Illmatic; OR, Lost and Found (and Brash)

Destination: Out is thrilled to present another musician-penned guest post, this one by cornettist, composer, and bandleader Taylor Ho Bynum. This is the second in a continuing series. Without further ado…


Phillip Wilson + Olu Dara
HatHut : 1979

PW, drums; OD, cornet.

Horn and drums duos are one of my favorite configurations in creative music. The immediacy of a duo context totally breaks down any traditional hierarchies between wind and percussion instruments, between melody and rhythm, between composition and improvisation, between leader and sideman. While certain jazz histories present the music as a parade of individual geniuses gracing others with their brilliance, one of the most essential, and revolutionary, aspects of the music is its collective and collaborative nature. Whether its Duke Ellington’s Orchestra or Cecil Taylor playing solo, the spark of the music always comes out of some sense of community, an exchange of ideas and shared artistic exploration. For me, a successful duo outing can provide the most elemental example of this kind of interplay and dialogue.

After John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space with Rashied Ali, saxophone/drum duo records became almost de rigueur, but trumpet (or cornet) and drum duets have been far less common. (For the beginning of this post, I’ll be using trumpet and cornet interchangeably, but by the end I’ll get down to the real nitty gritty.) While I’m obviously biased, I actually think the trumpet is more suited to drum duets than the saxophone; the percussive quality of brass instruments creates a natural affinity with the drum kit. And while saxophonists can keep playing almost forever, the physicality of the trumpet forces more space (you simply have to get the horn off your face every once in a while or your lips will fall off). This gives the drummers greater freedom, where the saxophonistic sheets of sound might lock them in.

Some of my favorite documents of this instrumental pairing include Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell’s Mu and Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach’s Max + Diz/Paris 1989 (the similarities between these two albums deserves its own post — nowhere is it more obvious Don and Ed were playing bebop, and Diz and Max were playing free), along with the Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley Papyrus albums, and Lester Bowie and Phillip Wilson’s Duet. And among contemporary projects, I’ve been deeply impressed by the Chicago Underground Duo, with cornettist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor.

So I was thrilled a couple of years ago when my friend, the excellent drummer Luther Gray, gave me a CD-R with Phillip Wilson and Olu Dara’s names scrawled across it; a long out of print LP called Esoteric on the HatHut label. I had never even heard of the recording before Luther gave it to me, but Wilson and Dara are two of my favorite musicians from the (now famously) neglected period of 70s jazz, and it quickly joined my short list of duo favorites. It’s great example of the deeply historically informed yet totally go for broke spirit of that musical era. There are echoes of New Orleans in Wilson’s tight rudiments and Dara’s Armstrong rips, and clear references to African traditional music in the tricky polyrhythms and untempered horn blasts, but this is no polite NPR-friendly repertory jazz or world music. These guys are ripping it apart, having fun with it, making it their own.

Phillip Wilson was one of the great drummers, who died far too soon at age 50 in 1992. He’s probably best known in the jazz world for his work with Lester Bowie (who receives a dedication on Esoteric), along with some classic albums by Julius Hemphill, Anthony Braxton, and David Murray, among many others; he was also the original drummer in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, before he left town to tour with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He’s one of the school of experimental jazz drummers with chops, who might create a ruckus by throwing a bag full of rattles to the floor while knocking over his kit, or might break into a ridiculous groove or tasty swing, but is open to all of it and makes incredible music whichever way he goes.

Before he became famous in the late 90s as a modern urban griot bluesman (and as rapper Nas‘ father), Olu Dara was one of the baddest cornet players around. While he didn’t record as a leader until 1998’s In the World: From Natchez to New York, Dara made extraordinary contributions to records by Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, the David Murray Octet, and the Henry Threadgill Sextett. I’m something of a cornet proselytizer, and can go on at length about the subtle differences between it and the trumpet. But to be brief, the basic difference is that the cornet is more timbrally flexible and more vocal, but less accurate and cutting than the trumpet. I think it’s telling that the cornet was most popular in pre-WWII and post 60s jazz, and fell out of favor in bebop and post-bop; the cornet tends to be used more in musics that prize timbral innovations over harmonic ones. Few players have squeezed more sounds out of their horns than Dara, as you hear to full effect on this record. (On a side note, it’s interesting that between my three favorite cornet players of the 70s, Olu Dara, Butch Morris, and Bobby Bradford, only Bradford is still primarily a cornettist; Dara still plays some horn, but mostly plays guitar and sings, and Morris exclusively conducts. It’s a tough instrument!)

