"And lo, the seeker approacheth the heirophant and he doth inquire, 'O wise one, I beseech thee, how doth one performeth the great work and findeth the pentarbe?' To which the Magus replieth, 'You must journey, man!'" --Aves Traneus from Hotus Riffae et Lickium, 1996 A.D.
That sham epigraph accompanies a recent CD by trumpeter Jack Walrath, and it tells more about the man than a dozen wee-intentioned explanations by journeyman journalists ever could. Who but Walrath would bother to construct a fake Hermetic dialogue, replete with macaronic puns, to make a serious statement about the state of jazz and its prime directive? The same guy who once wrote a jazz chart for a 15th century Bulgarian Revolutionary song, And who made an entire album -- from first takes to finished master -- in six hours, inspired, so he says, by the work ethic revealed in a biography of "B" horror-movie king Roger Corman.
That's not to call Walrath's music bizarre. The disc bearing the Hotus Riffae quotation -- Journey, Man! (Evidence) -- features some of the most respected mainstream jazz musicians around, a band Walrath dubbed "The Drummond, and drummer Victor Lewis. But like his former boss, Charles Mingus, Walrath has no problem marrying convention and the bizarre, and like to push the possibilities.
Like the time Walrath arranged and recorded Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." "Wouldn't it be far out if Willie Nelson were to start scat singing here?" he asked a friend, and they roared till their sides hurt. But, soon enough, Walrath and pianist James Williams found themselves fighting storms and downed bridges on their way to Nelson's studio in Texas. Funny thing is, that -- track on 1987's Master of Suspense (Blue Note) -- is no joke. The performance is moving, and true to Hank Williams's original intent. "I mean, Jimmy Rogers made records with Louis Armstrong," Walrath offers in defense. "It all works."
Walrath went even further afield for the title track of 1995's Hip Gnosis (TCB) an album by his regular working group, Masters of Suspense. "I was reading about Aztec music," he says, "Nobody knows what it sounded like. But archeologists found some ocarinas that would play certain notes, so they knew that certain intervallic relationships existed. The Aztecs would use music for different purposes -- they were heavily into human sacrifice, you know. I tried to imagine the feeling of the crowd, the frenzy, the harshness of the music. I don't know if it sounds anything like Aztec music or not."
"Hip Gnosis" sounds like a twisted horror flick, full of menace and outrageous humor. Guitarist Dave Fiuczynski grinds out his darkest power chords, while Walrath imitates a blind toreador and vocalist Dean Bowman yodels like Leon Thomas gone mad. Now and then, things settle into a groove, but the overwhelming sense is one of dark anticipation.
Like any of Walrath's work, the album makes reference to R&B classics, to Ellington, and to Mingus. Above all, it seems, Walrath is having fun with his music, the kind of fun one might expect from an info junkie ironic and eclectic and, above all, aware. He's genuinely baffled by neo-traditionalists who would "keep jazz hermetically sealed from the rest of history and culture," and shakes his head in wonder at those who claim never to listen to records to maintain their own "purity."
"A fear of knowledge," Walrath says, " is something I really can't understand. Think of all that's happened just since Mingus died, in culture and in technology, and everything that he didn't know about. It's a shame that we all can't live about 5,000 years, just to be able to experience it."
The 5,000-Year-Old Man