Warren Smith

The sad confluence of Max Roach’s death, August 16, and Warren Smith’s September 26 appearance at UMass, Amherst, afforded us a beautiful opportunity to witness the uncoiling ribbon of jazz drumming history. As the years go by, the fact that Roach earned his doctorate from UMass and taught and lived in Amherst throughout the 1970s and beyond, will become increasingly important to the cultural history of the University and the Pioneer Valley. Of all of Max’s “disciples”, Warren Smith is king. King – not only because of his age (75), and his elevated status among musicians (find me another musician whom everyone likes and admires) – but because he most fully embraces Max’s concept of the percussive arts.
The percussive arts were front and center as Smith initiated the 6th annual FAC Solos & Duos Series at Bezanson Recital Hall before 165 enthusiastic patrons. Surrounded by marimba, three tympani, drum kit, a home-made cymbal set-up and gongs (along with an assortment of whistles and shakers), Warren moved seamlessly through two sets of moving percussion music.

Warren was a founding member of Max’s groundbreaking percussion ensemble, M’Boom, a 6-8 person group of world-class drummers who, between them, played all the percussion instruments. The respect, from an early age, that Warren had for Max permeated his entire trip to UMass. Warren began the concert by dedicating the performance to his mentor, speaking with an easy articulateness; it was easy to see his big, generous spirit. He talked about being a kid, looking up to Max. Yes, Max was playing with Bird and Dizzy. But he was also speaking up, making albums like “Freedom Now Suite”, starting his own label (Debut), lending his voice to the struggle.

Warren linked Max to Papa Jo Jones (Count Basie’s drummer), and told the story (often related by Max when he’d play his solo at the Bright Moments Festival each July), about how, after a number of drum heavyweights took the stage, saying all there was to say on the drums in honor of an ailing Gene Krupa, Papa Jo came on stage with only a high-hat cymbal and brought the house down. Warren began his Solos & Duos concert on a home-made cymbal set-up by Jackson Krall. Krall, a fabulous percussionist in his own right, takes pieces of broken cymbals and bolts them together. Strung together, the effect was electrifying. It was a highlight of the concert.

Smith shared his reverence for Roach and the history of the music for about 15 UMass Music students hours before the concert. He was “old school” in all the good ways. He talked about how to be a professional musician – be on time, be prepared musically, understand what the person hiring you wants, be sober (said with a little laugh). He talked behind a drum kit the whole time, and played it a little bit. But mostly he reminisced, answered questions and shared lessons learned over the most varied 50 year career in music history (Harry Partch, Barbara Streisand, Julius Hemphill, Gladys Knight, William Parker and years of Broadway pit band work.)

With his long time friend and helper, Anton Reid, Smith drove up from New York the night before his gig with his kit, cymbals and gongs. We supplied the tympani and marimba, which was taken apart and reassembled in Bezanson-and back again, by graduate student Ian Hale and his undergraduate minions. They did a really good deed. But then again, they got to hang with Warren for awhile. Many of them came to the show. In fact, we had an unprecedented ratio of students to general public for the performance. It’s usually around half and half; over 70% of this audience was students. warrensmith.jpg

Warren also participated in a somewhat misguided (by me) experiment , the afternoon of the concert. In response to a funder’s request to get more students involved with the project, we set up shop around noon, first on the Campus Center concourse, then at Earthfoods, for a “public art display”. Warren brought part of Krall’s cymbal contraption and some great whistles and shakers. He started to play. There was some uncertainty – from artist, producer and passers by – about what it was that was happening. Within a minute of beginning on the concourse, some dude picked up a rattle and joined in. Smith, non plussed, tried to lead him along. Unfortunately he had no more skill than lots of other dudes, so the music didn’t necessarily take off. But it was cool just the same- the unpredictability of it. One problem ultimately was that he didn’t generate enough sound to captivate much public space. I had thought about asking him to bring his snare drum, but didn’t. Oh well. But I could tell the music made some friends that day, mostly because Warren was humble and good natured throughout the “event”. I think that’s why so many students showed up to the concert.

The concert was great, but for my taste, I wish he had played more drum kit and less tympani and marimba. When I asked him after the show why he didn’t let loose on the kit more, he answered that Max had already made that history and he didn’t want to merely imitate it. One high point was his “Improvision for UMass”, where he flitted from instrument to instrument, playing without pause to create a really fresh splattering of sounds and rhythm. Warren had also written “An Open Letter to the People” for the occasion. He played gongs and kit, while local poet/performance artist, Eddie Bartok-Barratta recited the words. The letter expressed his heart-felt disgust with the Bush war in Iraq, the strain it is putting on military families (including Smith’s) and the lack of funding for domestic needs because of the war. The screed was simply stated, very well read and a little long.