The three tracks I’ve pulled from Esoteric are “Caul Call: the Eso, the March, and Ragtime,” “Elephant Bossa,” and “Lost and Brash.” “Caul Call” is the longest track, and covers almost everything I’ve been talking about: seamless stylistic diversity, improvisational give and take, and a palpable sense of fun and exploration. “Elephant Bossa” is a quickie, just proof that while trumpet jocks try to screech higher than the next guy, cornet players know it’s hipper to see how low you can go. And I love the title “Lost and Brash”; you don’t know where you’re going, but you go there with confidence. That’s the whole point right there.

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Be sure to check out THB’s upcoming disks, including True Events, a duo recording with drummer Tomas Fujiwara on 482 Music, and two projects on the new Firehouse 12 label: The Middle Picture by his sextet, and Anthony Braxton’s 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006. Bynum also maintains a generous, literate, and highly engaging blog, SpiderMonkey Stories; don’t sleep on it.

Category guest posts, Olu Dara, Phillip Wilson

20 Responses to Illmatic; OR, Lost and Found (and Brash)

  1. No matter how may times I listen into this, it still sounds like a 5 year old playing trumpet, joined by a 6 year old palying drums…It simply sucks!

  2. Dara and Wilson are having fun – it might not be everyone’s cup of tea (see above comment) but it allows the listener an entry into the minds of 2 creative musicians. Might be a bit sloppy at times but this is “stream-of-consciousness” music and the creative part of the brain doesn’t sit still. One hears humor in the bluesy ramblings of “Caul Call”, rhythmic noise on “Elephant Call”, and more humor in the militaristic clarion blasts and martial rhythms on “Lost and Brash.”
    I haven’t heard this in 27 or 28 years but it serves as a good reminder of how fascinating a musician Phillip Wilson was.

  3. Lovely tracks, in their own, slightly dated way.

    Talking about trumpet players of the yore: I wonder if anyone here remembers Longineau (sp.?) Parsons. I heard him in Italy with “Kalaparusha” McIntyre, about 1979-80, and own a record that Kalaparusha quartet did for Black Saint around that time.

  4. Jazzlunatic may not dig these tracks, but I can tell you that a five year could not play the trumpet that way (I have a 6, 4, and three month old that can testify to that).

    The shake that Dara plays in Caul Call isn’t any easy thing to pull off. You have to practice that. Plus the big full sound that he gets – when he wants to – ain’t easy to come by. And the low notes in Elephany Bossa are called pedal tones. They aren’t on the horn. A player has to train his/her lips to make these notes. Lots of people can play pedals, but hitting the intervals and playing them in tune with each other is a different matter. Lester Bowie does a solo tune on All the Magic (ECM) where he plays in the pedal register the whole time. Very effective. Nat Adderley used to throw pedals into his solos sometimes too. Bill Dixon can also play incredibly low.

    So yeah – maybe not your cup of tea. But it ain’t easy. Philip Wilson always sounds good to my ears….

    Bart – Philly Trumpet Player

  5. Re: Longineu Parsons– he’s on Cecil taylor’s gorgeous “Always A Pleasure,” the one with Charles Gayle. Parsons definitely brings something very interesting and fragile to that recording, a completely different kind of sensibility. Lots of scales and runs, sometimes a little bit too clean for my ears. But I do love that recording. (from 1993)


  6. Re: Olu Dara: I love the sound he brings to Material and to Ulmer’s record, Are You Glad to be in America? The first time I heard Dara it was like a smack in the head. I had to know who it was. A complete original, possibly lost, definitely brash. Thank you Taylor Ho Bynum for posting these funny, tender, esp-like duets.


  7. Dara’s got that New Orleans thing coming through even in a context like this. Beautiful sound.

  8. I saw Olu and Phil Wilson at the Tin Palace in NYC in 1978, right after Christmas. With Frank Lowe and Fred Hopkins. What a quartet! Then about nine months later, Olu showed up at the Creative Music Studio and was a fine, warm-hearted teacher. I love his work from around this time, such as on the previously-mentioned Material (Memory Serves) and the Blood Ulmer albums Are You Glad To Be In America? and Freelancing.

