For the last 6 months, I’ve been vacillating somewhere between mild interest and complete obsession with the idea of how social structures are acted upon in improvisation.  By social structure I mean the way that a group of people operate together, specifically when they are working towards a common goal like a piece of music.  The act of improvising is often elevated by the well-intentioned proselytizer to a very specific and consistent type of social structure: pure democracy.  I grew up with that notion; jazz as the true American art form, not only historically, but politically, the only music that gives everyone an equal opportunity to be heard in all situations.  While the typical western orchestra may be denounced by these same people as despotic or totalitarian, owing to its reliance on the conductor and the composer to create and direct the music, improvisation is often put forth as the town hall meeting form of democracy…all people having a well-considered and rational voice in all decisions.  In this sense, improvisation is posited as a utopian art practice.

 And, after years of experiencing everything from long standing duos to one-off large group performances, I can say that the idea of improvisation as the democratic ideal is truly utopian, in the way that the word utopian refers to an unrealistic scheme to possess idealized perfection.  A more realistic way to view the improvisational practice in terms of the way it is acted out in different social groupings is to see it as innately human.  It is no more about 4 people sitting in a room sharing equally of themselves to an audience than a town hall meeting is in reality.  Typically in both scenarios, based on the personalities in the room, someone will take charge, someone will feel slighted, someone will say nothing and hide in the shadows (just as three possible examples).  There will be a power struggle, either obvious or just below the surface.  Alliances will be made and may shift as the needs of the participants change.  This may sound cynical, but the fact of the matter is that music…improvisation…art is a human endeavor, and that often means conflict, disappointment, boredom, and simple incompatibility.

 It’s this realization about the nature of humans improvising together that makes my experience with RED trio that much more fulfilling.  Becoming part of a band for a short period of time, either as a sub for a missing member or as a guest (as I’m doing here) is not an uncommon practice amongst improvisers, quite the contrary, but rarely are you allowed to have the experience I have had (and continue to have) with Rodrigo, Hernani, and Gabriel.

 I literally met RED onstage at the 2010 Clean Feed Festival in New York.  I had not been able to get to the show before the first act started and ended up standing in the back watching Ivo Perelman and speculating as to who I would be playing with that evening.  We hurried about getting set up after Ivo’s set and broke the cardinal rule of shaking hands and introducing ourselves to each other in front of the audience.  Supposedly, the patrons are never supposed to know that the band has met minutes before playing the hour of music they, as an audience, paid to see.  I can understand the rule, as often when you play in this situation, it does sound like you just met minutes before.  The set in such situations is often full of dead ends or people being too careful in feeling out each other’s language.  Often, my cynical view of human interaction is amplified in this situation as everyone hangs on to what they know best and becomes more individual to the detriment of the group.  Toes get trampled, bold musical statements get ignored, and often the last thing that gets made is music.

 Not the case with RED.  A few words of friendly greetings were uttered by everyone and then we hit….and I don’t use the word hit because I’m a jazz hipster…I use it because what came off of the stage that night was four voices formed into an angry fucking fist.  There were no moments of indecision, no question of when someone was leading and when they were stepping back into texture, and most of all, no let up in energy.  One of my good friends, Paul Lytton, describes a “successful” improvising performance as one in which a certain amount of energy that he has reserved is completely used up, tapped out.  I count this performance with the trio as one of my most powerful personal illustrations of that idea.  I packed my horn up after we finished and only then realized that I was soaking in sweat and that both top and bottom lips were visibly pulsating with each heartbeat.

 This kind of performance would almost surely spell disaster for the second performance, let alone a studio recording, but the thing about RED is that it is one of those rare groups that have found a way to have a very specific group sound and dynamic made up of three highly individualistic musical personalities.  Not only that, but  they can maintain this already difficult balance while folding in yet another highly individual musical personality, engulfing their guest’s music and allowing the trio to organically change into something different completely, but equally powerful, persuasive and personal.  This is true of their release, Empire, featuring John Butcher, and the recording you are presently listening to goes a long way towards strengthening this reputation even more.

 As a group, I have a great deal of respect for RED trio and, as musicians and human beings I have a great deal of respect for Gabriel, Hernani, and Rodrigo.  We’ve spent time together playing, talking, laughing, drinking, and eating since that first concert, and I look forward to more chances to be a part of something much greater than RED trio plus Nate Wooley.  The music on this disc already represents a stretching of the cloth that makes up our newly shared quartet language.  By the time this comes out, we will have had a chance for more live performances and the cloth will stretch further…something I’m excited about experiencing.  There are some recordings where you can hear development.  The process and language is laid bare and you can perceive the social structure at work, and this record is one of those truly rare and beautiful experiences to me.

 Is it truly democratic?

Pretty close, but probably not.

 Is it truly human?

Yes, in the best possible way.

 Nate Wooley 2012


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