Recent CDs Briefly Reviewed
Charles Tyler Ensemble
This reissue restores to print one of the classics of 1970s New York loft jazz, made by one of the era’s forgotten masters – alto and baritone saxophonist Charles Tyler. Although grounded in the fire and freedom of 1960s New York avant-garde jazz, Tyler’s music had evolved well beyond it into a distinctive blues-inflected freebop in which composition plays a clearly defined role in performance. Recorded during the Wildflowers festival at Studio RivBea in 1976, the continuous 36 minute performance by Tyler and his quintet featuring frequent collaborators trumpeter Earl Cross, bassists John Ore and Ronnie Boykins, and drummer Steve Reid, is riveting from its opening moments. Every aspect of Tyler’s music is at its absolute peak and this is perhaps Tyler’s finest moment on record.
Tyler, who died in 1992 at the age of 51, left behind a small, but substantial discography. He made an auspicious recording debut on Albert Ayler’s Bells and later appeared on Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice (both on ESP). Although sonic extremes and a kind of abstract folk music quality derived from Ayler’s concepts remained a strong presence in Tyler’s music, he was very much his own man. Tyler built on Ayler’s sonic force and spiritual ecstasy, incorporating Coleman’s blues abstractions and emphasis on melody, as well as Coltrane’s searching spirituality. The result was a personal style that possessed a strong lyrical quality and terrific power. He was never simply a hard blowing free improviser, however, although he certainly did play with extraordinary passion. His own ESP discs display a willingness to explore unique instrumentations and different compositional approaches. Charles Tyler Ensemble (1966) featured a quintet with cellist Joel Friedman, Charles Moffett on vibes, bassist Henry Grimes, and a young Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. On Eastern Man Alone (1967) he fronted a drumerless quartet with a cello and two basses. Voyage from Jericho, a 1974 release on his own AK-BA label, wedded a bop-to-free rhythmic approach to his free-jazz saxophone vocabulary. His working quartet of Cross, Boykins, and Reid – one of the underappreciated bands of the era – is joined by special guest Arthur Blythe on two numbers. Another AK-BA album, Live in Europe (1977), replaces Cross with guitarist Melvin Smith for a date that deserves mention along with Prime Time and Phalanx for incorporating electric guitar into a free jazz context. He also made a little noticed solo album, Sixty-Minute Man on Adelphi. In the early 1980s and was a frequent partner with violinist Billy Bang; in addition to their duo album, Live at Green Space (Amina; 1981), Tyler was on board for Bang’s early ‘80s Soul Note recordings, Rainbow Gladiator and Invitation. After moving to Europe in 1982, Tyler freelanced with various young European groups, but none of the albums he made in that period come close to the fire and brilliance of his 1970s recordings.
Saga of the Outlaws is foremost among those brilliant documents. With uncommon exactness and depth, the music captures equally righteous fury and exuberant joy, a sense of tragedy and triumph, grace in the midst of intense effort. Nothing is played half way. Tyler’s elegant, folk-inflected composition sets this deeply divided emotional tone and does just enough to keep the music focused while allowing improvisational freedom. Everyone in the quintet has a written part, which they use as anchor and touchstone as they play. One of the composition’s many subtitles calls it a “polyphonic sonic drama,” and these parallel written parts help create the polyphony that lends the music its formal structure and emotional ambiguity.
Tyler’s lengthy opening solo is one of those fearless free jazz performances that reaches deep to grab at something dark and disturbing, a hard truth, and returns with something beautiful and true. He plunges headlong into it – the momentum is startling—but his phrases link together in an irresistible chain. Tyler often hovers in the alto’s midrange, which throws his low and high notes into high relief and gives them maximum emotional impact. His tone is autumnal – regal gravitas tinged with sadness and loss – with an anxious high edge layered over darker indigo timbres. It conveys a spectrum of feelings just by dint of its complexity. Trumpeter Cross is a more economical, less volatile player, who leaves space in which the bassists and drummer can maneuver around his lines. His tone has a dark patina that gives his improvisations a reserved, mysterious quality, but his sudden flares into a sizzling high register bespeak suppressed intensities.
Tyler placed special demands on drummer Reid and bassists Ore and Boykins. He clearly was looking for them to supply a maximum of rhythmic tension, drive, and melodic counterpoint. But they also needed to simultaneously follow the dictates of the composition and flow in whatever directions the soloists might take the music. They fulfill his designs in every respect. The album is worth a listen just focusing on the ways Ore and Boykins work together, the way they fill the space, play with the rhythms, create tension and release and modulate effortlessly with the course of the music. Reid performs heroically as well, with a powerful approach that matches and challenges Tyler and a balance between free pulse and swing that perfectly complements Tyler’s concept. Reid and Tyler were one of the great saxophone and drum combinations of the day.
In the wake of the 1960s jazz revolution and the Black Arts Movement, some of the best African American jazz went hand-in-hand with an alternative cultural mythology. Saga of the Outlaws seems to be an outgrowth of this movement; its cultural agenda is as ambitious and fully developed as its musical agenda. The full title of the CD – Saga of the Outlaws: Ride of the Marauders. A polyphonic sonic drama Performed by the Charles Tyler Ensemble. A Tale of the old and new West – gives some indication of those ambitions. It grows a bit unwieldy, but it indicates Tyler’s interest in appropriating the outlaw mythology of the American West and absorbing it into the African American experience. The conflation of the old and the new West, creates parallels between the outcasts of the nineteenth-century white conquest of North America and outcasts of the white power structure of the day. It’s a less strident political statement than many, with a touch of ironic humor, yet it adds another dimension to an already impressive musical achievement. Essential music.