In its short history, the Solos & Duos Series has presented some of the most important drummers to emerge since the 60s: Sunny Murray, Rashied Ali, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, Hamid Drake. Warren Smith sits rightfully among them.

Written by Glenn Siegel

Fred Anderson/Chad Taylor


Drummer Chad Taylor had to wake up before dawn on consecutive days and travel twice across the continental United States to play this concert with Fred Anderson. The 40 year old percussionist took a night off from his tour with the rock band Iron & Wine to make this gig. I imagine the reason had little to do with the commitment he had made to the Solos & Duos Series and nothing to do with the artist fee (which was largely eaten up by the airplane), and everything to do with Fred Anderson.

The 78 year old tenor saxophonist is a revered figure in the music. Taylor is one of a number of musicians who have profited from the informal tutelage of this icon of the Chicago creative music scene. An original member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and a diehard Midwesterner, Anderson’s principal gift to the windy city has been his proprietorship of The Velvet Lounge, a south side drinking establishment which has nurtured generations of improvising musicians, including Chad Taylor.

This concert had a tight schedule and a large carbon footprint. Anderson and his friend and helper, Andy Pierce, flew from Chicago the day of the concert (their 1:30 Bradley arrival delayed over two hours). Taylor touched down at 4:30. We raced back to campus (in two cars, mine and Steve Hart’s) with time for hotel check in, sound check and little else.

Fred had surgery within the last nine months and Chad must have been worn from his west coast touring, but their UMass concert bristled with energy. Through two ample sets of music, they ripped 185 listeners out of their everyday lives to a place of awe and beauty. Fred assumed his firmly rooted, trade-marked lean, and Chad was in closed eyed revelry, as they launched into chartless improvising of the highest order. When I asked Fred later about the source of all his energy, he said, “I’m just trying to stay in the game.”

Chad confided in Michael Ehlers afterwards that he thought by the end, he “couldn’t hang with Fred.” The implication, in my mind, was that weeks of rigid “rock” drumming had made his ideas soft. (Iron & Wine, Sam Beam’s band, is booked through 2008; Chad was doubtful he’d last that long.) The proposition that Chad couldn’t hang with anyone was laughable to me. I had been blown away by his playing. Using sticks, mallets, brushes and his hands, Taylor laid it down all night. At one point I leaned to Hank Berry (another beautiful job with sound reinforcement) and thought, “This is like hearing Elvin and Blakey.” His deep African rhythms also recalled Ed Blackwell. (And drum kit is just the beginning. Chad is also a masterful vibes and marimba player, and is advancing the music made on African thumb piano. Maybe next time.)

I had met Fred in 1999 when he performed at a Magic Triangle concert with Kidd Jordan, William Parker and Hamid Drake (caught on the acclaimed Eremite recording, “Two Days in April”). Health problems and the intervening years had removed some of his stockiness, but his spirit and attitude were strong. Fred impresses me as a worker. Since the early 1980s he’s operated a nightclub in Chicago, and earlier in life, did lots of jobs outside of music. He can fix things, provide for his family, and play the tenor saxophone. Before the old Velvet would open for its regular day time clientele, Fred would put in 2-3 hours of practice on the only horn he plays, then do all the things a small businessman does. Above all, he created a venue where newcomers and masters alike would take the stage without pretension and try to say something on their chosen instrument.

While we chatted about different musicians, he seemed proud to tell me which of them had played his club. (The outpouring of love and support for Fred, and the institution he’s created, made the recent relocation of the Velvet possible.) Speaking of love and support, Fred is lucky to have Andy Pierce in his corner. A Chicago city employee (housing and building inspections), Andy is a true friend of the music. He handled all the details and was a big help to Fred.

So I’m driving Fred and Andy along some very small road in Montague on the way to dinner after the show. I can tell these two city slickers have noticed that we are in rural America. Just as Fred was telling me why my side car windows keep fogging up, a large deer leaps in front of the car (maybe a foot from my headlight) and bounds into the woods. The car is stopped and we all take a deep breath before Andy and I start chatting excitedly about our near miss. Fred is quiet in the front seat. When we finally ask if he’s alright, Fred chuckles and gives us a simple “yeah, man.”

