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World Music Features

Roswell Rudd

By John Ephland
Published January 10, 2008

Although he's a well-known jazz trombonist who has played with all the greats, Roswell Rudd's Malicool (with Toumani Diabate) has prompted people to sit up and take notice of his non-jazz work. Rudd continues to record with musicians from all over the globe, ranging from his Mongolian Buryat Band to the ensemble featured on his new cumbia/tango/merengue album, El Ispíritu Jibaro.

“After six weeks in Asia, I’m full up,” announces Roswell Rudd after soaking up his latest set of indigenous musical experiences. “It’s a way to keep going. The energy I received, the people, sounds and sights it was food for the soul.”

Who’d have thought an American jazz trombonist could hang as a nexus for music sprouted from not only Asia, but Latin America and West Africa as well? And from a jazz musician who started out playing Dixieland, no less! The answer lies in the person making the music. Roswell Rudd has been associated with the vanguard of jazz players since the late 1950s. His collaborations with, among others, saxophonists Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Gato Barbieri and Pharoah Sanders helped shape the modern history of the music. (His solo on “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” from Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger’s 1961 New York City R&B, set the standard for modern trombonists playing Duke Ellington’s music.)

Certainly, the music on El Espiritu Jibaro (The Jibaro Spirit), his recent collaboration with Puerto Rican guitar master Yomo Toro, comes from within a Latin jazz context. And the presence of Latin jazz great Bobby Sanabria and his Ascension band doesn’t hurt. But the nature of the music defies categorization, even as it explores such well-established idioms and styles as the tango, cuatro, cumbia, bolero moruno and Toro’s own folkloric, traditional Puerto Rican Jibaro-fl avored music.

It’s not a sudden departure for the 71-year-old Rudd, either. The trombonist has been on a quest for sounds beyond America’s shores since at least the late 1960s, when he played with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Indeed, his work as an educator in musical ethnology, and with noted ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, covering three decades, has been key to pushing Rudd beyond the boundaries of conventional Western music, especially when performances and recordings were less frequent. And beginning in 2000, Rudd has recorded music derived from West Africa and Mongolia, which can be heard on 2003’s Malicool with kora master Toumani Diabate, and last year’s Blue Mongol with the Mongolian Buryat Band. In addition, Rudd’s Trombone Shout Band performed in Mali in 2004.

On the occasion of this interview, Rudd was preparing for an engagement at New York’s Jazz Standard with a revised version of the Malicool band, featuring members transplanted from Mali, Rio De Janeiro and Senegal. But the story of how, over the course of four years, El Espiritu Jibaro came to be still loomed large. Toro, 74, the so-called “Puerto Rican Jimi Hendrix,” served as a major inspiration for Rudd. “Jibaro [pronounced hee-barro] means ‘country,’” explains the trombonist. “And Yomo’s considered a country musician. I heard him on a recording and just had to meet the guy.

“Verna [Gillis, producer/ethnomusicologist] set up a concert for Yomo that I went to in 2002,” he continues. “I just couldn’t believe how clear and strong the guy’s sound was. I sat in with him on one of his gigs, and we both experienced the same thing, a connection. I ended up transcribing and arranging his compositions for players, and got more and more involved.” Recording sessions began that year and finished in 2006.

Rudd’s third recording for the Sunnyside label, El Espiritu Jibaro brims with an excitement, an ‘up’ energy that can only be compared with his two previous recordings for the label. But, unlike the Malicool and Blue Mongol releases, this 10-song set with Yomo Toro also includes Bobby Sanabria’s powerful Ascension band. Made up of 26 (!) pieces, Ascension threatens to dwarf the leaders only to end up being the quintessential support system. Both cuatro master Toro—whose delicate ye