PERFORMANCE OF DECEMBER 1 & 2, 1975 at Keystone Korner, San Francisco
Leroy Jenkins / violin, viola (on one piece), wood flute, percussion; Sirone / bass, wood flute, trombone (on one piece), percussion; Jerome Cooper / drums, wood flute, bowed saw, piano, percussion.
The Revolutionary Ensemble’s first appearance in San Francisco was an unscheduled one. The group was on its way to Los Angeles to record a forthcoming album (for A&M Records’ new Horizon label) and stopped over to play a couple of nights at the Keystone. The dates were set up on short notice, so many people who would have been interested never knew the group was in town; which was unfortunate, as there was some fine music played.
The Ensemble’s sound is one that is unique in contemporary music, and this stems not only from their unlikely instrumentation but from the manner in which they have built on the textural (rhythmic) and harmonic advances of Albert Ayler. As players, they play together, but (as in Ayler’s groups) there is a healthy distance between them. This is due in part to the pitch differences between the string instruments and the contrasting ranges in which Jenkins and Sirone choose to work; also to Cooper’s highly sensitive percussion approach which (like Sunny Murray’s) allows those sounds to be themselves without attempting to enclose them within a simpler structural unity.
It is also due to the fact that the three frequently work in different tempos, creating a just-out-of-phase layered effect with an extremely elastic potential. This latter works not only as an important textural device but as an essential element of composition, leading to subtle evolutions of context and musical direction. Form is thus unusually flexible and strongly linked to process. (This procedure grows logically out of the structural innovations of Ayler’s groups.)
Jenkins, though, does tend to provide more of the music’s long movement (even if it is movement of a fairly fragmented nature: broken phrase lengths, shifting rhythmic/tonal emphases) while Sirone and Cooper provide more of a rhythmic counterpoint. Often Sirone will work in a slower space than Jenkins, Cooper in a faster one, though these roles may eventually become blurred or even changed around. But Jenkins’ playing, with its stronger melodic inclination, provides something of a focal point for the listener, and it is his work especially that triggers all sorts of aesthetic overtones. (In this regard, it is interesting to note that in the case of Albert Ayler, he is still frequently referred to as a “folk musician,” although generally his folkish melodies only mask a highly contemporary existentialism. Jenkins, though, seems closer to a true “folk” musician.) His sound is a plaintive one, the blues always lurking underneath, which transcends its formal contemporaneity to seem absolutely ages old and steeped in some lost (yet remembered) history. And this is a quality of his actual sound, apart from any thematic reference.
What works less well structurally is the Ensemble’s more sectional approach to organizing their material. This mainly breaks down when there are instrument changes connected with changes of musical direction. The contrast is too great, the intended continuity lost. It is also true that the Ensemble’s music is considerably better when the three are playing their “principle” instruments. Cooper’s piano playing – which is more well integrated into the trio’s work – can sound very out of place sometimes, its tonal purity fairly annoying next to the more “mysterious” (less defined as to pitch) string sounds; and Cooper approaches the instrument in such a way as to emphasize its limitations. This, I imagine, is the point – that is, to use the instrument to provide a broad color contrast; but it is a contrast that tends to absorb rather than to set off, having almost the opposite effect of Cooper’s percussion work.
More on the positive side, some special mention must be made of the work of Sirone. His opening solo on Monday evening was a work of genius, masterly in every respect. He literally pulled chunks of sound from the bass, then seemed to hurl them about, virtually setting some new standard for approaching the instrument. The overall impression one gets of the Ensemble’s music is that it is growing largely within the aesthetic outlined on their first LP (Revolutionary Ensemble, ESP). Instruments have been added, and different textures and tone colors are being tried out. But there is nothing startlingly new, only a continuation of the high standards the group has previously set for itself. This means that the Ensemble’s music continues to provide a deep and moving experience for the listener, and that it continues to be among the most advanced improvisational music now being played.
Henry Kuntz, 1976
selected Revolutionary Ensemble | Leroy Jenkins recordings