The Lion of Yerevan
|Ari Roland (bass), Chris Byars (tenor sax), Sacha Perry (piano), Phil Stewart (drums)|
The distinction for most number of appearances by any artist at Smalls goes without question to bassist Ari Roland. Over the last decade, thousands of Smalls listeners have come to know him as Frank Hewitt’s singular choice on the bass, as co-leader of the original Sunday night featured group Across 7 Street, and as the accompanist of choice for many other artists. Those of us who have borne witness can attest to the fact that he earned this distinction on merit. In his writing, his improvising, and his accompaniment, his music is a marvel of both art and architecture.
The art of the beat can be compared to the painter’s stroke, the actor’s walk. The great actor or painter somehow makes the fundamental and commonplace larger than life. The stroke of Van Gogh, the walk of Charlie Chaplain, transcends the ordinary in a way that is one-in-a-million. Such people are entrusted to speak for us, exemplifying our feelings. We populate our living space with their creations and affirm life through our experiences of them. The jazz beat with the walking bass was the definitive sound of an epoch, echoed on every jukebox and Victrola. The elite poets of the walking bass line—for example Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Israel Crosby, or Ray Brown, to name some of Roland’s favorites--could elevate a formerly trite song to the level of modern art, an ode to the modern condition, and the perfect instance of its own kind. Like Chaplain’s walk, or like his aforementioned predecessors, Ari Roland’s walking bass is, to my ears, the rare and beautiful thing, near to perfection.
Born in New York in 1972, Roland began attending sessions with Barry Harris when he was 12, sometimes slipping out of the house after midnight and returning at dawn to go to school. Smart and inquisitive, and with discerning taste, he quickly found his way in with the inner circle of musicians’ musicians. Harris’s brilliant methods in harmony gave Roland a powerful and advanced framework that allowed him to move freely in any musical context. At age 15, Roland took up lessons with the legendary classical bassist, Homer Mensch (after whom Mensch Blues on this disk is named), which eventually led into a stint at Juilliard. Ari cut his teeth while in Jimmy Robinson’s band, playing behind horn players like Clarence “C” Sharpe and Tommy Turrentine. He was a part of Vernel Fournier’s last trio, gaining from the impeccable timing of the great drummer whose brush technique was legendary. He could also be found appearing frequently in C Sharpe’s band, and sometimes with Lou Donaldson and Junior Cook. C Sharpe, an underground saxophone legend, is reputed among those who knew his music to be perhaps the greatest bebop saxophone player after Charlie Parker. Recorded evidence that we have lends considerable support for that claim, and certainly is evidence of Sharpe’s remarkable brilliance. Roland says of Sharpe: “No matter where he was, he played on that incredibly inspired level, and his greatness was overwhelming--something to aspire to.” It was also around this time that Roland began his association with the great pianist Frank Hewitt, a pairing that would prove to be historic.
The styles of Frank Hewitt and C Sharpe exemplified an approach to music that was advanced over their predecessors, and helped to establish the notion of an advanced species of bebop alive and developing in the New York underground. This music is virtually unknown outside of New York, partly due to the fact that little of the music was recorded, and partly due to the fact that these developments occurred mostly within the inner circles of the NY jazz community where the average club patron did not venture. The advanced bebop idiom has a continuous lineage with the past, in contrast to the numerous projects that share some superficial form, but are otherwise only indirectly connected to the past in being retrospective. The former is living musical poetry, modern art. The latter is more of a pleasurable exercise. The living art, which does not intimate itself to one so quickly, is sometimes mistakenly shuffled off into the pleasurable exercise category in haste. It is always fighting for its life. It was from this context that Ari Roland emerged musically, along with like-minded associates such as Sacha Perry, Chris Byars, and Zaid Nasser.
The arrival of Smalls in 1994 provided a new outlet for the artists from the bop underground. It came too late for C Sharpe, but in time for Frank Hewitt’s final years, and in time for Ari Roland, Chris Byars and Sacha Perry, who performed for eight years running each Sunday night under the collective name Across 7 Street [documented on Made In New York, Smalls SRCD-0002]. This kind of bop was original, uncompromising, hard-core music, rooted in the esoteric traditions of the New York underground. Over a period of years, the group developed an advanced style of writing and playing that is reflected in this collection. Ari Roland’s writing is unique, outdoing his predecessors in tricky, twisting melody lines, and unusual harmonic excursions. He gives play to the daemons, creating a kind of orchestrated pandemonium that never degenerates into chaos. The inspired chord voicings are integral to the compositions, and the movement of voices is exquisitely orchestrated everywhere on the record, supported by Ari’s unusually crafted bass lines. Pianist Perry and saxophonist Byars understand Roland’s musical concept better than anyone, and they were the clear choice to accompany on this outing. Byars’ fluid sound belies an uncanny ingenuity with Roland’s compositions that reveals itself increasingly over repeated listenings. After C Sharpe, Byars is one saxophonist to watch. Sacha Perry puts down the beautiful chords like nobody else. Phil Stewart has really made the drum chair in this group his own. He listens, locks in, lays it down, and makes it pop all the way through. He’s relaxed and loose even on the fast tempos. A great player with a great future.
Ari’s originals are memorable highlights of this disk. Tunes like The Lion of Yerevan (referring to piano marvel Vahagn Hayrapetian) and Ah, Transcarpathicus have characteristically rich harmonies and sinuous melodies, with rapid and subtle shifts of mood. Replaceable Me is a ballad on modified chords from Embraceable You having unusual fragmented lines that are strangely lyrical and pretty, yet very modern. Swamp Thing Goes To The Indy 500 is a part of the Swamp Thing trilogy, and is meant to be played very very fast as its name suggests. Ari slays me here with two choruses of pizzicato at the speed of light squared. Slow this tune down mentally or otherwise and listen to the chords. These chord changes are some of the prettiest I’ve ever heard, and the melody is very haunting. It would make a memorable ballad.
Key to Roland’s sound are the influences of three great violinists: Eugene Ysaye, Fritz Kreisler, and George Enescu. Each of these violinists had a strongly individual musical personality, with a raw and passionate gut-string sound, deeply rooted in the folk music of the day. They exemplified the notion of musician as interpreter of music, and share a deep kinship with the greatest players in jazz. Roland’s horn-like phrasing draws heavily on the saxophonists, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, as well as masters such as Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.