Written by Glenn Siegel

Roswell Rudd/Mark Dresser

roswelldresserDespite a coveted, tenured full professorship at UC San Diego, Mark Dresser seems always on the prowl for gigs. As he explained to me while he was in Amherst for the second Solos & Duos Series concert, he just loves to play. Although he is a committed educator and a gifted composer, he loves to perform more than anything else. Dresser inaugurated the S&D Series six years ago with a startling performance with fellow bass player Mark Helias (The Marks Brothers). That was when Dresser taught part-time across town at Hampshire College. Over the years, Dresser has suggested various duos (Denman Maroney, Patty Waters) to me, but he only had to mention trombonist Roswell Rudd as a partner, and the deal was sealed.

With the death of Albert Mangelsdorff, Rudd is arguably the most important living trombonist in improvised music. And one of the best. Rudd’s work with Archie Shepp, Sheila Jordan, and Steve Lacy, and his knee deep involvement with the creative tumult of the 60’s (JCOA, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, NY Art Quartet) has cemented his long-term status. His early emphasis on the compositions of Thelonious Monk, and his lifelong championing of the work of Monk’s contemporary, Herbie Nichols, has been a blessing to jazz. But after a hiatus from the jazz spotlight that lasted almost two decades, (he was playing in the house band at the Granit Hotel in the Catskills for some of it), Rudd has returned to creative music with fire (and chops) intact.

Rudd and Dresser arrived October 15th, two days before the gig, to prepare for two workshops at Hampshire College the next day. Dresser’s successor at Hampshire, the talented saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, invited Mark to teach/lead his Tuesday night jazz ensemble. Marty asked Roswell to speak to the Hampshire community about his recent collaborations with musicians from Mali (MaliCool), Mongolia (Blue Mongol), and Puerto Rico (El Spirito Jibaro).

A third educational activity materialized when Dr. Billy Taylor, who was supposed to lecture the Lively Arts class about jazz, had to leave campus unexpectedly. (Taylor was in town for the annual FAC Billy Taylor Residency, which featured the young saxophonist Miguel Zenon and his quartet.) I was able to convey a bit of Prof. John Jenkins’ desperation, and although they were reluctant to do it, (Roswell was not feeling great, the bread was a little light, it was right before the gig), it turned out well. For one, we discovered at 5:30 instead of 7:30, that my friend’s bass amp needed a shaped connector we didn’t have. We had time to snag a bass amp (thanks to Jeff Holmes), they got to sound check and warm up early. (The class was cool. Mark was the straight man, trying to pry open a few minds; Rudd was the imp, the contrarian, interested in the big gesture.)

The show was magnificent (watch for it on ACTV and UVC-TV 19). Great interplay, plenty of space for both improvisers, beautiful sound. Though it morphed continually, Dresser’s playing was more groove oriented than anything on the duo’s fine Clean Feed recording, Air Walkers. I have heard and seen Dresser before, so perhaps I was less surprised by the sounds coming out of his instrument (extended techniques and special bass construction), than some of the other 180 folks in the room. But I was struck by how well those sounds were integrated into the performance. Dazzling.

Rudd sounded great. Especially with trombone, that’s the first thing I hear. His tone was beautiful, round, accurate, strong. We had Hank Berry at the control of sound reinforcement, but Rudd projected to the last row of Bezanson without breaking a sweat. But he really wasn’t feeling well. In his first interaction with the audience (both Rudd and Dresser were consummate hosts throughout), Roswell apologized for being sick and talked about the energy a live audience gives a sick performer. (He wasn’t kidding. My friend Eli, whose father played with Roswell in that Catskill band, reported that Roswell had to miss some gigs in Europe after his UMass concert because of his health.)

We ate a hearty and scrumptious meal in the Great Room at Jonathan and Cheryl’s along side a roaring fire. We toasted Steve Lacy and Roswell welled up with emotion. I had the satisfying thought that we are providing good work for great musicians.

