JJ 01/91: Tomorrow Is Now

Thirty years ago Barry McRae took issue with those who thought contemporary jazz had become anonymous, citing as evidence of singularity Steve Coleman, Gary Thomas, Kenny Garrett and others. First published in Jazz Journal January 1991

Gary Thomas

Change The Guard*
One regret that continually emerges in jazz society discussions is that the JATP circus should have come to an end and also, by inference, that the circumstances that sired it should have changed so much. The claim is made that astylistic giants such as Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims and Roy Eldridge no longer stalk the jazz ways and that much of contemporary jazz is anonymous.

It is only with the last point that I wish to take issue. In last month’s TIN we looked at the need for today’s players to be at home in various musical environments. To do this, it is imperative that their core style is secure and that it is very much their own. It follows naturally that in both their com­positions and performance they are identi­fiable to anyone conversant with contem­porary forms. Recent events in London have made it possible for us to look closely at some of the younger tigers who are cap­turing for themselves a large piece of the jazz action, while establishing themselves as potential ‘stylists’ of the future.

The excellent Jazz Lunarcy concert series in November not only presented a much revitalised Sun Ra Arkestra but also showcased young saxophonists Steve Cole­man and Gary Thomas. Coleman was with his Five Elements and he presented the funk jazz end of his very varied world. His concert at the Hackney Empire was more of a jam session than previous appearances and recordings had led us to expect and it was certainly some distance from the more organised atmosphere of the recent Rhythm People (1) album. There were, however, the same rap elements proclaim­ing the ‘scat of the nineties’, there were solos from David Gilmore’s articulate guitar and James Weidman’s flowing piano but, above all else, there was Coleman’s assertive alto. The inspiration might once have been Ornette Coleman but he has moved on and is now a distinctive individual.

At Hackney his free-flowing alto line flo­ated effortlessly on the funky collective beneath it and it took its rhythmic impetus from an inner wellspring rather than from the insistently obvious back beat on stage with it. The strength of his style fitted the heavy wash of the funk canvas ideally but it was no different in essence from what we hear in his more straightahead work with the likes of the Dave Holland quartet. His playing on Processional (2) with Holland is as easily identified as the Steve Coleman in Five Elements as would be the work of Benny Carter in a big band or combo set­ting. This is a performance that is about personal ‘style’ and it is one that is very much Steve Coleman’s.

Gary Thomas, at the Half Moon Theatre in London’s Mile End, paraded somewhat different talents. He had in Junko Onishi a fine, attacking pianist and in bassist Ed Howard and drummer Adrian Green a rhythm section that handled the funk grin­ders as effectively as the more orthodox swingers. Thomas had taken the ear with Jack DeJohnette’s band at the 1987 Brack­nell Festival but this was his own group and he has put his musical brand firmly on it. His Seventh Quadrant exhibited a consid­erable, collective awareness and in the course of an interview he told JJI’s Mark Gilbert that he was a sci-fi addict. This was reflected in some of the ‘outer space’ tex­tures that he introduced into the fabric of the group’s sound and it also attended his own forward-looking tenor work. In this area his delivery is heavy but the style is accessible as well as highly distinctive and he adds to his musical armaments a similar authority on flute.

London’s Bass Clef club gave us another newcomer to appraise at first hand when it brought in the mercurial talents of Vincent Herring. A former New York busker, he had something of Black Arthur’s street­wise bluster in a playing method that spoke of John Coltrane’s dry-toned majesty in the same voice as it did the loose-gaited stroll of the r&b bluesers. He was fluent on soprano but it was his alto, aided by the raunchy rhythm team of bassist James Genus and whiplash drummer Yoron Israel, that communicated the fiercely aggressive ‘beyond hard bop’ message and brought a sense of logic to a busker’s natu­ral audacity.

Kenny Garrett: an extremely individualis­tic saxophonist. His speed of execution is daunting, he has a most appealing, yet strangely sour tone and he thinks well ahead.

Another previous visitor to the UK and an important player in the nineties bebop field is Kenny Garrett. One time Messen­ger, the Detroit-born altoist has made his mark as a sideman under various leaders. He is, however, an extremely individualis­tic saxophonist. His speed of execution is daunting, he has a most appealing, yet strangely sour tone and he thinks well ahead. Inevitably it is easier to be a ‘stylist’ in one’s own group and with one’s own choice of material. His excellent sextet Garrett Five (3) was evidence enough of that fact but the way in which his flute gave shape, tempo and elegance to someone else’s group on a title such as Change Of Pace (4) provided perfect confirmation of that authority.

Another natural for the nineties bebop tag is Christopher Hollyday. As yet not quite in the league of the above players (I enjoy jazz FM but rarely agree with their critical prognostications), he is, neverthe­less, already producing good records. The first I heard announced a genuine embryo talent but On Course (5), recorded one year later, demonstrated a considerable leap forward in terms of maturity and towards a personal identity. Taking Charlie Parker and Jackie McLean as his inspiration was admirable; now he has only to stretch that concept to become his own man.

Bebop provides the starting point for many young players, but the undoubtedly talented Harry Allen, recently impressive at London’s Pizza Express, illustrates the opposite standpoint. In choosing to play in the manner of the swing era giants, this young man has trapped himself in a stylistic cul-de-sac. He has set himself on a path that can only take him into a style belong­ing to someone else.

One could certainly not imagine him in some mythical JATP of 1991 in the com­pany of men such as Coleman, Herring, Thomas or Garrett. This quartet of perfor­mers have already established recognisable styles and have a real chance to be amongst the stylists of tomorrow’s jazz. They are certainly as easily identified by their peers as were Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Willie Smith by an earlier generation.

(1) Steve Coleman: Rhythm People (Novus PD83092)
(2) Dave Holland: Extensions (ECM 1410 841 778-2)
(3) Kenny Garrett: Garrett Five (Paddlewheel K28P 6494)
(4) Tom Harrell: Moon Alley (Criss Cross Jazz 1018)
(5) Christopher Hollyday: On Course (Novus PD83087)

*Steve Coleman: On The Edge Of Tomorrow (J MT 860005)