Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Marshall Allen, Danny Ray Thompson, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Bálazs Pándi, Roswell Rudd – Ceremonial Healing (RareNoise Records, 2019) ****½
By Nick Ostrum
It has been a while since I reviewed a straight-up free jazz recording. So, I thought Ceremonial Healing, a UK Record Store Day release and one of the late Roswell Rudd’s final recording sessions, was as good a place to start as any. My first exposure to Rudd was a duo performance in 2005 of him and Henry Grimes at the Stone. I attended for Grimes but was absolutely blown away by interplay between the two musicians, by their ability to explore the depths of both bass and trombone and hold my excitement of the course of the 45 minute or so set. This put me on the path to the New York Art Quartet and various other projects involving Rudd.
That said, Ceremonial Healing is hardly a Roswell Rudd record. In fact, he appears on only a few tracks. (Consider the above a belated and regrettably short encomium.) This is a group effort, and one of a super-group spanning generations, scenes, and styles. Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson (saxes and, for Allen, EVI) are two of the longest serving members of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Since 1995, Allen has been its indefatigable leader. Jamie Saft (here featured on Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, organs, Mellotron) and Trevor Dunn (bass) are both prolific musicians deeply entrenched in the contemporary downtown scene. Bálazs Pándi is the Hungarian drummer who has played with everyone from Ivo Perleman to Wadada Leo Smith to Merzbow to, more recently, Jim Jarmusch. Then, of course, there is the legendary Rowell Rudd. Pándi, Rudd, Dunn and Saft have collaborated before, most notably on their 2016 Strength and Power. In a way, this is two musical worlds colliding – the Chicago/Philadelphia Sun Ra school of the 1960s and the downtown New York school of the 2000s.
This collision works impeccably. The center, somehow, holds. Just listen to the energetic opener “Ioa” or the glitchy astro-blues and incantatory “Spells” and you will get a sense of what I mean. The music is spacey, thanks in large part to Saft’s Ra-inspired keyboard runs and interstellar effects and Marshall’s EVI. It is also tangible and terrestrial (or maybe just planetary) as Thompson’s cavernous baritone and Pándi and Dunn’s rhythmic pulsings ground us in an unknown space (the cover art places us on an eerily jaundiced mountain top) that at times seems bucolic and at others cold and barren. Pándi and Dunn’s noise-rock proclivities serve this ambiguous grounding role particularly well and add some new textures to the polyrhythmic panoply that customarily accompany Allen and Thompson. The front figures, when they do emerge, are the dual saxes (interspersed with some sharp and airy flute) and, when he appears, Rudd. I have seen Allen and Thompson several times over the last few years and am always amazed by this septuagenarian and nonagenarian(!) can still blow fire, even if the years have tempered their conflagratory outbursts. These musicians, however, can also stretch out, settle in, hit strides, and build deeply soulful melodies when given the space.
For his part, Rudd seems more reserved in his playing. (Given his ailing health at the time of recording, this should not come as a surprise.) Still, he maws, moans, and fusillades on “The Summoning” and “Honoring the Heavenly Spirits” (disc 2) and “Rapid Transformation” (disc 3). These three tracks are some of the more traditional pieces on the recording and, in that, three of the most inspired and moving. One gets the sense of tribute (to Ra or Rudd?) as yearning and transformation as drawn-out confusion, of loss and longing as well as progress. “Sacred Authority” evokes seventies Coltrane with a soft, billowing melody. “Goma” is a wonky track with b-movie keyboard effects, pitter-patter percussion, palpitating bass, and sparse but integral horn fanfares of Thompson. Pándi, Saft, and Allen (on his EVI) shine on this track as they convey an anxiety and playfulness that reminds me of the original Lost in Space series. “Amulet” has a similar rhythmic feel but is more active as a collective group improvisation as Allen and Thompson entangle their runs and the rest of the band seethe and roil. A fitting end to a remarkable set of sessions. After all, three hours of introspective, energetic, psychedelic, and simply masterful free improv inspired by Sun Ra at his most out? What more could one ask for?