Written by Glenn Siegel

Dakshina Ensemble

By the time Ranjanaa Devi, director of the Fine Arts Center’s Asian Arts & Culture Program, asked the Magic Triangle Jazz Series about co-producing Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Dakshina Ensemble, I’d already heard some music from their 2005 debut tour, and was suitably impressed. With a helpful push from FAC Director Willie Hill, Ranjanaa and I signed on for what was an extra concert in both our seasons.
  Dakshina is Rudresh’s cutting edge septet of Indian and American-based musicians playing original material in (mostly) raga form. The thirty-something alto saxophonist shares the spotlight with an amazing Indian alto saxophonist, Kadri Gopalnath. Steeped in traditional Carnatic music, Kadri is self-taught on the alto (which has no place in his chosen music). Taught by nagaswaram (double reed instrument) teachers, Kadri has developed a phenomenal technique and a totally unique sound on the instrument.

I had met Rudresh in 2005 when he performed at UMass (a Magic Triangle Series/New WORLD Theater collaboration), as part of the Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd production of “In What Language?” A fond memory of that visit took place the night before the UMass concert, when Rudresh and Vijay ventured to Hank Berry’s house in Leverett. The duo – formally known as Raw Materials – played (Vijay adapting well to Hank’s old upright), ate and made merry with about 25 of our friends (who had all chipped in for the privilege).

Rudresh is a talented, 21st century improviser. He’s smart in lots of things (math, economics, computers, music) and savvy, in an unassuming way. This tour – 8 performances in 7 cities – was produced by Asia Society, but there was no tour manager, Rudresh attended to the details. He was my point person on directions, backline and itineraries, and he made it easy; he was thorough, attentive to details and relaxed about it all. One thing Rudresh learned over the course of the tour was that it was better to have Kadri and his long-time collaborator, violinist, A. Kanyakumari, arrive closer to the actual sound check. I drove them to the venue.

Although Kadri knew literally nothing about jazz, he had the air of a jazz musician (confounding expectations, a little renegade). He did not have the career trajectory of a typical All India musician. When he would take his music exams as a youngster, the judges’ distain for his instrument changed to wonderment as he’d nail his exercises. For years, he had a day job, and would woodshed when not sleeping. Although he seemed like royalty to me, I recognized in him a flexible, non-chalance that I’d seen in many jazz musicians. He had a freelancer’s attitude.

Kanyakumari, however, was like no other musician I’d produced. A small, self-contained woman, she seemed out of place walking around the Quality Inn (or anywhere else in the States). I was told she had disciples throughout America who would bring her food wherever the band played. (Her religious practice had prescribed dietary laws. Sunday, the day of our concert, was the day she could eat anything.) Immersed in her music and religious practice, she had a far-away focus that was awe-inspiring.

As I drove them to Bowker Auditorium I was making chit-chat with Kadri (whose English is a little better than hers). As the conversation waned I heard a faint sound. The car radio was off and I was not being addressed. It was Kanyakumari in the back seat, praying, I think. Playing fewer notes than the saxophonists, she conjured the blues (intuitive, emotive, stripped to its bare essentials.)

Earlier upon arriving, Rudresh informed us our platform for Kadri and Kanyakumari, who sat cross legged the entire concert, was way too low. The production crew was able to find more and avert a major faux pas. But the concert went off without a hitch, and it was one of the most profound musical experiences of my life. Many others I talked to afterwards (both my jazzbo friends and Ranjanaa’s core Indian audience) agreed that this was transformative music of a very high order.

The music was a true hybrid: Indian-based, but jazz inflected. It was new music from deep within two traditions. As Budd Kopman wrote in his review of the Ensemble’s New York concert, “We were most definitely not in southern India, and yet we were not in uptown New York City either — we were in ‘DakshinaLand’.”

The UMass concert was Dakshina’s last in the tour. (Half way through, the band detoured back to New York to record. Look for the Pi Records release this fall.) The band was well oiled and in good spirits. All the musicians played masterfully. But credit most of all goes to Rudresh, who wrote music that everyone could sink their improvising chops into, and who built a beautifully-paced concert of provocative combinations. The concert – almost 2 hours without a break – passed in a flash.

I was especially impressed with the trap drummer, royal hartigan, who pushed the band and gave it bite. royal is an authority on West African drumming, and has studied deeply the percussion traditions of other great musical cultures. (He’s also a 1981 UMass grad.) I was amazed to hear from Rudresh that it had taken him a few gigs to get the feel just right.

Afterwards, we ate at the home of Dr.and Mrs. Seshu Desu, who had gone all out preparing a sumptuous Indian meal. They even made their teenage daughters wear saris. I (in the most polite way I could) stuffed my face. Kanyakumari ate like a bird.

Written by Glenn Siegel