Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
The Breath Courses Through Us: A Curtain Call for the New York Art Quartet
were arguably the original super group of free jazz. They formed in 1964 and
disbanded in 1965, yet they still had turnover on the bass. Eventually, Reggie Workman settled into the
role and would return for their special anniversary tour. Despite the brevity
of their tenure together, the New York Art Quartet remains enormously
influential. Alan Roth documents their history and triumphant reunion in The Breath Courses Through Us (trailer here), which has its
American premiere this Friday at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
all started when Congolese-Danish alto-saxophonist John Tchicai met trombonist
Roswell Rudd. Both musicians were exploring the creatively disruptive
innovations of Cecil Taylor, recognizing each other as kindred spirits. The
next piece of the puzzle was Milford Graves, a former Latin percussion
specialist, who had reoriented his perspective on the drums after hearing Elvin
Jones. As the New York Art Quartet, they recorded their instantly recognizable
eponymous ESP release with Bernie Worrell on bass, bringing Workman on board
for Mohawk the following year.
is usually the case in jazz, the Quartet was short lived, precisely because it was
just five minutes ahead of its time. At the time, they were consciously challenging
traditional notions of melody, harmony, and rhythm, yet to contemporary ears
they do not sound nearly as radical as much of the subsequent free music they
blazed a trail for.
using WKCR’s Ben Young as the expert commentator, Roth lucidly establishes the
Quartet’s musical significance, placing them in the context of their era. We
hear from all four musicians at length, all of whom are earnest and reflective
about the music they made. However, there is no question Graves is a uniquely
spirited and charismatic interview subject. His reminiscences are the sort of
gift documentarians only dream of.
course, there is also plenty of straight-up music. Indeed, Roth has a nice
editorial ear, selecting performances that illustrate the Quartet’s
considerable technique. Watching Breath should
dispel any uncharitable notions that they embraced freer forms because they
could not adequately swing. After all, Rudd started off playing Dixieland and
Workman recorded with just about everybody, including Art Blakey, Grant Green,
and John Coltrane. At one point, Tchicai even played with a band inspired by
Miles Davis’ electric period. The late controversial poet Amiri Baraka also
joins the Quartet for some spoken word contributions. Roth wisely opts for his
more benign pronouncements, but his interludes are still the only part of their
reunion concert that sound dated.
To borrow terminology from Downbeat magazine, it is always great musicians get their overdue
ovation. Breath should lead to
greater appreciation of the New York Art Quartet, even among viewers not deeply
steeped in the free jazz aesthetic. Recommended for open ears, The Breath Courses Through Us screens
this Friday (1/31) at the Library of Congress, with a New York premiere in the
Labels: Documentary, New York Art Quartet