Saturday, November 01, 2008

Live on Park Ave: The Roswell Rudd Quartet

While at Yale, Roswell Rudd played with Eli’s Chosen Six, the rambunctious Dixieland combo seen playing and partying at Newport in Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day. However, his first recordings as a leader established him as the foremost trombonist in the jazz avant-garde. Rudd has had one of those interesting careers. In recent years, he has gone back to touch some of those bases between Dixieland and free jazz, while also incorporating various elements of world music, including traditional forms from Mali and Mongolia. Both those recent stylistic impulses were audible during the Roswell Rudd Quartet’s concert last night at the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

Rudd’s current quartet, featuring Korean vocalist Sunny Kim, probably represents the most accessible, swing-based music of his career. Some of their best originals, including “Whatever Turns You On” and “I’m Going Sane” penned by Rudd and producer Verna Gillis respectively, have a quirky vibe that brings to mind some of Mose Allison’s greatest hits. Kim showed a particular facility for such quirky lyrics and the quartet was swinging behind her quite nicely. In between, she also showed her impressive scat chops on the onomatopoeic “Suh Blah Blah Buh Sibi.”

Despite Rudd’s preface crediting Duke Ellington as the original avant-gardist, nothing could be stylistically further from Rudd’s Fire Music than the Ellington-Strayhorn medley. Of course, Ellington was an innovator of the first magnitude, and his music clearly still inspires Rudd and his colleagues. Kim had a lovely feature spot with “Come Sunday,” followed by Rudd channeling his gut-bucket roots through “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” “Sophisticated Lady” was reserved as a solo for pianist Lafayette Harris, Jr., who displayed a sensitive touch on the elegant standard. The whole group came back in with Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately,” nicely wrapping up the Ellingtonian interlude.

Perhaps the most intriguing selections were the Quartet’s new jazz settings of traditional Korean songs. At least three quarters of the audience signaled their familiarity with the first, “Arirang,” which Kim rightly described as a blues. The second, “Kang Byun Sal Ja,” based on a traditional children’s song, came off more like a slow ballad. Wisely, Rudd and his group kept the arrangements simple and pared down, often letting Kim carry much of the melody, allowing their audience to recognize the familiar lyrics. These were definite concert highlights, so it would be great if Rudd’s Quartet can record material like this in the future.

Throughout the night, Harris and bassist Brad Christopher Jones really locked-in behind the leader and featured vocalist. In fact, Harris’s sparklingly eloquent solo on “Loved by Love,” helped elevate a song nearly undone by its sentimentality. Jones demonstrated tremendous arco technique during his solo prelude to the concluding “Blues for the Planet Earth/You Blew It,” but would someone care to explain why cell phones always seem to erupt during bass solos. (Please show the bassist some love and turn them off in the future.)

Given the Korean Cultural Service’s classy address, Rudd joked it was the first time in his long career that he ever played on Park Avenue. However, Rudd’s Quartet tours frequently, so by now they really sound like a legitimate, cohesive band (they can be heard as a quartet on their newest CD Keep Your Heart Together). While the music might be far-removed from his New Thing sessions, Rudd still plays with wit and flare, clearly enjoying the process of making music with these musicians.