Witness to the Two: Aaron Alexander & Julian Priester Conversational Music

When jazz was still in its nascence from New Orleans to Chicago, its structure was more open ended. The most constant aspect, no matter who the players were was the flights of improvisation via the solos. One player would feed the next the theme to expound upon. A lot of great early moments happened spontaneously and live, in the small semi secret clubs and rent parties. As capturing it for posterity was not necessarily a consideration nor even an ambition, there were none of the time constraints due to the then technical limitations of 78 records.
Hot Jazz gave way to swing and then big band. There would still remain socio-economic and racial barriers not just in music but throughout the country but with the start of swing jazz did start reaching a wider audience. As jazz shed and grew out from some of its Storyville past a populist (entertainment) aspect slowly crept in. As a way to compromise, not artistically but to be able to keep audiences entertained while also achieving the artistic satisfaction akin to what was felt at the after hours jams part of the stage show would often encompass duels or cutting contests. It is a little like the chicken or egg argument in regards to whether this started to inspire partnerships, duos within a group such as Herschel Evans and Lester Young in one of the early incarnations of Count Basie’s band.
A bunch of factors which included the big bands having been pared down losing members due to World War II call up, a record making strike due to both materials and a union dispute and greater exposure Western Classical tradition coalesced to help usher in a musical revolution whose chief progenitors gathered initially at Minton’s Playhouse (NYC). During the first flush of this new art form came also the desire to be respected more as artists than entertainers. During this slow move towards a new way of looking at musicians, cutting contests and duos still existed; desired by both audience and the artists themselves.
The stripped down size of an ensemble, usually a quartet or quintet became the accepted post war norm. As jazz continued to increase in complexity and possibilities a long chain of great partnerships emerged which would be one part battle one part duets, typified by such tenor teams as Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin et al.
The late fifties, early sixties saw jazz birth genres and sub-genres. By the mid-sixties forms were not merely stretched but shattered or ignored. The until then typical duets of two saxes occurring within the framework of an ensemble. Now there were duets of two different instruments with no others to bolster the start or finish of a duet or provide framework in which they would occur.
Musician/composers such as Max Roach, Anthony Braxton, Mal Waldron, Archie Shepp and others created albums and concerts which in their best moments showed what only two musicians in simpatico with each other could achieve.
As rock became the new soundtrack of youth and the outsiders, jazz found itself becoming greatly marginalized. Acts that did not want to graft on rock leanings or peddle nostalgia found themselves largely out in the cold stateside. Commercially it was bleak times for jazz musicians but artistically there began a cross pollination of ideas and inspiration from ethnic musics, especially Africa and India and modern European classical. This further breaking of boundaries created a body of work in some artists that, although containing or built off of improvisations is only tenuously jazz and to which it would be both more respectful and accurate to describe it as (a type of) modern classical.
The best of these duet offerings gives the feeling to the listener that they are being allowed to ease-drop on a good conversation or voyeur like, witness two artists explore, as Picasso described himself and Braque inventing cubism;
“Like two mountain climbers roped together.”
The aptly titled new CD Conversational Music by Aaron Alexander and Julian Priester reiterates for all to hear the appeal of this type of work.
Chicago native Julian like many of his generation initially cut his teeth on the R&B circuit, playing with such luminaries as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. He would participate in a mid-50’s incarnation of the genre defying Sun Ra orchestra; home at one time or another to many forward thinking greats. By the end of the 1950’s Julian found himself in New York as part of Lionel Hampton’s band. A tour of Australia where costs had to be cut pre-tour found Julian out of a job. Saxophonist Eddie Chamblee who was then part of a newly formed group backing Dinah Washington was able to hire Julian on. When Chamblee moved on Julian was offered the position of musical director but he also departed. An introduction via sax titan Johnny Griffin to Orrin Keepnews landed him a job in the shipping department of Orrin’s Riverside Records. This was not necessarily as disheartening as it may sound for other up and coming greats including Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Drew and Wilbur Ware also worked the department from which talent was recruited to also record.
From this initial loose knit federation of musicians started Julian’s career as sideman and eventually, leader. Julian was called upon to join Max Roach’s band after tuba player Ray Draper left. The foreword thinking of Max’s compositions and execution would inspire Julian and become a hallmark of his own art as well.
Julian would find himself playing with the who’s who of progressively minded musician/composers including John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers and Booker Little. 1969 saw him playing with Duke Ellington briefly (six months). This was not a step back to nostalgia as Duke had always embraced musical possibilities brought out by what was new and by this time had created a large body of work which contained equal parts songs, suites and works whose au courant air was organic and showed that Duke moved organically with the times.
