When Stars Collide

Jazz masters Roswell Rudd and Duck Baker team up for improvisation

Among the joys of jazz, one of the most serendipitous occurs when artists of different styles--whether complementary or contrasting--team up for improvisation. Musically, anything can happen, from uninspired meandering to spiritual revelations.

It's all about faith in the possibility that this spontaneous combustion will reveal new truths.

Not only is it impossible to predict what actually will happen when two highly respected jazz artists such as Roswell Rudd and Duck Baker perform together Friday night, March 26, at the Mat Bevel Institute--it's preferable not to know.

We do know, however, that these guys have serious chops, are adept at everything from Dixieland and swing to bebop and free jazz, and that the performance will focus on the theme of Great American Songs, from the Civil War era to Thelonious Monk.

The forecast, therefore, favors revelations over meanderings.

The gig is the latest in Zeitgeist's always-adventurous, 7-year-old Jazz at the Institute concert series, which strives to present several concerts a year from nationally and internationally recognized masters of improvisational music.

The critical consensus is that both Rudd and Baker are masters.

The 68-year-old Rudd is something of a re-born traditionalist. He played Dixieland as a young man, performing with old-timey revival bands including that of pianist Herbie Nichols, up until the 1960s.

Rudd became better known for world-shaking performances as a key transitional figure in the avant-garde of '60s and '70s jazz. He played with Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, John Tchicai, Milford Graves, Steve Lacy, Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, among others.

Performance opportunities for Rudd dried up during the superficial, mainstream-dominated music years of the 1980s and early '90s, although he continued to lead workshops and teach master classes.

"In my world," Rudd has written about his teachings, "jazz is the cornerstone of American classical music, and I consider the great lives and many hands that have shaped it as the American classical masters.

"My personal fascination with jazz is the way that it connects with other classical systems in the world through the universally shared compositional and performance techniques of improvisation."

Returning to his roots during the last decade has provided long-deserved recognition for Rudd. He performed and recorded a series of tributes to former mentor Nichols and reunited in 1997 with soprano saxophonist Lacy, with whom Rudd played a much-heralded Jazz at the Institute gig in 1999. These days, he also collaborates with a core of top-notch Malian musicians in his eight-member band, MaliCool.

Nat Hentoff--a noted jazz critic--says, "Rudd extracts sounds from the trombone that go back to New Orleans and further ahead than anyone has yet reached."

It was Rudd's expert knowledge of the music of Herbie Nichols that brought him to the attention of acoustic finger-style guitarist Duck Baker, who has played everything from ragtime to modern jazz and rock, as well as distinctly traditional American forms such as blues, gospel and Appalachian music.

Baker, now 54, solicited Rudd's counsel in 1996 when creating his own Nichols tribute, Spinning Song: Duck Baker Plays the Music of Herbie Nichols, which Acoustic Guitar magazine proclaimed "one of the best guitar records ever recorded--by anybody."

Among his other fans are acoustic guitar gods Stefan Grossman and Leo Kottke (who's also in town this weekend).

Although primarily characterized as a swing and bluegrass player, Baker doesn't lack credibility as an experimentalist. He has played with such artists as Henry Kaiser, John Zorn, Bruce Ackley (of ROVA Saxophone Quartet), Mark Dresser, Carla Kihlstedt (of Tin Hat Trio) and the Eugene Chadbourne.

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