Quiet Storm: New York Art Quartet made free jazz without noise.

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In the summer of 1999, Sonic Youth shared a bill with New York Art Quartet, a free jazz outfit that hadn’t played a show since its breakup in 1966. The reunion was brief—one concert and one album. But it served as a reminder that, at least once upon a time, there was a difference between freedom and noise. Led by alto saxophonist John Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd, the short-lived group eschewed bluster in favor of a quieter, more reserved approach to free-form exploration. How quiet? How reserved? Let’s just say that New York Art Quartet’s cover of the Thelonious Monk ballad “Pannonica,” as heard on Old Stuff, a new collection of European radio broadcasts released by the local Cuneiform label, is hardly a radical selection. Which is not to say that the band plays it straight. The multinational rhythm section, made up of Danish bassist Finn von Eyben and South African drummer Louis Moholo, situates itself just behind the beat, offering more ambience than pulse. And, though several of his subsequent projects suggest an authoritative interest in Monk, Rudd is equally impressionistic. Only Tchicai sticks to the melody, which he delivers with reverent lyricism. This might come as a surprise to those who know the Dane only as a sideman on John Coltrane’s Ascension, one of the wildest and woolliest examples of mid-’60s jazz. The music on Old Stuff, by contrast, is full of catchy motifs and melodic interplay. On the title track, Tchicai and Rudd play a stop-start riff reminiscent of ’50s hard bop. What makes this genuine free jazz, aside from the occasional squawk, is the scrappy, do-it-yourself spirit of the performance. Moholo, in particular, seems caught between eras, unsure whether to swing or play without regard to time signature. According to new disc’s liner notes, Moholo, who, along with von Eyben, was filling in for an absent member, had recorded very little and had never made a free jazz recording before these 1965 broadcasts. And yet, rather than detract from the New York Art Quartet’s essence, the drummer’s presence reinforced the liminal nature of this band. Neither inside nor out, neither American nor European, neither polished nor chaotic, New York Art Quartet was one of the few bands of its era to really take freedom to heart.