For O.M. 7:00
Ari Roland (bass), Chris Byars (tenor sax), Sacha Perry (piano), Phil Stewart (drums)
When Louis Armstrong landed in Ghana in 1956, so the story goes, he was greeted by 100,000 fans. There began the tradition of the “jazz ambassador.” It was an unusual thing for most people to think of a jazz musician as an ambassador. But when you think about it, it isn’t really so surprising at all.
Yes, jazz makes us feel good; but it was never about just feeling good. Jazz isn’t just a style or a fashion, nor is it just a hobby or a pastime. Jazz is about a way of life; it is about having something to say and saying it; it is about listening to others and understanding them—and, last but not least, it is about freedom and being free. This is what jazz is for, and this is why it’s here.
There are few ways to spread the idea of freedom around the world better than with the message of the music. You can and should identify music with speech. The freedom to play whatever you want is equivalent to the freedom to say whatever you want. Those who want to dictate control over people’s lives see jazz music as a threat as surely as they see free speech. Those governments in history who forbade jazz were saying you are not to get any ideas about freedom.
Just about fifty years later in 2007, the Ari Roland Quartet landed in Russia and toured the countries of Central Asia under the aegis of the same US Department of State program that began with Louis Armstrong. While there they met people of all colors who hungered for the music and thirsted for a taste of that kind of freedom.
The music of Ari Roland and his associates exemplifies a kind of boldness that is at first hard to understand. Look, it would be easy to shock people with a wall of noise if one wanted; but in itself, that would be a shallow message. But what Ari Roland’s quartet plays is an articulated message good enough to be called musical poetry. You can enjoy the sounds with no special effort, but to fully experience it requires an achievement.
Think of it this way. The artist is making a musical statement that is complicated enough that the listener is challenged to come part way in order to get it, and the artist has made the somewhat bold choice to develop this way of playing, and to play this way at great cost to himself, even knowing that most people will not get it. Because the importance of the music – now considered as a rare and precious thing – outweighs the value of making any concessions in the long run.
This is uncompromising artistry, and it is the symbol of freedom won and defended.
Some people react with fear. What if I can’t understand it? one asks, looking for an answer that resides only inside one’s self and coming up short. This is the fear of the unknown, and it goes hand-in-hand with freedom. One who seeks to understand embarks down that road with the belief that something of importance is to be gained, but without knowing just what it is, and without knowing for certain that the journey will have been worth it. Some will discount the music, claiming that the journey leads nowhere and is therefore not worth taking. They are threatened by the existence of those who have been down that road and claim to have found something there. They are threatened by the idea that the world is not so simple as once thought. This is a part of the democratic process. Somehow societies have to embark down a road that is uncertain, and somehow they have work together, but without sacrificing their individuality and their freedom. There are no easy answers.
Over many years, Roland, Byars, and Perry have mastered the art of playing together while retaining their individual voices. When they embark down musical roads that are uncharted, and they often do, they venture unafraid. Roland writes twisty melodies over tricky harmonies in combinations that are ripe with thematic possibilities; one can go to town with them if one knows what to do, and if one should dare.
Three new originals (“One for O.M.”, “Paerja”, and “Smile of the Swamp Thing”) debut here, along with four extemporaneous compositions. Two feature, respectively, Byars (“Byars-a-Carpet”) and Perry (“Perry Plov”). “Under The Salt of Stars” is urgent and very fast. The dizzyingly fast walking bass intro stirs you up. You think damn and then you realize he’s walking that fast through the entire tune. It’s urgent because anything that comes at the soloist this quickly delivers 400 ultimatums per minute. The message is say it now, or don’t say it at all, and they go for broke. A minor blues “Blue Madi” is a tribute in memory of the great drummer and friend, Kalil Madi, who had only just passed when this recording was made. We’ll see you in paradise.
We can look forward to more music diplomacy from Chris Byars, who was selected to be a jazz ambassador in 2008. Sometimes freedom comes one song at a time.