a column by
Reggie Workman, Jazz Festival Ljubljana Nada Zgank©2009
Often, the map is misleading: the scale is off; side streets and small squares are missing; the church you think you’re staring at is actually further up the hill. Still, you still get around; more importantly, you learn that the map is to be interpreted, not followed literally. The interpretative approach to one map is unlikely transferable to the next; however, the knowledge that maps are generally less than exact and comprehensive is a first step in the right direction of your destination.
The map I picked up at the Hotel Lev to navigate the Slovenian capitol during the Golden Jubilee of Jazz Festival Ljubljana was pretty good on some counts. At first, I thought it understated landmarks like the Parliament building; that is, until I realized that, due to its unassuming design and a police presence consisting of one officer escaping the heat under a tree at the corner of the adjacent green space, I had been passing it for two days.
Some of a map’s shortcomings, however, only become apparent when consulted retrospectively, and are more vexing as a result. Even now, I can only guess the location of the alley a few blocks from the Križanke ampitheater where, among galleries and shops, there is a stark, unsettling sculpture utilizing an unexploded bomb from WW II. Ljubljana-based journalist Andrej Predin took me there on our way to the festival-closing evening of John Zorn-directed improvisations and compositions. I would have never found it on my own. It may be the blank space with the Archeological Site icon, or it may not.
Throughout the week, my map was repeatedly entangled with CDs. One morning, a few were scattered on the map as I worked at the desk in the hotel room. Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings album blotted out what was south and east of the Ljubljana River. Two discs by Die Enttäuschung covered the railway station. Twice, I pulled the map out of my bag only to have a CD come with it; embedded in the fold between RTVS, the national radio and television headquarters (their high-octane big band nailed Paquito D’Rivera’s charts), and the Metelkova, the arts enclave where Roscoe Mitchell’s Quartet and Powerhouse Sound shared an outdoors double bill – Rob Brown’s newest Not Two trio album, which I picked up at the label’s concession at the Križanke and, on the last day of the festival, a Steve Lacy-inspired project by Zlatko Kaučič (the Slovenian percussionist proved to be an impressively resourceful improviser in a duo set with Evan Parker; with the exception of conventional cymbals, he exclusively used “little instruments”).
The CDs were like untenably oversized pop-up monument icons; it reinforced my view that our media-driven culture monumentalizes recordings to an arguably unhealthy degree. Like maps, recordings only get you so far. To really get to the heart of jazz and improvised music, you need guides, people who know. A musician particularly needs an updated Dante’s Virgil, who can shield them from the unctuous evils of the lower circles and crown him or her “Lord of Yourself” at the purgatorial summit. They’re rarer than you think. Even back in the day, there was only one Art Blakey. There’s no surplus of such guides, now.
But, then there’s Reggie Workman.
The bassist was in Ljubljana with Statements, an ostensibly cooperative quintet that Workman nevertheless leads more vitally than suggested by terms like “figurehead.” This strikingly diverse ensemble is comprised of musicians Workman first encountered at early stages of their matriculation. Drummer Gerry Hemingway has now worked occasionally with Workman for nearly twenty years; while Hemingway had led or co-led several recordings and was a good half-dozen years into his tenure with Anthony Braxton’s quartets, his first recordings with Workman – the bassist’s Images (1990; Music & Arts) and pianist Marilyn Crispell’s Circles (1991; Victo) – were prior to Hemingway’s pivotal, if not defining quintet albums for hat ART. Pianist Yayoi Ikawa met Workman while she was a student at the New School University, where Workman is a professor; after a clinic at the Jazzinty Summer Music Workshop in Novo Mesto, Slovenia, Workman recommended that saxophonist Lenart Krečič continue his studies at the New School. Slovenia is also where Workman was introduced to guitarist and oud player Igor Bezget, who freely moves between regional jazz and world music circles.
Tellingly, Workman’s role is well-represented by how Statements configured themselves on the Križanke stage, a wide arch with Workman as its keystone. Throughout the set, the musicians looked to Workman, but he did little that could be construed as a cue. Undoubtedly, each of Workman’s cohorts would attest that Workman’s guidance has been real; but it seems to have largely run its course if the goal was a collectively derived sound. Statements’ distinctive sound was already largely in place when they recorded their eponymous Sensor debut in 2004. On the basis of their Jazz Festival Ljubljana performance, however, there has been discernable refinement in how the musicians embellish and dovetail each other, yet leave enough breathing space for every detail to be heard. On Workman’s “Current,” Krečič, who studied with Workman’s Great Friends colleague Billy Harper at the New School, displayed a Harper-like sureness in nailing pick-up phrases, ending a fulminating rubato and guiding the ensemble back to the theme. At other points throughout the set, the others function similarly, steering the ensemble to the next level of interplay, where continuity is obtained through rapport instead of the charts. Like maps, charts can only get you so far.
