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…
CAUL CALL: THE ESO, THE MARCH, AND RAGTIME
LOST AND BRASH
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.