How ironic that jazz, which Duke Ellington once defined as “freedom of expression” and which has seamlessly absorbed any number of global musics throughout its history, now suffers from a kind of aural xenophobia. Critics and radio programmers in particular have been patrolling its borders and aiming their rifles at anything veering ever so slightly from attractive, tried and true giants such as Ella, Duke, and (pre-electric) Miles. Some even go so far as to steadfastly define what is and what is not jazz, thereby keeping the world safe for folks like you and me.
Fortunately, the music continues to explore and fuse (I dare use that term) its already rich language with old and new expressions from the global village. Meanwhile, the aforementioned tastemakers nostalgically seek the next literal incarnation of 52nd Street—forgetting what the great bop-era drummer Max Roach once opined, when asked about the possibility of there being another Charlie Parker: “Michael Jordan was Charlie Parker.”
If you can wrap your mind around Roach’s koan, then Equal Interest’s approach might be worth your while. Sure, you could spend more than a few hours arguing whether the newly released CD is (or is not) “jazz,” but to do so would rob you of time you might otherwise spend reveling in the collection’s eight sublime, dramatic, and—yes—swinging titles.
Equal Interest comprises former Art Ensemble of Chicago reedman Joseph Jarman, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and Myra Melford on piano and harmonium. The music, as the CD packaging explains, fuses jazz, blues, classical, and folk music. But before unwrapping the collection, it’s important to remember that these genre flags don’t tell you any more about the music than the term “jazz” tells you what something sounds like these days.
Yet, taken on their own terms, the balance of Equal Interest’s titles—three by Melford, two by Jenkins, and two by Buddhist priest Jarman—deftly illustrate each player’s knowledge of the “jazz tradition,” among others. The difference in this ensemble’s approach—as opposed to, say, any number of aggregations heard on jazz radio—is that it consistently heeds saxophonist Lester Young’s dictum: “You got to be original, man.”
Originality and passion are especially evident throughout Melford’s “Over This/Living Music,” whose terse, semitense staccato theme highlights Jarman’s pale, attractive flute, Jenkins’ plaintive but not maudlin violin work, and the composer’s tasteful piano accompaniment. Following the theme, Jarman’s tumbling, speechlike solo works its way over Jenkins’ and Melford’s comping like water moving around rocks in a riverbed. And though Melford’s solo would be considered out-there by some, her skittering, octave-leaping foray betrays the influences of great blues players like Jimmy Yancey and Otis Spann. There’s even a hint of stride.
Jenkins also steers toward the blues on “B’Pale Night,” which, like “Over This,” furnishes an attractive theme, the amber-toned lyricism of Jarman’s alto saxophone, and the composer’s upper-register testimonies. Once again, a funky, questing Melford provides an attractive “bottom” and an additional cosmos-bound voice.
Still, although the members of Equal Interest have chops as formidable as anyone Wynton Marsalis ever played with, this is not an “alternative” version of the theme-solos-back-to-theme stuff that jazz radio so bloodlessly spits out. Titles such as Jarman’s “Rondo for Jenny” and Melford’s “Everything Today” boast compelling motifs that segue gracefully into the solos, bringing to mind the credo of Weather Report: “We always solo and we never solo.”
But for all the brilliance found in Equal Interest’s originals, the trio reaches its peak during the traditional Armenian tune “Apricots From Eden”—which spotlights romantic work by Jenkins, Jarman’s lithe hand-drum stylings, and Melford’s harmonium, and which alternates between melodic sighs during Jenkins’ initial foray and more spirited accompaniment as the tempo gallops—no, swings—to a conclusion. In a more perfect world, radio would at least give “Apricots” a spin, and maybe I’m being too cynical in assuming that it won’t—somewhere. But don’t wait for that miracle to occur before giving Equal Interest a listen. Or, to quote a Buddhist affirmation: “Do not waste your life.” CP