Additionally, Bezget, Ikawa and Krečič have become formidable soloists. As sleek and searing as his electric guitar work has become, Bezget’s oud playing is even more impressive, as it retains a folkloric gravity regardless of the materials at hand. The promise of Ikawa’s playing on the Statements CD and the multi-faceted Color of Dreams, her 2004 self-produced trio date with Tyshawn Sorey and Jim Robertson, has been realized. The same holds true for Krečič. It is these three artists stepping into their own that gives Workman’s guidance of Statements part of its Virgilian stature.
Statements can also be viewed within the context of Workman’s broader activism over roughly 50 years. This begs a comparison. The Ljubljana festival’s Golden Anniversary was given its due by the national media. RTVS had the remote trucks at the Križanke for D’Rivera’s set with the house band; they also broadcasted a lengthy news package, including interview clips with Pino Minafra and Louis Moholo-Moholo (they collaborated on a Viva La Black project that included Keith and Julie Tippetts and the trumpeter’s big band with Carlo Actis Dato, Roberto Ottaviano and other blue-chip Southern Italian musicians), which was followed by an even longer interview with festival producer Bogdan Benigar. The festival was all over the papers. It was well-deserved recognition.
Still, Jazz Festival Ljubljana was in its infancy when Workman first barnstormed Europe as part of the ground-shifting John Coltrane quintet with Eric Dolphy in November 1961, immediately after the historic Village Vanguard stand. Workman was already on the case to improve working conditions for musicians and to create outlets for musicians to present their music on their own terms. Early on, Workman, Lee Morgan and others formed an ad hoc group that persuaded tavern owners in the Germantown section of Philadelphia to present live jazz; they cleared bandstand space, brought in pianos and got the word out into the community. After he settled in New York, Workman and other bassists worked with recording studios to ensure that every house had a proper bass amp. In 1970, Workman co-founded Collective Black Artists, whose ambitious pedagogical agenda included music business education, and whose critique of a destructively manipulative jazz industry still rings true today.
These early experiences in building community offer at least a partial explanation for why collective ensembles figure so large in Workman’s discography. The implicit bias against bassist leaders notwithstanding, it is strange that someone who not only played on Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, but also on such landmark Blue Note recordings as Morgan’s Search for the New Land and Blakey’s Free for All (the LP Joe Lovano clutched for a recent Down Beat cover, celebrating the label’s 70th birthday), has solely led a relatively small number of recordings. Workman’s cooperative units like Great Friends (which, in addition to Harper, included Stanley Cowell, Sonny Fortune and Billy Hart) and Trio 3 (with Andrew Cyrille and Oliver Lake) do not simply compensate for this in terms of raw numbers; they affirm Workman’s activist commitment to the collective. When Postcards approached him to lead a date in ’93, Workman opted to launch Summit Conference with Sam Rivers, Julian Priester, Andrew Hill and Pheeroan akLaff.
Arguably, Workman’s most ambitious project to date has been Sculptured Sounds, a presenting concern he co-founded with Francina Connors. In February 2007, Sculptured Sounds presented a month-long series of concerts at St. Peter’s Church in New York. While the series included ensembles like BassDrumBone, Charles Gayle’s trio and Rashied Ali’s quintet, the bulk of the programming featured Workman in mostly collective settings: Brew, with Hemingway and koto player Miya Masaoka, Ashante’s Message, a quintet including Ikawa and multi-instrumentalist JD Parran, and Great Friends. Workman also directed the newest edition of his Ensemble, which included singer Leena Conquest and poet Amiri Baraka, and The African-American Legacy Project, a Charles Tolliver-conducted orchestra with CBA stalwarts like Cowell, Harper and trumpeter Jimmy Owens, replete with a 12-voice chorus. Sculptured Sounds then presented monthly concerts at Twins in Washington, DC, throughout the second half of the year; gigs by Gayle, Hart, Trio 3 and Tolliver’s Music Inc. represented a serious upgrade for DC’s normally sleepy club scene.
Sculptured Sounds was not immune from the downturn in the economy, and is currently dormant. Yet, Workman is undeterred as an artist and as an activist. Good thing; jazz needs his example and guidance now more than ever.