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Pyramid power
Roy Campbell’s free spirit


Free jazz may have been born in rebellion, but it has never completely severed its ties to the past or to the African-American culture that gave it birth. Albert Ayler’s music bears the stamp of the AME church; Ben Webster still lingers in the snarling tenor of Archie Shepp; and with Ethnic Stew and Brew (Delmark), trumpeter Roy Campbell and his Pyramid Trio confirm their status as one of the most important free-jazz units of the ’90s.

Campbell, a veteran of such New York bands as Other Dimensions in Music, Jemeel Moondoc’s Jus Grew Orchestra, and William Parker’s Little Huey Orchestra, can blow free with the best of them. But from the very beginnings of the Pyramid Trio, which he established in 1983, he’s been focused on embracing what he calls “the world-music vibe.” He explains, “I had studied with Yusef Lateef at Manhattan Community College in the early ’70s and was influenced by his course in music and world culture. I loved his album Prayer to the East and thought his version of ‘Night in Tunisia,’ with the shenai and shepherd’s pipes, sounded so natural and right. Of course, I’d heard Don Cherry’s music, and I wanted to pick up that banner and carry it even further.”

Campbell has indeed picked up that banner. Like Cherry, he can improvise a solo that you can practically sing along to, though he doesn’t sound at all like the late harmolodic world music explorer. His blues-drenched authority, vocal inflections, and post-bop phraseology suggest rather one of his former teachers — trumpeter Lee Morgan. And a songlike lyricism informs the gusts of pure sound at the sonic extremes of his instrument. With his dark, soft, rounded tone and his regard for the jazz-trumpet tradition, Campbell is a kind of free-jazz Kenny Dorham.

In the past year or so, he has shone as a sideman on alto-saxophonist Rob Brown’s Jumping Off the Page (no More) and pianist Matthew Shipp’s Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear) and with Moondoc’s Jus Grew Orchestra on Spirit House (Eremite). But the Pyramid Trio is the setting that shows him to best advantage. Ethnic Stew and Brew’s mix of reggae, Afro-Cuban, and swinging-jazz beats and free pulse launches his snaky post-bop melodies and his free-jazz sound abstractions over stylistic chasms with graceful ease. His bandmates — bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake — are expert at generating the necessary fluid rhythmic underpinnings. On “Malcolm, Martin, and Mandela,” a jazz march that segues into swing, Campbell unfurls silky lines with little half-value wrinkles and knots of expressive riffs that smooth out into longer songlike phrases. Every phrase ramps the tension up a bit until he explodes with stratospheric wail and kites a long passage of swirling abstractions above the now boiling foundation laid down by Drake and Parker. On “Imhotep,” which is taken at an easy medium lope that would sound right at home on a vintage Blue Note album, Campbell’s flügelhorn gradually loosens itself from the groove’s tether and shoots upward like a helium-filled balloon. Drake and Parker scatter the pulse in response, and the performance oscillates between the solid grounding of the beat and the quicksilver free pulse.

Campbell’s trio makes a powerful case for free jazz as an important expression of the African æsthetic in the US. When it’s fused with music from the African Diaspora, you can hear free jazz as the extension of a long African heritage. If the lilt and sway of reggae is heard in “Ethnic Stew and Brew,” so too is the jungle sound of ’30s Ellington. The dark abstractions of Bill Dixon are as much a part of Campbell’s vocabulary as the brassy wail of a Cuban conjunto. The idea that a spontaneous jazz-trumpet melody, an Afro-Cuban drum pattern, and the atonal sweep of the arco bass can co-exist and make sense together, as they do on “Tazz’s Dilemma,” is both open-hearted and daring. And the Japanese influences on “Impressions of Yokohama” make it clear that Campbell’s global vision goes beyond just the US and Africa.

The Pyramid Trio is ambitious enough to seek a musical/cultural identity that speaks to a world with permeable borders, instant communication, and an aching need for connection and context. What’s more, though fun may be too frivolous a word to describe Ethnic Stew and Brew, this is music that feels good.

Issue Date: July 5 - 12, 2001

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