8 Bold Souls

HotHouse, December 11

Today’s jazz scene is a battleground. Just ask Wynton Marsalis, the most influential figure in jazz, who recently described it that way in the New Yorker. As artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the 33-year-old trumpeter and composer has unprecedented opportunities to showcase the music through concerts, lectures, and commissions. Judging from his recent pronouncements, he’s using those opportunities to build walls between “true jazz,” which is welcome at Lincoln Center, and “avant-garde jazz,” which is not.

“There is no true jazz that is without swing and the blues,” Marsalis proclaimed in the New Yorker. ” On that basis he rejects “avant-garde jazz”–a curious term to apply to musical styles that began emerging around 30 years ago, but one whose continued currency speaks volumes about the state of jazz. In his new book, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, Marsalis elaborates: “In jazz it is always necessary to be able to swing consistently….You cannot develop jazz by not playing it, not swinging or playing the blues. Today’s jazz criticism celebrates as innovation forms of music that don’t address the fundamentals of the music.”

Among the musicians most often celebrated for the innovations Marsalis disdains are members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. In questioning Marsalis recently about his failure to feature more “experimental forms” of jazz, “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross cited Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, all long associated with the AACM. Marsalis responded with the back of his hand: “I don’t feel that most of what they’re playing is jazz, so I don’t feel obligated to present it at Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

Perhaps the most critically acclaimed AACM group currently based in Chicago is 8 Bold Souls, whose HotHouse performance celebrated the release of their new CD, Ant Farm (Arabesque). Where does this group, which will be performing a “bon voyage” concert at HotHouse January 5 before leaving for concerts in Berlin and Hamburg, fit on Marsalis’s jazz battleground? While some of their music would appear to satisfy his rigid criteria for “true jazz,” much of it would not; their music doesn’t always swing, and its harmonic orientation isn’t always rooted in the blues.

Featuring the six pieces from Ant Farm (each about 10 to 15 minutes long in live performance), this concert displayed the group’s key strengths–passionate intensity, unfailing clarity, and dazzling variety. Many jazz groups follow a predictable pattern: the group states the theme and then a series of improvising soloists traverse the same musical ground. 8 Bold Souls worked differently. Just when you’d become accustomed to one location, you found that you’d been swept up and deposited somewhere else. You might not know how you’d gotten from one place to the next, but each place–at that moment–felt right. Like many of the best movies, these performances had the innate logic of a dream.

The group’s first number, “The Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk,” exemplified their approach. It began with a funky rhythmic pattern on bass (Harrison Bankhead) and congas (Dushun Mosley). The rhythmic density quickly swelled as the timbales (Isaiah Jackson), tuba (Aaron Dodd), and cello (Naomi Millender) jumped in. With Mosley switching from congas to trap drums, the triumvirate of bass clarinet (Mwata Bowden), trumpet (Robert Griffin), and tenor saxophone (Edward Wilkerson) began riffing. From there a tenor-saxophone solo emerged, set against a stark backdrop of bass and drums. As Wilkerson spun out long, brooding lines, trumpeter Griffin and bass clarinetist Bowden joined in from time to time with simple, singing riffs. Wilkerson’s solo steadily intensified, moving from extended tones to volcanic eruptions. Returning to brooding passages, he signaled the other musicians, who came in behind him as one. Ensemble riffing then gave way to a trombone solo by Jackson, as bright as Wilkerson’s was dark. When Jackson switched back from trombone to timbales, the other horns returned to riffing. Wilkerson lifted his saxophone out of that line, layering insistent, plaintive phrases that recalled his solo. Then, like a dream’s abrupt end, the piece was over.

The concert abounded in surprises. When tuba player Dodds soloed against drummer Mosley’s delicate brushwork in “A Little Encouragement,” his playing was so nimble and graceful that it called to mind the dance of the light-footed hippo in Fantasia. Millender’s solo in “Ant Farm” demonstrated that an unaccompanied cello, singing long, slow, eloquent lines, can hold the unwavering attention of a nightclub audience. And when trumpeter Griffin played his first solo of the evening (also in “Ant Farm”), his glistening sound–coming after the recurring darkness of the tuba, cello, tenor saxophone, and bass–made me feel as though I were hearing a trumpet for the first time.

While all the group’s material was written and arranged by saxophonist and clarinetist Wilkerson, 8 Bold Souls doesn’t consist of a leader and sidemen. As its name suggests, it’s an ensemble with eight individual voices. Wilkerson’s playing is displayed no more prominently than anyone else’s. And his compositions and arrangements exploit the other members’ instruments and strengths so consistently that it’s evident he works with these particular musicians in mind. As he put it at the beginning of the concert, “We’ve been together many years now, and we’ve accumulated a lot of love and trust for one another.” Like Joe Mantegna in a David Mamet play, the members of 8 Bold Souls readily inhabit the musical lines Wilkerson’s written for them.

This concert had its flaws. Ensemble passages occasionally sounded tentative. And some endings seemed insufficiently worked out, a problem that fade-outs would conceal on a recording. Both problems undoubtedly result from not having more frequent opportunities to perform. A deeper reservation, and one less readily rectified, is that unlike the work of jazz composers as diverse as Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and AACM alum Henry Threadgill, Wilkerson’s compositions–for all their strengths–contain few melodic lines that get under a listener’s skin and stay there. But when measured against the concert’s many successes, these are quibbles. Flaws and all, the future of this music is being shaped not at Lincoln Center but at clubs like HotHouse by groups like 8 Bold Souls.

Of course as long as Marsalis is in charge, they’re not likely to be invited to perform at Lincoln Center. But that says more about the limitations of his artistic dogma than the quality of their music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.