Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste

Date: 07.01.2007
Publication: Coda
Author: Nick Pitt

For anyone looking for the solution of two of jazz’ age-old conundrums in one package, this recording is the answer. Specifically, what is the place of the clarinet in modern jazz and what is the place of New Orleans in the same? In both cases cliché’s predominate and this recording—indeed, Batiste’s career—breaks through them. What a shame that he, Alvin Batiste, avant-garde clarinetist, educator, and lover of the good groove, passed away on May 6th in his sleep, just hours before a gala concert with Branford Marsalis (this record’s producer and presenter).

Track six illustrates these points clearly. “The Latest,” a Batiste original, is far more than any swing-to-bop recreation. It is New Orleans-to-modal, filled with crisp ensamble polyphony and harmonically stripped solos—it’s the sort of performance that counters the oft-held contention that jazz has begun turning in circles.

Drummer Herlin Riley, a former Batiste student, holds down the gumbo. His is a wonderful polyrhythmic performance—complex ride cymbals, crisp rim shots and foot pedals to be admired by caffeine addicts world wide, and a crackling snare—think Elvin Jones but with a tighter focus. Riley creates each complex, multifaceted beat and then plays it out like a tapestry beneath the band.

Lawrence Fields on piano flits through this dense mix with wondrous agility—his work is the colour that makes the pattern unique—no octave or tempo is unavailable. Building on the work of Pee Wee Russell and Eric Dolphy, there is a seeming understanding that the lower registers are where this instrument is under exposed; his tone is woody, resonant and deep. When Batiste does venture into the higher register and the faster tempi the comparisons are with Coltrane and Coleman, not Johnny Dodds or George Lewis.

The album has its flaws, of course. There are four tracks that include vocals by Edward Perkins that are in the Joe Turner fashion but far weaker and less compelling; and these have trite, bizarre lyrics written by one or another member of the Batiste family—an eccentricity, no doubt and in the end something that must be viewed as a positive in what is a constant fight against sterility in jazz, but an eccentricity that needs to be survived to get to the good stuff.

Balancing these factors are stellar performances by Russell Malone on four tracks and producer Marsalis on three tracks. Both deliver among the finest cameos of their career—Marsalis is a revelation of invention and technique, clearly at the top of his form; and Malone slips into the polyrhythmic fabric with an ease that is awe-inspiring and, in an auditory sense group inspiring; his contributions take the band to another level.

The ballads are lush and ravishing, the uptempo tracks are tight and riveting—odd lyrics and the minimal bit of weak singing aside—this is a terrific recording. It is a welcome noise and in the exploration of this unheralded legend of jazz, a perfect beginning point.. Alvin Batiste is the real deal. Search out his work.

Submitted by Ben on June 30th, 2007 — 11:00pm