Larry Blumenfeld May 2001

            Not long ago, the film Being John Malkovich explored the darker sides of some basic human themes (consciousness, individual will, the balancing act of desire and prudence) largely through the vehicle of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a puppeteer, and his marionettes. The device worked well to advance the film's odd, paranormal plot in part because of the enduring wonder inspired by a well-worked marionette an elaborate creation made from simple materials imbued with life through a mixture of technical skill and intent.

            Trumpeter Baikida Carroll sees the depth in such a metaphor. He's entranced with the idea of marionettes, with their loose-limbed fluidity and openness to impulse. Only he imagines them perched on a high wire, not only responding to direction from above, but also balancing precariously to avoid a steep fall below and making it look nonchalant.

            "Marionettes On a High Wire," the third track on Carroll's new disc of the same name, very nearly captures the scene. With Michael Formanek's shuddering bass supporting the weight and Pheeroan akLaff's press rolls shining the spotlight, Carroll and saxophonist Erica Lindsay seem utterly exposed and tethered only to the tune and to their individual muses.

            The sense of grace that comes with real balance and a sense of direction are what undergird this disc's authority and elevate its creative leaps. "Velma," the most sumptuous melody on the disc, spins on the head of a swirling piano figure. The introduction to "Flamboye" finds Carroll and Lindsay's meandering horn lines mirroring and inverting one another. Adegoke Steve Colson's splashes of piano and akLaff's powerful thwacks offset one another on "Griot's Last Dance," a dedication to the late trumpeter Don Cherry, whom Carroll knew well.

            Like Cherry was, Carroll is a seeker and a storyteller. Whereas Cherry traveled far and experimented with different instruments and cultures, Carroll has explored collaborative spaces with adventurous choreographers and directors of theater, film, and television. And while some of these compositions have embraced broad social and political themes owing to Carroll's roots in St. Louis' Black Artist Group, more often than not, Carroll's task has been to underscore an actor's line or a dancer's gesture to tell the stories of implication and interior spaces.

            For this, his first disc as a leader in six years, Carroll reworked some of his stage compositions and wrote new music for his quintet. "Miss Julie" was originally composed for a play, to be performed by a string quartet. Here, it's a beautiful, slow-flowing quintet ballad, with Carroll's choked-off notes at its core. Carroll's assured work owes in large part to his band's personnel. Colson and Lindsay are distinctive and rarely heard voices. Formanek and akLaff anchor much of what occurs along the outer edge of New York's current scene. These are musicians who lean into tonality, who imply rhythms, who challenge the harmonics around them without disrupting the group's overall flow. And that's what rounds off the contours of Carroll's not-so-unconventional music in interesting ways that make it neither inside nor out. (Plus the fact that, musicologically speaking, the complex rhythmic tensions and chord voicings are a whole lot harder than they sound.) But the coup de grace, the showstopper, comes just before the curtain falls. Track 10, "Cab," was originally penned for Broadway's Having Our Say. Here, it dances in on Colson's stride piano work and gains momentum through horn work that's inspired by early Ellington (Carroll reaches for his plunger mute). Wait a few distinctly modern harmonies slip in. Stride slips into swing, then morphs to post-bop, then slowly, gradually, back to stride all in less than two minutes, and all perfectly balanced, as if it was easy.

- Larry Blumenfeld

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