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Long Live the Uprising

The October Revolution
Remembering the Past: "The October Revolution" jacket is as simple as the music is complex.

The New Thing in jazz lives on in the commemorative album 'The October Revolution'

By Nicky Baxter

YEARS BEFORE "new wave" or "alternative" rock, there was the New Thing: simultaneously raging and intelligent, cacophonous and controlled. And not since the early days of rock & roll had there been such a vociferous debate over musical value.

After all, this new improvisational form of jazz didn't exactly swing; indeed, it was sometimes aggressively anti-swing. But, unlike earlier debates, this one assumed a decidedly political tone; it took place, after all, at the height of the civil-rights phase of the African Liberation Movement.

More to the point, exploited for decades by club owners, booking agents and others, black artists were after their own artistic freedom. The October Revolution (Evidence) captures some of the highlights of an October 1994 commemorative performance that evokes the spirit in which the New Thing began. Exactly three decades before, trumpeter Bill Dixon had organized four nights of shows that signaled arrival of the New Thing. Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor were among the auspicious performers that week.

The players on October Revolution may not carry the same cache as the heavy-hitters named above, but their "alternative" credentials are difficult to dispute.

The musicians include saxophone and flugelhornist Joe McPhee; pianist Borah Bergman; and the stellar rhythm section of bassist Wilber Morris and drummer Rashied Ali. These last two are original New Thing vanguardists (Ali assumed command of the drum chair behind John Coltrane when Elvin Jones bailed).

The album's centerpiece, "For Bill Dixon I," clocks in at just under 41 minutes. This ambitious number is inaugurated by Ali's multidirectional fusillade as he works the kick-drum to manipulate time while slashing away at the cymbals with almost frightening intensity.

Bergman enters the fray next with a surprisingly facile touch--a nice compliment to the drummer's hail and brimstone bashing. As things proceed, however, the pianist sounds almost tentative compared to his companions.

McPhee's sax work, on the other hand, cannot be mistaken for introverted. He refuses to follow trends, and his playing is as fresh and inventive as ever. He spits out jagged shards here, honey-coated laconic droplets there. Though classified as a free musician, McPhee gives strong indications on October Revolution that he's got nothing against breaking off a little bop, blues or even gospel.

Wilber Morris' playing is a marvel to hear. One of the most significant achievements of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and others was the liberation of the bassist's role as time-keeper to that of an equal partner. Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro are rightfully considered pioneers on the instrument, but since the mid-'60s, Morris has made his own mark.

On October Revolution, he strums up a sheet of sound one moment, delicately plucks his stand-up like a flower the next. What makes Morris' playing so remarkable is the vast range of emotions he summons from his instrument.

"For Bill Dixon II" is not as compelling. Still, considering that the entire performance was a complete one-off--none of the musicians had played together before this recording--The October Revolution is an experience not to be missed. It's like hearing music for the first time. Which is, after all, a good part of what the New Thing was (and still is) all about.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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