Monday, 13 August 2007

R.I.P. Paul Rutherford and Art Davis

I've been on holiday to Italy for 10 days, and when I got back, I read the sad news that bassist Art Davis and trombonist Paul Rutherford had both died while I was away.

Davis was trained as a classical musician and started out in the 1950s with Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. He is perhaps most famous for having played on six of John Coltrane's albums, including Ascension and Olé, often in tandem with Jimmy Garrison; their duets, in which he plays arco over Garrison's thick plucking, creating a mesmeric effect which is particularly in evidence on the title track of Olé. Though the other bassist on that piece is actually Reggie Workman, not Garrison, they venture into similar territory, their double solo culminating in a section where they produce horn like sounds, so that when Coltrane re-enters on soprano sax the textures blend and it almost sounds as if all three are playing the same instrument.

But Davis' relationship with, and influence on Coltrane extended beyond just his recordings with the saxophonist: as Valerie Wilmer comments in her classic book on the American 'New Thing', As Serious as Your Life, the two played extensively in private, "experiment[ing] frequently with various modes, sounds and rhyyhms." Davis assisted Coltrane with some of the chord progressions used on Giant Steps, and, though he was never able to become part of any of his regular working groups because of other engagements, "the high esteem in which he was held was shown by the saxophonist's insistence that his name be listed with the horns rather than in the rhythm section on the sleeve of Ascension" (Wilmer).

As well as Coltrane, Davis played with a large and varied number of leading artists including Quincy Jones, Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Hank Williams, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Ornette Coleman, Roland Kirk, and McCoy Tyner. He also worked in TV orchestras (NBC, Westinghouse Television and CBS), and classical orchestras, including the National Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Radio City Music Hall Symphony, the Westchester Symphony and the Orange County Symphony. However, despite his prodiguous abilities on his instrument (something he proclaimed on his website, describing himself as "the greatest bass player in the world" - not the most modest man in the world!), he also claimed that he had been denied permanent positions in these orchestras because he was black (something Charles Mingus also claimed) - in the 1970s, he even sued the New York Philharmonic for not offering him a full-time position.

As time went on, he drifted away from music (partly because of the protracted court case against the New York Phil, which lead to him being blacklisted (or, as he put it, "whitelisted"). Instead, he became involved in psychology, receiving master's degrees from the City University of New York and New York University and a doctorate from NYU in 1982, and taking up counselling work. By 1986, though, he began to play publically again, touring Europe and Japan, recording with pianist Herbie Hancock and Coltrane's son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and establishing a foundation that awarded scholarships to underprivileged students. He played with David Murray's All Stars in 2000 and organised annual tributes to John Coltrane in Los Angeles but mainly devoted himself to teaching and playing occasionally in clubs in the city.

Steve Voce, in his obituary of Davis for The Independent, has this to say:
It's hard to imagine a more stunning jazz bassist than Art Davis. He was a virtuoso with a fat, perfect sound on the instrument. He was intelligent enough to blend into any kind of group that he chose to play with, be it Louis Armstrong's, John Coltrane's or James Brown's.

Paul Rutheford, meanwhile, was a pioneer of free improvisation on the trombone, pioneering the use of multiphonics and vocalised techniques on the instrument. He talks more about the development of his style in an excellent interview from 2006 on the All About Jazz website (the whole thing can be found at this address -
I’ve always been radical and I can remember one specific time when I started to play the trombone, I practiced in front of the mirror and watched myself play. I started to investigate the possibility of singing—double-stopping— and it developed from there. I found it to be so unbelievably flexible, and another trombonist might think it was a cumbersome instrument. If you know how to flick the slide, you can play unbelievably fast. I’ve always been interested in that flexibility, which has led me to be more involved in improvisation. I still love playing music in an orchestra, but really my love is just to get on stage and flick the bugle, you know.
Rutherford founded the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with John Stevens and Trevor Watts in 1966, and Iskra 1903 with Barry Guy and Derek Bailey in 1973. His work also encompassed solo playing (including the album The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie from 1974), stints with Mike Westbrook and the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, and more mainstream commitments with Soft Machine and the Detroit Spinners, a rhythm and blues band. His dedication to the music he played and musical integrity was never in doubt:
I remember one case many years ago in Berlin at the FMP festival, and every year they had a special situation for trombone or saxophone soloists or whatever, and there were five or six trombone players from all over the place. One of the guys who played was involved in contemporary music, [Vinko Globokar] and he had to do a solo one night, another night it was me, and I think another night was Gunter Christmann. Anyway, Vinko came up and said “what are you going to play for your solo?” I said “I don’t know. I’m just going to go out and play.” He said “don’t you have an idea what you’re going to start with?” I said “no, and I don’t want any idea. I’m going to improvise, and I’m going to go on to play improvised music.” This is what actually angers me a little bit about some improvisers is that they go through this little routine of licks, and I don’t want that. I want to go out not knowing what will happen, just getting onto the platform and playing. It will happen anyway.

Though he was a busy man in the 70s and 80s, work dried up towards the end of his life, though he appeared fairly regularly in gigs at the Red Rose in London (including this year's Freedom of the City festival). In a way, what's sadder than the fact that he's died is the fact that, despite being one of the foremost free improvisers on the scene, of the same calibre as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and the like, he was unable to get regular work in the last few years of his life, leaving him depressed and struggling.
I just get so depressed about it—Christ, I know how good I am, but it doesn’t do me any good money-wise. I’m in the worst economic situation now that I’ve been in my life. There are things you take for granted—sometimes I go out for an Indian meal, and I know it sounds silly, but I can’t even think about that now. Inviting a lady out for a drink or a meal is totally out of the question—I can’t afford it. Simple as that. I’m on pension now—I’m 66 years old—and I’m having trouble with the pension. I’m seriously, seriously depressed and I’m just looking forward to getting to the States.

Not exactly a happy note to end on, but then again, there's no point in sugaring the pill. Improvised music has never found much of an audience in Britain, and, beyond a small group of devoted fans, is never likely to find much financial support, so musicians whose beliefs lead them to commit themselves to such non-commercialy viable work are not in for an easy ride. Anyway, click on the link below for a chance to listen to Paul Rutherford, playing wonderfully, as a member of Iskra 1903, on disc two of the rare 3-LP set 'Free Improvisation', released by Deutsche Gramaphone in the 1970s, and long since out-of-print.

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