Monday, October 12, 2009

Violinist Leroy Jenkins in a Historically Important Reissue

The late Leroy Jenkins was the primary violinist to come upon the American free jazz scene in the late '60s. Ornette Coleman had thrown down the gauntlet when he took up the instrument as part of the expansion of his instrumental oeuvre after the breakup of his original quartet, and he brought a hell-for-leather style of attack that was to prove influential on all who came after. Mr. Jenkins was no exception, though the melodic thrust of his playing was always more a prominent factor in his approach.

After coming to attention as an integral member of the Anthony Braxton trio (along with trumpeter Leo Smith) in the late '60s, he formed a cooperative trio with bassist Sirone and drummer Jerome Cooper that was dubbed The Revolutionary Ensemble. Working in the breakthrough New York loft scene in the early '70s, they made a recording, Vietnam, that was subsequently issued as an LP on ESP Disk. That recording has just been reissued on CD.

Returning to this record after many years, I find that my original feelings about it still hold. The group plays a long, two part work that covers plenty of ground. Other than a few ensemble passages, it is essentially a free improvisation. All three players were innovative and dynamic figures in the music of the era. And the group itself was unique in its instrumentation. A violin trio was an unknown quantity at the time.

Jenkins, Sirone and Cooper have moments of individual and collective brilliance on this record. There are other moments that seem less inspired. Intonation is sometime a bit faulty, which would have been resolved I am sure by another take of that portion of the work. The largest difficulty, however, one encounters on a listen is the recording quality. The balance throughout is good. But Sirone's bass is recorded well into the red levels, so that there is a pronounced distortion of his tone over much of the record. Part two of the piece has some pitch problems in playback, more noticeable as the track progresses, as if the recording was digitized from a record whose grooves were pressed slightly off center. Perhaps it was a problem with the original tape. It does not matter how it came about, certainly, but it gets distracting over time.

There were other, later recordings of the group where the sound was not at issue. I don't believe they are available on CD at this point so I wont go into the details. For the reasons mentioned I would have to say that Vietnam is more historically important as a first documentation of the group than it is as a fully satisfactory presentation of what they were about. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the development of the free violin in general, and Mr. Jenkins in particular, will find much of interest here.

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