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Roswell Rudd, in a Celebratory Mood, Reflects on His Winding Path – The New York Times

Roswell Rudd, in a Celebratory Mood, Reflects on His Winding Path – The New York Times


Roswell Rudd, in a Celebratory Mood, Reflects on His Winding Path

NOV. 13, 2015
The trombonist Roswell Rudd. Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times 

KERHONKSON, N.Y. — Roswell Rudd, the genially intrepid jazz trombonist, has lately found himself recalling a memory from his childhood. It’s a composite blur of the rambling jam sessions his father was fond of hosting in their house, first in western Connecticut and then in upstate New York, during the years after World War II.

“It was a spontaneous thing,” Mr. Rudd said recently at his own rustic home here, in the Shawangunk Mountains. “Suddenly a clarinet player shows up. Then a guy’s playing piano. My father’s on the drums over there. People start dancing, you hear laughter bursting out, and all kinds of conversation. That sound is what is still in me, and it seems to be inexhaustible.”

It makes sense that a convivial, collective, open-ended musical exchange would feel formative for Mr. Rudd, who forged his reputation in the jazz avant-garde of the 1960s. Since re-emerging from obscurity near the turn of this century, he has enjoyed a far-ranging renaissance, working not only with old partners like the saxophonist Archie Shepp but also Mongolian throat singers, Malian griots and Afro-Caribbean folk artists. The soulful blare of Mr. Rudd’s horn, coupled with his boundless curiosity, has made him into a sort of good-will ambassador, despite the distinctly unconventional arc of his career.

“He never really played a lot of gigs as a leader, never had a breakthrough record,” said the slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein. “Something about his sound just reaches people.”

Mr. Rudd will turn 80 on Tuesday, and he’s celebrating with an eclectic program on Sunday afternoon at Le Poisson Rouge. Puckishly titled “The Wizard of Roz,” the concert will incorporate a few of Mr. Rudd’s close collaborators, like the singer-songwriter Heather Masse, with whom he has an album due out in February.

The lineup also includes the irrepressible Cajun band BeauSoleil; the alt-cabaret singer-composer Ethan Lipton; and Trombone Tribe Tribute, featuring Steve Swell, Deborah Weisz and others. Some on the bill, like Mr. Bernstein and the jazz vocalist Fay Victor, appeared on Mr. Rudd’s most recent album, “Trombone for Lovers,” which he released on Sunnyside in 2013, around the time he began receiving treatment for prostate cancer.

Mr. Rudd, who has a shock of white hair and an agreeably thoughtful demeanor, lives in Kerhonkson with his partner, Verna Gillis, an ethnomusicologist, manager and promoter. Their house’s artful clutter attests to far-flung mutual interests: a grand piano in the living room sits near an African drum and a vintage jukebox, and paintings crowd the walls. (Just outside is a sculpture park devoted to the work of Ms. Gillis’s husband, Bradford Graves, who died in 1998.)

Sitting on a couch under the gaze of two Haitian carnival masks, Mr. Rudd reflected on a musical path that took him from the staunchest jazz traditionalism to the height of revolutionary fervor. “When I got to New York City in the late-50s, and people were talking about collective improvisation,” he said, “I only knew how it related to Dixieland.”

Part of the lore around Mr. Rudd is that he adapted the growly, gutbucket syntax of early-jazz trombonists to the new vistas of free improvisation. As a student at Yale, he played in a popular Dixieland band called Eli’s Chosen Six. (He memorably reunited with the group for a 70th-birthday concert.) After arriving in New York, he modernized his harmonic approach partly through an apprenticeship with Herbie Nichols, a maverick pianist and composer.

Mr. Rudd’s subsequent role in the avant-garde is hard to overstate. He was a member of the New York Art Quartet, one of the greatest free-jazz ensembles of the ’60s. He worked closely with the pianist Cecil Taylor and the saxophonist Steve Lacy. He was prominently featured on landmark albums like Mr. Shepp’s “Four for Trane”; the self-titled debut album by the Liberation Music Orchestra, led by the bassist Charlie Haden; and “New York Eye and Ear Control,” with the saxophonist Albert Ayler and the trumpeter Don Cherry.

At the same time, beginning in the mid-60s, Mr. Rudd worked for the folklorist Alan Lomax, assisting in his “Cantometrics” project at Columbia University. The job entailed listening to countless hours of field recordings from around the world, and coding them through a series of quantitative metrics. “It certainly opened me up,” Mr. Rudd said. “I heard all kinds of material in those recordings that I also heard in the people I was improvising with.”

Still, Mr. Rudd said, “it was a challenge developing an audience to a point where you could go out and actually work on a regular basis.” In 1976 he began teaching music at the University of Maine. After several years he found his way back to upstate New York, joining a show band at a Catskills resort. The jazz critic Francis Davis tracked him down there in the early ’90s, ruefully pronouncing him “unforgettable but apparently forgotten.”

But the situation began to change, especially after Mr. Rudd teamed up with Ms. Gillis, who had worked prominently with world music. She connected him with the Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, and their resulting collaboration yielded an excellent 2002 album, “MALIcool.” A few years later, Mr. Rudd released “Blue Mongol” with the Mongolian Buryat Band. It was followed in 2007 by “El Espírito Jíbaro,” with the Puerto Rican cuatro master Yomo Toro. Some of these new associations began with informal sessions in the living room here.

“I have to keep going back to the weekend party sound in the house,” Mr. Rudd said, and it’s likely he’ll apply the same ideal to Sunday’s program. “I’ve got to blend in, at some point, with everybody,” he said. “And I will. There’s no way that you could hold me back.”


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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