The sound is blaring; of course, it's the break. There's an electro power chord traversing the length of a funky ball line and a dick drum. Atop it all, a vocalist recites terse, biting lyrics in a voice that's part whinny, part field holler, part yodel: somethin' about mules halting to let "Freedom!" pass. Maybe. And right about the time one realizes this Public Enemy-style sermon was actually written by Charles Mingus, a spiraling trumpet begins punctuating the words, orbiting them with open blats and glisses that stagger but somehow maintain control.
Trumpeter Jack Walrath has given me no indication that the first cut on his latest demo tape was a Mingus composition. So when he detects cognizance in my eyes, he smiles an affirmative "yeah". I'm happy to have passed the test. Mingus seems an inevitable subject once you realize that Walrath gained international visibility in the bassist/composer's last working groups. But right then, as Walrath awaited my response, it also became crystal clear why the title "Master of Suspense"---the name that has identified all of the 47-year old composer/arranger's leadership projects since his Blue Note debut seven years ago---fits him to a tee.
"I'm interested in all different kinds of things, all kinds of genres," Walrath says proudly. Both his pre- and post-Mingus work lend credence to the statement. Over the past decade Walrath has led Mingus Dynasty, garnered a Grammy nomination for a Hank Williams cover sung by Willie Nelson, held down the lead-trumpet chair in the Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra, so-journed into Japanese gagaku with strings, and even updated some standards. Ant to further confound the categorically minded, the quintet music on Serious Hang, Walrath's current release, matches his organ-playing, ex-Mingus buddy Don Pullen with guitarist David "Fuze" Fiuczynski, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Cecil Brooks III. The eclectic program moves from a bar-band blooze version of Mingus' "Better Get Hit In Yo' Soul" to a hilarious cover of James Brown's "Get on the Good Foot" to the aptly titled "Gloomy Sunday," a mournful tune associated with Billie Holiday. "Serious Hang is kind of a precursor to the demo," the Montana native explains. "Recently, I've been told that my music could possibly crossover---without me really changing anything. It's open enough to work in either a hardcore jazz environment or in something more like a rock setting. We did a week at Sweet Basil a little while ago, and what impressed me the most was the level of audience participation that developed over the course of the week. The people who came in were probably expecting Nat Adderley or something---which maybe they hear, 'cause he was an early modern jazz influence on me; might even have been the first.
"But, anyway, the audience was clapping and singing along, even on the originals. I think that kind of thing has been missing from jazz over the years, so it felt great to have people responding that way.
"The whole scene seems to be changing up slightly, though." offers Walrath, after a slight pause. "It's welcome because it's been much too conservative, too Reagan-esque, for quite a long time now. Last week I heard Don Byron's band at the Vanguard; they were great. I heard Joe Lovano last night, and they were kinda doing an extension of the early Ornette Coleman quartet. (Drummer) Billy Hart was kicking ass all over the place. So there seems to be a breakthrough on the horizon."
If this seems like optimism from a musician who's been a victim of record-biz shortsightedness (e.g. Blue Note's parent company wouldn't push his Hank Williams cover as a c&w single), Walrath still harbors no illusions about the way music is marketed. "Sometimes people who say they don't like jazz music actually just think they don't like jazz music. They don't really know what (jazz) is. So much of what they were told was jazz was kind of subdued or whatever. You know how some jazz radio stations say things like, "If you wanna sit back and relax and kick your shoes off"? It's a little disturbing because that's not why cats went to hear a Coltrane or a Sonny Rollins play. For me, Trane live was the loudest, most intense thin I'd hear up until that point---just amazing.
"But it's always something different with record companies. I think you can relate to a large amount of people without necessarily limiting yourself, but in most places you know how it is: One year they'll be signing young people; next year, it'll be old people; the next: white, and then black. For awhile it seemed like the labels were always looking for someone who didn't necessarily come up playing jazz to wear the jazz crown; remember Al Hirt? It was sort of like that with him, but to his credit, in interviews he'd always say "Waitaminnit, listen to Dizzy or Clark Terry.' Then in the '70's, in order to get a jazz record out you had to play with Stevie Wonder or some rock band.
"I think it'd be hip to call jazz 'Western art music,'" Walrath, muses. "But there's a stigma placed on 'art' or 'intellectualism' in this country, so the general perception become, 'Art!! Yuch, that's no fun!!' So then we have to deal with the way we educate people toward terms. I mean, not long ago I sent some scores from Gut Feelings (Walrath's album of compositions for jazz quintet and strings) down to the National Endowment for the Arts---to both the jazz and classical departments. Both wrote me back with letters saying they didn't know exactly where to group them."