After Duke Ellington started an association with Herbie Hancock. Herbie had been in Miles Davis’ second great quintet and the start of Mile’s electro-African experiments (On the Corner/In a Silent Way/A Tribute to Jack Johnson) which served as a template for his own with his Mwandishi/Headhunters ensembles which Julian would become part of (Mwandishi). The music Julian helped create with this group largely stands the test of time and avoids a lot of the noodling indulgence that would become a later hallmark of the fusion movement. Songs like the Julian penned “Wandering Spirit” and “Water Torture” easily show themselves to be among the early precursors of techno-ambient movement.
The one constant in the diverse list of artists with whom Julian worked is a sort of questing and exploration which ultimately leads to artistic evolutions. Post Mwandishi Julian was able to record as leader for ECM (1974 Love, Love 1977 Polarization) while living in San Francisco. The 1980’s the early part of which was like a harsh winter for jazz saw Julian moving to Seattle where he started to teach at The Cornish College of the Arts while also playing in Dave Holland’s quintet. The next decade he continued his work with the quintet while also contributing to Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Towards the decade’s end Julian was in ill health and needed a liver transplant which happened in 2000. Post transplant he released his first album as leader in twenty five years In Deep End Dance (2002 Conduit Records) the start of another phase of his career which has included more collaborations and explorations.
Conversational Music was recorded in 2007 with drummer composer Aaron Alexander. Aaron first met Julian as a student at Cornish in 1982. Aaron is a perfect foil for Julian on this album as like the music itself he is not tethered to the traditional structure and idiom of jazz. Aaron is a strong composer in his own right whose writings are flavored by his association with his Klezmer and world music projects. In common with Julian is the diversity of projects Aaron has been involved with, from his own “Midrash Mish Mosh” ensemble to his associations and collaborations with Hasidic new wavers “Babkas”, The Klezmatics, Satoko Fuji Orchestra and many others. His busy schedule has seen him tour the globe appearing at many world music festivals and multi media appearances including BET Live (with Hasidic New Wave), A Prairie Home Companion (Klezmatics) and The Joseph Papp Public Theater. Although separated by an age difference, artistically they are similar in drawing from a rich broad spectrum of influences and inspirations. Also in common with Julian, Aaron would eventually find himself taking on the role of educator while still delving into sundry projects.
“Ariella Carmen” is a slower tempoed piece which features soft, beautiful brush work by Aaron that bolsters the contemplative murmuring of the Julian’s trombone. This piece serves almost as an artistic mission statement for the rest of the album in conveying the intimacy involved in the overall execution of each piece.
“Gerald Stephen” is of a quicker tempo and finds Julian playing near bop like runs punctuated by bass drum pulses and percussive washes which sonically fill in the empty spaces while never distracting by being overly busy. Julian’s tone is almost flugel horn like and possessing a great fluidic cadence. Aaron shows within the space of the piece how he can vary his attack and create great tension not just by merely switching tempo but texture too, something not every straight out jazz drummer bothers with.
“DrumBone” shows the sense of drama the duo is able to achieve via layering and also their amazing sense of interplay. Upon hearing this piece the fact that this is improvised music one is listening to is made all the more impressive.
“Life on Mars” makes fantastic use of pauses and empty space. The warm ambience to be found throughout the album is really highlighted alongside the musicians on this piece. The recording quality is pristine and although the program consists of fifteen original songs, one could easily listen and mistake it as one modern suite or perhaps a grand day dream movement.
“Wex” is bluesy and one of my favorite tracks. It conjures up the blues and the infinite coolness of all things nocturnal. The drums have a sort of swinging sensibility to them which with the bubbling and plaintive lines of trombone show that this duo has not forsaken the bluesy roots of jazz but respectfully built off of them.
“Kocmierozki’s Shed” has a sort of Gamelan feel to it. It is a sonic haiku of what is remembered upon waking from a dream. With its gongs and the small patterns that emerge and disappear it is that unexpected mystery one may encounter which turns out to be such a joy, leaving it unsolved is its own kind of pleasure.
“Cymbalinese” starts with sort of dense cymbal splash patterns and throughout the piece is without trombone. From the initial percussive pattern others emerge and the effect is like watching the rings made in a puddle by a rain drop overwritten by the next to fall in.
“Evolver” underlines the dialogue which has occurred between these two artists. Here the trombone lines are played out in a series of long slow lines while the drums dance all around them. Here one colors the other, spurring each on in contemplation that is then shared.
Conversational Music is a little under an hour long with brief liner notes on inside cover. This aptly titled album shows two artists of different generations that have combining head and heart in their works in common. Improvatory modernism need not be a by word for (sonic) discordance, yet can still pack an emotional punch as is proven over the course of fifteen highly recommended tracks.



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