[Ed. Note: We were so riveted by Ratzo B. Harris's reports from the Jazz Education Network's 2011 Conference in New Orleans that we asked him to share his unique take on the improvisational music scene on a regular basis here. When Ratzo is not playing music he's listening to it, and now every Friday he'll be writing about it.—FJO]
The world of free-lance bass playing is a great place to lose a sense of connectedness to one’s personal aesthetic. Playing with a different group of musicians, playing different kinds of music as well as being expected to play to different standards night after night can be as exhilarating as well as unsettling (not to mention being “all dressed up with nowhere to go” after a last minute cancellation). My specialty is music that is largely improvised.
Although jazz is what usually comes to mind when the word “improvisation” is mentioned, improvisation is a technique that is much older than the American genre it reciprocally signifies. I was honored with a last minute call a week ago to play at Puppet’s Jazz Bar, an elegant but intimate venue in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, with pianist/vocalist Delmar Brown and drummer (and owner of Puppet’s) Jaime Affoumado. While club owners who also play music are traditionally not up to the standards of the people they hire, this is clearly not the case at Puppet’s. Jaime is an excellent musician whose only possible fault is that he works himself to death to present high quality music in an area that can be somewhat indifferent. Delmar played on Friday, during a cold snap that kept all but the most dedicated from going out to hear music. He played tunes like Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” a piece now considered a jazz standard but was thought of as pointing away from the jazz paradigm when it was first heard in 1965. Brown’s career reflects that sentiment. He’s worked with both Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen and first came to prominence playing on guitarist Pat Martino’s Joyous Lake in 1976, a jazz-rock fusion release that also introduced the world to drummer Kenwood Denard. Over the years Delmar has distinguished himself as a musician who follows his own muse and as a pioneer of funk-based music he calls “World Pop.” I can’t begin to describe this aspect of Brown’s output beyond saying that, in my mind, he takes on the role of an American counterpart to Brazil’s Hermeto Pasqual. It’s every bit as personal and engaging, but distinctly of the United States. People not familiar with Delmar Brown should find a remedy soon because they’re really missing something important.
If Delmar is America’s Hermeto, guitarist/pianist/composer Ralph Towner is America’s Egberto Gismonte. I had the pleasure of seeing him at Birdland in New York last night for the opening night of his engagement with Oregon, a group he founded 41 years ago with bassist Glenn Moore and oboist/clarinetist/saxophonist/recorderist Paul McCandless. Drummer Mark Walker has been with the band since the early 1990s following the tragic death of tabla drummer/sitarist and Oregon co-founder Collin Walcott. Oregon is considered by some to be one of the first world music groups and, even if this is an exaggeration, all of its founding members came through the Paul Winter Consort, a group that is definitely one of the first to play in that style. Here’s what Oregon played last night:
1. Raven’s Wood
2. Gitarre Picante
3. Aeolus (new)
5. As She Sleeps (new)
7. (free improvisation)
8. In Stride (new)
1. On the Rise
3. The Glide
4. Green and Gold
5. Peppy Link
6. Hoedown/Something For a Friend
7. (free improvisation)
8. (a piece that wasn’t announced)
I first heard their version of “Witchi-Tai-To” while I was hanging out at Jim Pepper’s apartment in San Francisco. Because Pepper, who wrote the song was half Kaw and Creek Indian, “Witchi-Tai-To” was the truest example of American music in their program. I sat at the bar for the first set with Larry Dunlap, a pianist and composer who lives in San Francisco and who was in town to play at Feinstein’s with vocalist Raquel Bitton last Monday. When Oregon finished performing “Witchi-Tai-To” at the end of their first set, Larry (who I met through Pepper) leaned over to me and said “giga-ho!” I still am not sure what it means, but I think it’s a good thing.
Those of you who read my ruminations on Mark Dresser’s Guts can probably guess that I had a great time watching one of the master’s of extended bass techniques from the business side of the instrument (this is the view I had from the bar). Glenn has a great set of thumbs that he employs when playing bass in all manner of ways. Actually his approach to the instrument is probably the most subtle element of Oregon’s signature sound, especially when you think that the rest of the group’s original instrumentation—oboe, acoustic guitar, and tablas—is so idiosyncratic. For several decades, Glenn used a scordatura (C’- A – D – c) that forced him into a somewhat unorthodox approach to melody on the instrument. Now he tunes his acoustic instrument normally (E’ – A – D – G) and uses an NS electric upright bass for the scordatura.
During dinner, Larry and I were talking about the differences between West Coast and East Coast jazz. In a sense, Oregon amplifies this difference through the lens of time and genre. When I think about the differences and similarities between the music of Delmar Brown and Oregon, I see a historical time-line. Miles Davis versus Tom Scott, The Mothers of Invention versus The Fugs, James Brown versus Sly Stone—there’s something to it and Oregon, for better or worse, has a certain “West Coast” sensibility that isn’t heard on this side of the Mississippi that often. Even though they are unique in their sound and style, it shows. But I grew up listening to them. When I left home to strike out on my own as a musician, they were the newest thing in American music (although the group had been playing for 10 years at that point). The founding members are still on top of their game as performers (and Walker is too), so watching them was a real pleasure.