by Paul Barros, Downbeat June 2000
“Our voices have changed since you first heard us 35 years ago,” writes trombonist Roswell Rudd in the liner notes to this majestic reunion album by the New York Art Quartet, “but it is still us.” That conundrum -the passage of time, and how history plays with our perceptions- is both the subject and subtext of this vigorous album, which manages to sound both celebratory and elegiac at the same time. The NYAQ (1963-64) was in the vanguard of “the new thing”, a form of free jazz associated with 1960s African-American consciousness-raising.
Hearing a reprise of its principles, with a much broader role for Amiri Baraka, is exhilarating. Even better, the musicians play with more depth, strength, clarity and empathy than ever before. Afro-Danish tenor saxophonist John Tchicai is robust, lyrical and succinct, particularly on his gorgeous original, “Llanto del Indio”, which swells and ebbs with Ayleresque breath. Rudd is the ideal conversationalist – responsive, sympathetic and full of wry punctuation, as well as bristling ideas of his own. Thunderous and tender by turns, drummer Milford Graves breaks into incantatory, wordless vocals on the opener, “A Meetings Of Remarkable Journeys”, and rustles his cymbals pastorally over the African savannah of his imagination on “Reentering.” Lush-toned Reggie Workman, who replaced bassist Lewis Worrell in the NYAQ early on, starts an oozing glissando that everyone picks up on “VG’s Birthday Jamboree”.
But it’s Baraka, the most rhythmically versatile jazz poet on the planet, who you hear up front, hammering home the point that we discover who we are, now, through the lively engagement of our senses -and critical faculties- in the world. “Of what use is poetry?” asks a voice in “Reentering”, and he answers, “What do you mean by use?/Is there a second question?/And who are you, anyway?/How did you get in here?” Later, after counting, literally, the years between 1963 and 1999 (when this album was made), like a label on the cardboard box of “history”, he warns, “If the dark get noisy, seek light at once”. New art forms announce new states of consciousness. That’s one reason people resist them so much. Whether you ever learned to love free jazz or not, this album makes it painlessly clear that the world opened up by the NYAQ 35 years ago, which sounded so unfamiliar at first, is the world we now live in.
Paul de Barros