  9. continuing my previous thought, I was thinking I’d like a little more Nawlins in the drums though…Blackwell would have been perfect, methinks…wonder if they ever played together…Dara did did some nice stuff on the first Conjure album…the new one’s good too, slicker, funkier rhythm section, lots of good Murray, some not so good…but I digress

  10. awesome! yes, Mr godoggo, that Conjure Lp is the stuff! ”Mumbo Jumbo” by Ishmael Reed is also some essential reading for the jazz afficianado.

    can anyone else figure out what that Roy Eldridge Lp of improvisation with only a drummer is? it’s from the fifties. 53? i heard it at Daffy’s house [30,000+? lps !!!] in soho [ny] in the late 80s. [anyone else know that beat poet guy?]. it is a very good LP. what is it called? it’s a frustrating google search. it was roundly trashed by the critics at it’s release and apparently not spoken of or seen much.

    in an earlier post i mentioned some 1949 Lennie Tristano stuff as being at the forefront of ”cool” jazz. post bop, or what have you. smooth. i found some. at the wfmu link to the right, under Skies Of America, go to the ‘Give The Drummer Some’ playlist archives for Sept. 23 2005. the 9th track.

  11. From this page: “the famous trio session with Art Tatum that became a duet between Roy and drummer Alvin Stoller when Tatum couldn’t make the gig (Roy overdubbed flugelhorn and piano)”

  12. thanks buddy!

  13. …I’m just a googlin’ fool. From here:
    (I) ROY ELDRIDGE AND ALVIN STOLLER: Roy Eldridge (tp, flg-1, p with overdubbed tp-2), Alvin Stoller (d).
    Radio Recorders, LA, March 21, 1955
    2292-1 Whereâ??s Art? -1
    2293-1 I Donâ??t Know -1
    2294-1 Striding
    2295-7 Wailing -2
    Note: All titles issued on Verve MGV8202, CD 314 531 637-2. This session was originally scheduled for release on Clef MGC716.

    OK, all done.

  14. wow. very thanks.

  15. Another new addition to the duo canon that I’m eager to hear:
    I don’t know of any releases by Smith with just a drummer, but I’ve had the privilege of hearing him live with Hamid Drake, and on an incredible bootleg with Ed Blackwell.

  16. I’m glad folks have enjoyed the post. Thanks to Richard and Bart for such clear responses to jazzlunatic’s criticisms, just what I would have said. I’ll have to find some of Longineu Parsons’ music, I’ve never heard his work. I’ve also still never heard the Eldridge tracks, though I’m a huge fan, I’ll have to find those. I could imagine Eldridge/Stoller relating to this music like Hawkins’ Picasso relating to Braxton’s For Alto, perhaps.

    Great to hear about the Smith/Sommers recording, their trio with Peter Kowald is a personal favorite. Smith also did a duo record with Adam Rudolph last year that I am eager to hear but have not yet picked up. -THB

  17. i miss Phillip everyday.

    for the people that don’t know… there was/is police stonewalling and cover up. marvin slater is the assassin who was hired to murder Phillip Wilson on march 25 1992, he was convicted of premeditated murder and is serving time in new york state prison 33 1/3 years. help is needed for more investigation.

  18. Around 1978-9 I heard Philip in a number of enjoyable settings at DC Space. Once with Lester Bowie for a Christmas concert-you can imagine the humor and playfulness. Then, in a solo concert that unfortunately had a very low turnout which rightfully so disapointed Philip. He took it our on the drumset but it was an energetic set. Over an hour of pure Philip.

    I befriended Philip during that time because a good friend of mine had done a video of one of his concerts in DC. It never got edited or distributed. In the early 80’s we ran into him in NYC at some lower east side venue. He remembered us-though he wasn’t playing that night. After the music was over we walked out-it had been snowing and the entire street was covered with snow, about 3-4 inches. Almost unscarred. We walked down the middle of the street talking about the scene back in the mid-70’s. And that was the last time I saw him. In addition to being a superb drummer, he was an exceedingly nice human being.

  19. Anyone have a lead on how this album might be found? A quick internet search yielded pretty much nothing.

  20. Yeah, Philip was a nice man, but his life was destroyed by the use of crack and other hard drugs. For that reason, musicians like Lester Bowie and David Murray wouldn’t hire him anymore. Philip ripped me off for several hundred dollars, but I have forgiven his compulsive hussling. His musical creations are eternal. May he rest in peace.