"Jazz is dead," says Fred Hess, founder and leader of the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble (BCME). "It died in the Sixties. We had fusion for a while, and there have been some other things. There have been a lot of individuals doing this and that, but there's no jazz. These people are all relating, for better or worse, to the past."
Hess's statement is supported by plenty of empirical evidence. With jazz about to enter its second century, the genre once dubbed "the sound of surprise" finds itself in a conundrum. Since the late Sixties, jazz rebels have followed a path to free expression paved with stones of self-indulgence, while preservationists have thrown New Orleans-style funeral parties marked by zealous efforts to raise the style to the stature of classical music. As a result, many friends of jazz orthodoxy have abandoned hope, and radicals have jumped ship. But aficionados of the form need not succumb to millennial gloom. Ninth Street Park, the latest BCME disc, proves that sophisticated remedies can breathe new life into this American art.
The secret, in Hess's mind, lies in structured improvisation, a clever, middle-of-the-road tack that's both respectful to jazz heirs and adventurous in spirit. "When we do free improvs, they always sound like the weather," notes the saxophonist, composer and arranger, who's been a jazz-lover since the late Fifties. "If you want to do random music, a lot of folks like that, but I don't. I like the order thing."
Born in 1981, the ensemble has evolved over time (it's ranged from four players to twenty), but it's always included some of the area's finest instrumentalists. The current incarnation is no exception. In addition to Hess, who has made two critically acclaimed solo CDs for the Capri label and is currently part of Ginger Baker's Denver Jazz Quintet, the band includes clarinetist/saxophonist Mark Harris and saxophonist Glenn Nitta, two BCME charter members who frequently appear in other musical configurations. Also on board is trumpeter Ron Miles--arguably the most praised jazz artist in Colorado--and a cherished rhythm section that consists of bassist Kent McLagen and drummer Tim Sullivan.
Like cohorts Harris and Miles, Hess is an instructor at Denver's Metropolitan State College, but he did much of his own learning outside the classroom. During the mid-Sixties, the New Jersey native studied with famed hard-bop altoist Phil Woods at the New Hope, Pennsylvania, home once owned by Charlie Parker (Woods married Parker's widow). "We used to drive over on Saturdays for a half-hour lesson for five bucks," remembers Hess, adding that the exercises provided him with "a real foundation in bebop harmony."
In the years that followed, Hess worked within the relatively mainstream jazz boundaries established by two of his idols, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. But that all changed after a 1978 visit to Creative Music Studios in Woodstock, New York, where he got an opportunity to observe Anthony Braxton, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, a trio of artists affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). "I wanted to see how they were doing it," he says, "because I heard these records and I knew they weren't going, '1-2-3-4' and counting it off." He was right, and he soon realized that these onetime evangelizers for free jazz had stepped back from the precipice. Because they felt, in Hess's words, "that people had played as high and squeaked as high and as loud as it could be done," they were striving to add a degree of control to their improvisations via flow charts, pictograms and the like. At the same time, though, these performers continued to strive for new and unusual effects. Upon seeing altoist Joseph Jarman, another AACM inductee, honk a multiphonic (i.e., play several different notes simultaneously) during a solo concert, Hess says, "I nearly jumped out of my chair because it was such a novel thing."
After spending two years refining his technique and searching for a musical language to call his own, Hess enrolled at the University of Colorado-Boulder. While earning a doctorate in classical composition, he came up with a system of notation based on the natural elegance of sub-atomic collision maps (he has an avocation for nuclear physics) that BCME still uses to this day. During the Eighties, the group's set lists were dominated by originals of the sort that appear on the recent reissue of Between the Lines, a wonderful series of BCME recordings cut between 1988 and 1990. But even as the Lines sessions were taking place, Hess had begun to focus much of his attention on jazz's repertory. With BCME or one of the three other orchestras he's led over the years, he has overseen concerts featuring the works of Braxton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Thad Jones, Jelly Roll Morton and Mary Lou Williamson, to name a few.
According to Hess, who's published several books of musical transcriptions, he tries to present such efforts "in a way that's closest to bringing out its grand quality." To that end, he allows himself to manipulate the presentation in ways that are not always readily apparent to those on the other end of his horn. Hess's version of Monk's "Misterioso" combines the best of the pianist's 1947 and 1968 renditions, while his modification of Ellington's "Caravan" is drawn from three of the Duke's variations on the tune. But Hess has moved beyond such methodology and is now attempting to apply the knowledge he gained from dissecting the work of jazz giants to his own compositional efforts. He modestly calls Ninth Street Park "very informed," and it certainly is. But the disc also blends hot vamps, smooth solos and swinging arrangements into a witty and gorgeous postmodern pastiche.
The album is full of references that walking jazz encyclopedias will appreciate but that won't present barriers to casual listeners. Take "Loose Leaves," which alludes to the many jazz covers of "Autumn Leaves," popularized in 1955 by schmaltz king Roger Williams. "If people know their jazz history, they'll laugh themselves crazy because they'll know where this stuff's coming from," Hess says. "And if you don't, it still should work." As for "After the Leap," it's shaped entirely from solos by saxophone superman Lester Young--a deconstruction/reconstruction that's as devout as anything by Wynton Marsalis even as it exhibits the healthy irreverence of John Zorn.
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Similarly playful is "Close to the Beach," a classical track in the guise of a jazz number in which threads from several Ron Miles songs, including "Howard Beach," are woven together. "I had to do a big orchestra piece to finish my degree, so I wrote a trumpet concerto for him--all from his themes," Hess says. "I was playing in his group in the early Nineties, so I took the melodies that we were playing and I used them as all my material in this piece."
As Hess concedes, people who don't immediately hear the connections between the traditional and the avant-garde in his music are unlikely to investigate them--but he encourages them to try. Paraphrasing an earlier conversation with Miles, he says, "It shouldn't matter where you start, because if you have the passion, you'll want to discover what else has gone on. You will eventually fill in the blanks to make the bigger picture that you would need to function within that picture."
In other words, there's still harmonic potential to be mined from jazz, but musicians and fans alike need to search for it. And after all these years, the contributors to the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble are still digging.
Ninth Street Park CD-release party, featuring the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble. 8 p.m. Saturday, December 12, Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Boulevard, $5-$8, 303-759-1797.