building blocks with experimental and independent and serendipitous compositional choices. In the hands of Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane those choices were melodic deconstructions that lit up the edges of musical universe. Decisions that had been considered wrong turns musically, like overtones (tones ringing above the fundamental note that are also part of its harmonic series) and multiphonics (a number of pitches or notes sounded at once) were now embraced by conservatory taught musicians as they progressed deeper into expression.
Free jazz is a musical revolution, but also the music of a revolution. Closely associated with the Civil Rights movement that seared into the national identity of the 50s and 60s, free jazz anthemically removed conciliatory moments in favor of full-bore sounds. Still, musicians eager to take up the experimental charge had to learn how to illuminate the musical boundaries before engaging in the abstract colorations. You couldn’t stride headlong into the elaborate improvisational conversations without a dense background of musical knowledge. The theoretical puzzles created in encyclopedic jam sessions demanded it.
Old Smoke comes a few generations after the style’s widest acceptance. Free jazz is (and isn’t) something entirely different than when it began. In this trio’s hands it is a volatile fusillade and, then, a series of interdimensional adagios. What all that means is that, in the space of seven songs coming in just a few minutes shy of an hour, the band on Old Smoke gets into some expressive investigational positions. Baczkoswki’s sax sheds the first radiant light. Corsano’s drums peak during Bend in the Shore, the set’s third song, taking some of the compressed force off of the saxophone and rolling it across his drum heads in impressionistic bursts.
Bend in the Shore
Brandon Lopez has a dualistic role throughout Old Smoke. His bass often forms the unifying pole between the bursting polyphonics of Corsano’s drums and Baczkowski’s aggressively enigmatic saxophone. But he also stands out front with his partners, driving his instrument into high registers while offering wickedly inventive fabrications that are supernatural, otherworldly. On the sedate section of the release’s second song, Blast Furnace, Baczkowski’s buzzing pulsating horn asks for much of the attention, while Lopez underpins him with a somatic ballast that links horn to drum and allows the song to lope toward climax. Without Lopez’s astute balance, the impact would reduce. His deconstruction at the songs end is much like an automobile’s drive shaft, the bass linkage giving the trio its momentum. As the song dashes and darts to an end, it does so on the providence of Lopez’s arco work.
Because of that, the next piece, Bend in the Shore, turns on a driving sax drone, while Lopez’s bass formulates a dense, two note repetitive skeleton. Ayler-esque snippets float out, but come slower than the boiler room frenzy of his mid 60s hey-day. Corsano’s drumming pitches up in the midpoint between bass and sax, dropping out and returning in wave-like accents, before all three musicians froth in a catalogue of avant post-bop to close the song out.
Each of Old Smoke’s songs delivers a kind of free jazz call and response. They start and they rumble. They deconstruct and they burn. The pieces might switch places across individual songs, but the trio goes for those places in each one. And that gives the listener a familiarity to embrace, if new to the style. When free jazz was in its infancy, Coltrane delivered Ascension, a squalling follow up to A Love Supreme. Ascension starts with a measure of the previous recording and then ignites an unrelenting 38-minute blast of bottomless abstraction across 9 solos and a dense filigree of musical ferocity. Old Smoke follows a different formula but transmits that same zeal. In place of Ascencion’s full throttle expressionism, Old Smoke’s songs build, release, crescendo and end, never lasting more than 13 and 1/4 minutes. The trio has much invested in the softer sections of their coalition. When they linger in the well of slow and melodic ingenuity during Open Hearth, the set’s best, it is because they are preparing for the exultant three-pronged syncopated abandon of the song’s mid-section and close out.
On Steel Wind, the set’s penultimate number, starts out with Corsano’s territorial sketchings, which in turn shift into a blunt rhythmic workout that then gives way to Baczkowski’s torrential saxophone. Near the climax, drummer and saxophonist lay out to give Lopez’s magnetic instrument a place of its own. When they catch back with him, the off-kilter cadence is a crutch rather than irritant. When Baczkoswki and Corsano return, they do so to braise the piece with a spastic allocution that descends into an equally dynamic silence.
Old Smoke works as well as it does because Steve Baczkowski and Brandon Lopez and Chris Corsano erupt in combination, and then, when they lay out they do so with a nuanced mix of spiritual and mathematical propriety, and that’s the true equation of musical triumph. When their more dauntless abstractions come to life and the full scope of the band’s capacity unfurls, it’s not without premonitory musical declarations that alert you of the oncoming cascade. And when the set comes to a close with the last few bars of Smoke Creek, the crashing dismantling of the night gives way to a melodic almost bluesy benediction. Because of their deft intuitiveness, it’s easier to appreciate and interpret the driving gusts of the trio’s free-form artistry. They know the blitzing incandescence of experimental improvisation and, because of that, these three musicians also wield the power of simple precision.
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Cherry is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website: henrycherry.com