New York Art Quartet Documentary Premieres In New York
During a Q&A session after the first New York screening of The Breath Courses Through Us—a documentary by director Alan Roth about the New York Art Quartet—trombonist Roswell Rudd made a sage comment about the primal, communal qualities of the free-jazz style that his band and others pioneered in the 1960s: “It goes back to the earliest music.”
“It was everyone relating to each other by sound and sight, listening and getting into the music as deep as you could get,” said Rudd, 78, who co-founded the New York Art Quartet along with drummer Milford Graves (also in attendance at the screening) and the late saxophonist John Tchicai.
The 75-minute film’s New York premiere took place May 18 at Anthology Film Archives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (The U.S. premiere took place in January at the Library of Congress, while the world premiere happened last year in France). The one-time screening drew a sizable, talent-filled audience, with such jazz figures as bassist William Parker and saxophonists Scott Robinson and Tim Berne in the crowd.
The heart of The Breath Courses Through Us comes from scenes of the New York Art Quartet’s 35-year reunion in 1999 to perform a concert in Manhattan. Having not seen much of each other in many years, the core band of Rudd, Graves, Tchicai and frequent bassist Reggie Workman break bread together along with kindred-spirit poet Amiri Baraka, who often performed with the group. There are hugs all-around as well as impish humor—usually from Baraka, who repeatedly teases the younger Workman for being old, “so old he played with Coltrane, that’s how old he is.” The bassist gets in a bon mot, too; when someone asks what Sonic Youth sounds like—the iconic avant-rock band was headlining the bill after the New York Art Quartet reunion performance—Workman says, “Like Con Ed personified.”
Along with warmth, humor and musical telepathy, there’s also a bit of tension caught by the camera. Tchicai—who decamped back to his native Denmark, effectively ending the band in the mid-’60s—states that the reunion couldn’t go far for him unless the band incorporated composed material along with free improvisation. Graves replied that he didn’t want to be constrained by anything too preordained. (The reunion didn’t last beyond the 2000–’01 shows in Lisbon and Paris.)
Along with a reissue of the group’s eponymous 1964 album on ESP and a live album from the New York reunion show on the Japanese label DIW, there have been subsequent archival releases, including a deluxe five-LP boxed set, Call It Art (Triple Point Records).
Despite an apparent influence on bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the New York Art Quartet’s slim discography has led to a low profile in posterity—and the film, though thoroughly enjoyable, was perhaps only partially successful in righting that arguable wrong, even with jazz historian Ben Young of WKCR providing apt context.
The personalities came across more strongly than the music, the men each soulful and deep-thinking, quirks and all. The late Baraka appears as both philosopher and jester for the band, underscoring his inspirations in Dada as well as the revolutionary spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. He reprises his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” with the band for the New York concert and talks about free-jazz as a mirror for the impulse to freedom among African-Americans and the ’60s culture at large.
Graves is a polyrhythmic marvel in the concert footage, creating a powerful undertow for the band along with Workman’s earth-toned bass. The drummer, now 72, talks about his roots in the Latin music he heard growing up in Queens, and the camera follows him to his basement so that he can show off contraptions relating to his experiments with rhythm and acupuncture. (He talked more about those at length in the post-screening Q&A.)
Rudd, whose trombone was the band’s coloristic element, discusses his initial love of swing and New Orleans styles before being taken by the wave of freedom in jazz led by the likes of John Coltrane.
Tchicai’s sax is the band’s lyrical voice, and he again plays the dissenter by noting that the band’s free flights “didn’t always sound good, but that’s the chance you take.”
Before the screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, there was a 50th-anniversary showing of New York Eye and Ear Control a/k/a Walking Woman, an experimental film by Michael Snow. The soundtrack album associated with the film—performed by Tchicai, Rudd, saxophonist Albert Ayler, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray—is a missing link among the era’s landmarks of collective free improvisation, a less celebrated counterpart to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and Coltrane’s Ascension.
The film itself, though, is nearly unbearable, a mostly static, silent collection of black-and-white images of water and trees and a cutout silhouette of a woman placed pretentiously in various locales. The only interesting thing about the silhouette is the fact that its model was pianist-composer Carla Bley. The 34-minute film is mostly, excruciatingly silent, and doesn’t use much of the 46 minutes of music recorded for the soundtrack released by ESP.
One element of New York Eye and Ear Control that is sublime rather than tedious is an episode in which the film captures all the musicians posing to have their photograph taken. You can’t hear what they’re mumbling, but they all look incredible: Peacock like a Beat poet, smoking a cigarette; Rudd drinking a beer, and Cherry looking intense; and, most startlingly, an ultra-rare moving image of Ayler, shirtless and with a tuft of white hair on his chin. A better experience would’ve been to project the images of these bold young musicians on a loop as the whole album played.