Adam Rudolph is percussion master, composer, arranger, and producer. His Moving Pictures group has been one of his three mainstays (along with HU Vibrational and Go: Organic Orchestra) since he founded the group in 1992 (despite having literally dozens of other projects including the Mandingo Griot Society and collaborating with Dr. Yusef Lateef on some 20 albums in as many years). Its members have shifted continuously, but jazz drummer Hamid Drake has been a member almost since the beginning; Ned Rothenberg has also been a contributing member in the past. On Dream Garden, however, his debut for Justin Time Records, Rudolph moves his group into an entirely new sphere, one in which the culminations of his hundreds of collaborations and his multi-disciplinary approach to composition and improvisation all come to bear on a single recording. That doesn't mean hodgepodge, either. This version of Moving Pictures contains perhaps its most talented lineup yet. Rothenberg is here on everything from shakuhachi, C-and bass flutes, to bass clarinet and alto saxophone; Drake, with his drum kit, gourds, and frame drums, is present. Trumpeter Graham Haynes has put his experimental electronic and club explorations on hold for the time being to bring his trumpet and flugelhorn to this mix, while Shanir Blumenkranz is here on bass and the three-stringed sintir (a bass-like lute). As if this weren't an already impressive ensemble, guitarist Kenny Wessel and multi-instrumentalist Brahim Fribgane (who plays not only his trademark oud, but also cajon, bendir, and tarija) are here as well. Finally, rounding all of this out is the great bansuri flutist Steve Gorn, who also plays a Pakistani oboe, clarinet, and various Indian penny whistles.
What's it sound like? It sounds like the center of a universe where the cyclical rhythmic pulses are those of the world's various traditions -- many of which Rudolph himself is has studied as both musician, and ethno-musicologist -- and he plays seven instruments including thumb pianos, naqqara, tarija, caxcixi, gourds, hand drum sets (djembes, tablas, congas, timbales, and talking drums), with a boatload of other percussion items; all of which meet in the great vanguard tradition of spiritual jazz structured elements of world folks and classical musics. While it would be simple to call this "world fusion," it would be inaccurate. The aesthetics that create Dream Garden are quite specific and disciplined. Rudolph's hand drums open the album for "Oshogbo." Drake fills the backdrop almost immediately and then Haynes comes in on trumpet with flutes, saxophone, and whistles entering with a stretched, loping, unhurried melody that is underscored and colored by electric guitar chords and the exploration of intervallic mediums. The bassline rambles and rumbles not as a pulse but as an accent; it moves between the percussionists on a steady, ever intensifying drive. Haynes takes his solo and is answered by the chorus of instruments as he splays and splatters notes, never moving too far outside the melody. He is in turn answered by Rothenberg, who smatters and moans into the very heart of the rhythm, only to be rejoined by Haynes in a series of pulses that bring us to an abrupt stop. The short interlude that is "The Violet Hour" with its gorgeous shakuhachi, painterly electric guitar splashes, with clarinet and trumpet caresses, is a whisper of the wide open, slowly evolving collective improvisation that introduces "Twilight Lake." While there is space and room to breathe, there is never a stop in the action, and this beautifully Eastern-tinged melody begins to articulate itself in shades of color, the dialogue between muted trumpet, bass clarinet, an upright bass, and the guitar is pensive at first as scales are being formed right from the ground up. Notes are held as others slip through and pull them off their moorings to travel. By the time Rudolph and Drake enter, the shakuhachi is moving into another lyrical idea. Nothing is hurried, it's all paced but it's humid, nocturnal, like purple night. The shakuhachi is the sound of a singer, and of Rudolph, who is conducting this ensemble, just as Fribgane's oud slides into the front. The sense of voice is an important one in articulating music this full, rich, and texturally adventurous. Indeed, one can hear traces of the intense lyricism of everything from the great Japanese and Eastern layers to Lateef's mode and tuning exploration on Eastern sounds, to the more restrained feel of Djivan Gasparayan's duduk improvisations, to the African ecstasies of the griots as they enter the long passages in the middle of their stories.
