Roswell Rudd, the Honker of Kerhonkson

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 11.19.13 in Spotlights

Trombonist Roswell Rudd wasn’t always as ubiquitous as he is now. After making a big splash in the 1960s and ’70s, he dropped out of jazz for a decade. Family obligations kept him close to home in the Catskills, where he worked in a show band at a resort in too-perfectly-named Kerhonkson.

“Did the people who hired you at the resort you know who you were?” he was once asked.

“I’d just about forgotten myself.”

We had that exchange in the mid ’90s, when he was just re-emerging, touched and invigorated by all the fuss from fans and musicians on two continents. There’s a reason people missed him: Rudd may be wildly experimental, but he’s a populist at heart, having graduated from collegiate Dixieland to become one of the trombonists on the exploding 1960s free jazz scene. (Both styles are about collective improvising, after all.) He recorded with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, John Tchicai, the Jazz Composers Orchestra and more, and co-led a pianoless Monk-repertory quartet with Steve Lacy.

His sound is so broad and open, so alive with ringing-metal overtones that it sings out no matter what the shape of the melody line. He has enormous presence and a Dixie trombonist’s faith in the big gesture. Rudd can belt out a melody with great authority, with or without a plunger mute. Hear him on the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. (It was arranged by Carla Bley, who’d tap the trombonist for her own projects where he could showcase her melodies and vice versa.) That early jazz/field holler shout is in there, but Rudd also loved the liquid tone of Woody Herman star Bill Harris. He named his own first album for Harris’s tune “Everywhere.”

Rudd’s new Trombone For Lovers is a trip down memory lane, but not to all that good stuff. It’s mostly pop melodies that got stuck in his ear through the years, and some you might not think of as trombone vehicles: “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Green Onions,” Santo and Johnny’s atmospheric instrumental hit “Sleepwalk.” (That one makes sense, actually — steel guitar is the string family’s slide trombone.) Roswell the melodist loves singers, and invited a few, including veteran song stylist Bob Dorough, in froggy late-career voice for a wiggy “Here, There and Everywhere,” and Fay Victor, a wide-ranging New Yorker more hipsters should be hip to, belting the blues on “Trouble in Mind.”

The core-tet’s built around Rudd’s Hudson Valley neighbor John Medeski on boogaloo organ; they’d been informally jamming and get a good groove on here. (Richard Hammond’s on basses, Aaron Comess on drums.) Guests drop by, like Steve Bernstein (four tracks) on slide trumpet, trombone’s helium-voiced twin; they act out Frank Loesser’s duet for braided voices “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and play Mr. Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.” There are also three trios with jazzgrass picker Rolf Sturm and Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet, notably “September Song.” The old union-organizing song “Joe Hill” gets expanded into a suite featuring a rather ragged-sounding New York City Labor Chorus. And a rapper, Reggie Bennett.

Rudd has a yen to play it all, and in this century he’s indulged that impulse like jazz’s Yo-Yo Ma, aided by his partner, jazz and world music producer Verna Gillis. He played with traditional Mongolian musicians and singers on Blue Mongol and with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate’s ensemble on Malicool. Those recordings are intriguing but uneven, more about surfaces than plumbing the depths, given the short time the players had to interact. “Malijam,” where Rudd mixes “Ode to Joy” with wrong notes and corny quotes sounds a little self-mocking in context.

Rudd and his collaborators sound more comfortable on El Espiritu Jibaro, co-led by Puerto Rican cuatro (10-string guitar) master Yomo Toro, who passed away in 2012. They’re backed by drummer Bobby Sanabria’s Latin band, the kind of outfit that can always use another battering-ram trombone. (Compare the version of “Bamako” here with one on Malicool.) The Bronx isn’t right in Roswell’s back yard, but you can just about see it from the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Roswell’s recent globalism was prefigured by his appearance on a little remembered 1976 masterwork whose praises I’ve sung forever, Italian bassist Marcello Melis’s New Village on the Left. On that record, a jazz quartet both reacts to and is woven into extant recordings by one of Sardinia’s astonishing vocal quartets, with their nasal, intensely rhythmic harmonizing. On trumpet was Enrico Rava, who shares Rudd’s rough lyricism, melodic bent and opulent sound. They also teamed up for Roswell’s OK Inside Job the same month, and an overlooked gem of the ECM catalog two years later, the lyrical and blustery Enrico Rava Quartet.

In that same period, Rudd also memorably reunited with Steve Lacy on 1976′s Trickles, where the combination of vocalized trombone and Steve’s soft, low-register soprano is goosebump-inducing (and Kent Carter and Beaver Harris are a great rhythm tandem). They met up again on 1982′s boisterously tight Regeneration — half Monk tunes, half by Roswell’s old friend Herbie Nichols — with Carter again on bass, Monk and Nichols enthusiast Misha Mengelberg on piano, and Misha’s fellow Dutch merrymaker Han Bennink on drums. It was Roswell’s last studio date for 11 years.

Now that he’s back, it’s not so important what he plays as long as we get to hear him. I’d say he could perform the phone book and sound good, if he hadn’t pretty much done it already: On 2011′s The Incredible Honk he plays and Sunny Kim sings a shoutout to neighbors, artists, professionals and businesses in the greater Kerhonkson area. No place like home, they say.