Marionettes On A High Wire
Baikida Carroll (OmniTone)
by Peter Margasak
The essence of what we do is improvisation, says
trumpeter Baikida Carroll of jazz musicians. That means
youre supposed to be making stuff up every night. To
constantly do that throughout the years you have to bring
in new elements, new sources to pull from, setting yourself
up in different environments to test your mettle, to see how
you respond to particular situations. So I try to write situations
that will bring things out of the improvisers. Marionettes
On A High Wire (OmniTone), the superb new album by the St.
Louis native and former member of the Black Artist Group (BAG),
delivers a case-in-point manifestation of these points with
a deceptive simplicity.
With the aid of his excellent working quintet pianist
Adegoke Steve Colson, bassist Michael Formanek, tenor saxophonist
Erica Lindsay and drummer Pheeroan akLaff Carroll stretches
out beautifully lyric themes with sensitive arrangements,
but as pretty as the melodies are and as swinging as the performance
of these 10 originals gets, theres a well-hidden complexity
to the material.
One of the things I do is take an element of familiarity,
but then make it slightly askew, he says. Although the
albums shimmering postbop veneer brings to mind the
intuitive beauty of the famous Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne
Shorter and Herbie Hancock, theres a trickiness to the
writing the play of two distinct rhythmic patterns
on the piano in the title track, for example that forces
the musicians to act quickly and avoid stock licks and predictable
directions. Thats what keeps you going,
says Carroll of encountering such challenges. Otherwise
youre playing the same scales, the same chords, the
same sequences, the same phrases.
Carrolls entire four-decade career has been marked by
such artistically enriching detours some deliberate,
some not. As a member of BAG, the St. Louis analog to Chicagos
AACM that produced players like Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill
and Charles Bobo Shaw, Carroll honed an expansive vision of
the music that left few stylistic stones unturned and kept
control of the music strictly within his own hands. It was
a practice he retained when he moved to New York with most
of his cohorts in the mid-70s.
Over the years Carroll built a career for himself, sporadically
making records but performing frequently. Things had been
going exceptionally well for him when he was suddenly stricken
with Bells palsy a nerve condition that causes
facial muscles to weaken or become paralyzed in 1987.
I was sitting there about to play and I couldnt
do it, he recalls. First I thought I hadnt
warmed-up properly, but within a half an hour I couldnt
play a note on my instrument. Doctors told him that
he would get his feeling back in a week, but a year later
his face was still numb. So he began a grueling three-year
process of rebuilding his embouchure. I would just put
the horn to my mouth even though it wouldnt make a sound.
After a while I got this buzz, little flutter tones, and I
started from there, doing it all day. Long tones up the wazoo.
Gradually I built it back up to where I am now. It was a nightmare.
To survive this four-year absence from playing Carroll relied
on his contacts in New Yorks theater community, which
he first made back in the 70s amid a flurry of multidisciplinary
experiments, to make a living by writing music for the stage.
Although he still views his writing for theater, film and
dance as ancillary to his main work, he appreciates what hes
learned from it. I like writing for other genres because
it forces you to research things you dont know, so youre
constantly studying, he says. If you dont
constantly study, you dont grow, and if you dont
grow in improvisational music then youre not actually
improvising. If you study anything it always leads to the
next step. You never say, Ive learned that.