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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Just a 75-Minute Improvisation

I've always been fascinated by writings on jazz, albeit not enough to buy a book on the subject.

In general, they're useful histories/potted biogs of the line-up and maybe a pointer to some aspect of a solo.

Ben Ratcliff in the Dec 10 NY Times pulled off one of the most remarkable feats of description I've come across in his review of alto saxist Sonny Fortune and drummer Rashied Ali as part the "Saxophone and Drum" series at Sweet Rhythm.

Rarely have I read such an evocation of the 'feel' of jazz:

" ... they teased out the nearly invisible thread from the swing era to free music, adding other kinds of playing along the way ... And they did it in a single song, stretched over 75 minutes: Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things."

There was a strategy to it. Mr. Fortune, nonchalant, took a sip of San Pellegrino. Then Mr. Ali played a jagged bebop pattern on the high-hat, and "Just One of Those Things" began tightly, with Mr. Fortune lining out the melody as it is known.

After five minutes or so, Mr. Fortune started retreating from the shape of the melody, playing longer and longer bop lines that whizzed by each chord, sustaining his phrases for minutes at a time with the technique of circular breathing, hitting some shrill high notes on the way. He played almost entirely in eighth notes, sometimes running smooth and continuous, sometimes broken up into clusters of four that sketched out passing chords. (In the feeling of those four-note clusters, which he returned to more often than any improvisation could support, Mr. Fortune seemed to be channeling Charlie Parker's famous recording of "KoKo.")

Mr. Ali gathered steam too, moving into stretches of free rhythm, pumping his high-hat in independent hummingbird tempos as he played drum-and-cymbal combinations. He broke a stick; he turned it over in his hand, striking with the thick end, and let 15 minutes go by before replacing it.

Nearly an hour after the set began, Mr. Fortune slowly came back to earth, using shorter lines, kicking in some slurred rhythm-and-blues phrases. He took a second sip of San Pellegrino.

Mr. Ali, who still hadn't rested, then took over for a few minutes. Suddenly he was bringing in technique from the 1930's, tight Big Sid Catlett-style swing with elaborate rolls and patterns, as he played the melody of the song with the bass drum; he gradually spread that out into free rhythm and hit hard, hollering at the density. Mr. Fortune came back again to play the melody, and they were done. "

It's an entirely personal thing - whereas I lapped up Nat Hentoff's vinyl cover notes and listened agog to the archly English tones of Radio 3's Charles Fox pronouncing on this most American of music, I never took to Philip Larkin's meanderings (sacrilege!) - but Ratcliff brings perfect pitch ear-to-keyboard technique to a job he clearly loves and works hard at to do right by his readers.

Well done the editorial eye that spotted this gem.

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