It's wonder Walrath's tone is a jazz marvel, a nubby, piercing sound whose burnish harks back to the great trumpeters of yore. Not unlike Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie, his timbre suggests humor, ambition, and clarity of purpose. It mirrors the pulse of Manhattan---Walrath lives high above the hustle of Times Square---while evoking the wide-open spaces of Montana. (All, incidentally, are qualities captured in Walrath's brilliant, unaccompanied cadenza on "Oldfotalk", a piece from Muhal Richard Abrams' The Hearinga Suite.)
"The greatest thing about growing up in Montana," says Walrath, "was that there wasn't any peer pressure. I liked what I liked, and there wasn't anybody around to tell me what was and wasn't cool --- or not.
"I started playing trumpet when I was about nine," he reflects further, "My mother had some dixieland records around the house, so I was digging that early. The first live professional band I ever heard was Louis Armstrong when I was 11; got to meet him and everything. This was the '50's, so modern jazz wasn't really available. The modern stuff they played on the radio was basically West Coast jazz, which, to me didn't seem to have the same energy as Armstrong or Buck Clayton. The older stuff seemed more raucous, more raw."
The desire to be close to jazz' more fiery elements never left him. It didn't matter that by the time he received his degree in composition from Berklee in 1968, the entire industry was coming under the commercial influence of rock & roll. Even while Walrath was making the inevitable r&b gigs to make a living, he was also in a looser project called Change with Gary Peacock and Billy Eaglet. "It was led by the cat who eventually wrote "'The Monster Mash,'" he remembers, "and the sound was coming out of a James Brown/Otis Redding/soul-revue-type vibe, mixed with Coltrane's Ascension and Albert Ayler.
"So we got the idea that we'd go to California and seek our fortunes. Out there a couple of the Mothers of Invention joined the band---Frank Zappa even loaned us his equipment once. But like most cats, we had this illusion about California. We thought we were going to get out there and clean up because the place is so low-energy---which is exactly the reason you don't. Bobby Huthcherson and Harold Land can get away with it, but they seem to be the only cats who can."
After part of the band (actually a different band later formed in Oakland ed.) went off and augmented the Herbie Hancock ensemble that recorded Hancock's Headhunters , a dejected Walrath made his way into Ray Charles' band. It was a boon to him for the presence of fellow trumpeter Blue Mitchell. Walrath once told another interviewer that he considered that particular gig the beginning of his professional life. Tapping back into his old gutbucket sensibility, Walrath said that it was with Charles' band that he "learned how to fit in." These skills would help him immeasurably when he decided to go back to New York.
"I had it in my head to play with Joe Henderson and Mingus," Walrath explains. "To me, they were doing the most innovative things compositionally: Joe was doing some stuff that was really influential, harmonically; while Mingus I'd seen on TV, and had heard all of his records." Ironically, Walrath arrived in New York from California in 1973, at about the same time Henderson was moving in the other direction, to Oakland. Although it took Walrath a year's worth of Latin gigs to get to Mingus, by then the trumpeter had made an important contact: a tenorman named Paul Jeffrey.
"Paul was Monk's tenor player and Mingus' copyist at the time," begins Walrath. "I was in (Paul's) octet, and had been telling him how badly I wanted to play with Mingus. So he took me down to the Village Gate, where Mingus had a quartet with George Adams, Dannie Richmond, and Don (Pullen). I think Hamiet Bluiett had left a month earlier. To be truthful, I didn't really like what I heard---the music didn't seem to have the same energy as the records. I sat in, though, and Mingus called me a couple of days later."
The Mingus/Walrath composition team might be one of the most underrated partnerships in jazz. They turned the Mingus band into a powerful force on the scene, and set the stage for a full-scale resurgence of the Mingus oeuvre after the leader's death in 1979.
In addition to picking up on Mingus' eclecticism, during his tenure Walrath studied the composer's charts until his grasp enabled him to complete Mingusian fragments in much the same way Billy Strayhorn did for Duke Ellington. Mingus returned the favor in two ways: by recording some of Walrath's tunes (for example, check out "Black Bats And Poles" from Changes Two); and by giving Walrath a dictum that, I think, has come to symbolize his illustrious career. "Mingus once said to me that any artist has the ability to repeat himself, but the real ones don't. I've come to believe that. It's like being Clark Kent and needing to tell anyone you're Superman."
Jack of All Trades