What is so remarkable is the seamless way that all of this seemingly disparate music is brought together in the ear of the listener. It is an uncompromising music that is full of spaces, strange dimensions, and alien phrasing, as well as what may appear, on first listen, to be simply dissonance. But there isn't any really. The harmonic structure of this music and the improvisational acumen of the players is all guided by Rudolph's elegance of approach, his keen investigation of the interval, which is graceful even in the urgency of fresh expression, and his method of revealing this to both musicians and listener alike is spiritually grounded; he's always watching with the inner ear and moving the process an inch further, a level deeper, as a conductor. Because of this, freedom follows through the various channels of his players in a series of seemingly loose trails that come together in unexpected ways. It results in sense of restless but attentive adventure; it's expressed as a desire for communication between disparate sources toward the whole. We encounter his music as such. Check the way the killer polyrhythms utter their incantations on "Happiness Road." When the whistles offer a lyric line, it is because of the percussive interplay, not on top of it. It seeks its proper place in this rich and earthy mix. The kalimbas and frame drums echo their calls and responses across time, and not just across musical architecture. Some of these rhythms are ancient, some of them are variations on relatively current world traditions, and still others bring with them the keen sense of syncopation and interruption that come from jazz and the field chants of the blues, while still others carry a striated sense of New Orleans street marching. This track is answered by the sparse, indeed almost skeletal, high lonesome flute, bass, and bluesy guitar which introduce "Cousin of the Moon." When Haynes and Rothenberg enter, and lines are twinned in octave, one can feel the tension rise, but as it does, and Rudolph and Drake fold their way in, it opens wide, allowing for many different timbral expressions from the brass, winds, and reeds. Wessel and Blumenkrantz are on fire, albeit at a slow burn because Rudolph is taking off as Drake and he play tag along the broken heartbeats of the world creating a new one from the pieces.
What's utterly confounding is that this is only half of the album.
The second half doesn't ever revisit the territories created here, but builds on them with pieces like "Spectral," and "Helix." The latter track begins in the bottom, the steamy, humus-like undercover which is roiling with life. The fat double bassline, Drake's and Rudolph's popping, break and continue as talking drums, and the angular lines of Wessel's guitar offers an enormous gap for the horn lines to speak through. And they do, but sparingly at first, almost haltingly. There is so much going on rhythmically, that as these other voices emerge, they have to have footing, to see that it is all the same ground and it's solid. Rudolph allows for long notes but short phrases. They answer Wessel who is playing around and through the entire mix. Meanwhile, the drumming gets louder, more insistent; it's almost demanding in its call to the horns. It is a pair of songs joined together as inseparable. Fascinating colors emerge from this density without ever sounding dense or self-indulgent. The Latin tinge from Haynes' solo enables a new song to emerge and the drums respond with Yoruba traces confirming origin and utterance, and Haynes goes for it! The forest-like melody of the title track is brief at only a shade over two minutes; but with its clarinet lines, rounded bottom pitch drums, flutes, and a children's singsong quality, it is taken out with the notes of the sintir. This serves to enter the primal in "The Sphinx," which is beyond description except to say that it is the place where Machito, Miles Davis, and Mulatu all meet as folk musicians. The set ends with "Walking the Curve," where Fribgane's oud, Rudolph's hand drums, and a droning but punchy bassline offer an intro that is answered by tough, bluesy brass and reeds in a post-bop head, only to be turned in on themselves with the beautiful bamboo flute and acoustic guitar. It's all funky, but otherworldly; and it swings like mad. This is one of Graham Haynes finest solos on record-and indeed this album may be his very best recorded performance ever -- and it shows his full maturity as a player who can make his instrument sing and cry within a narrow channel that brings out not only his, but the entire ensemble's voices. The way Wessel, Blumenkrantz, and Fribgane interplay with one another is literally amazing. When Rothenberg's bass clarinet moans its blues holler, which shape shifts into a snake charm then a harvest song, it seems natural, effortless. Rudolph guides elements of shape, color, and an investigative approach to group music-making, that pushes the entire record so far, it has met itself back at the beginning in a perfect circle. It's so large, poetic, and wide, it carries within it all the emotions, mornings, and stories of the world. This is, thus far, a career achievement for Rudolph, one that should finally make the jazz world sit up and take notice of this man as a front line composer and bandleader, as an arranger, mentor, and improviser who doesn't acknowledge boundaries between different musical traditions, but knows and respects their lineages enough to understand how they connect and speak to one another endlessly.