On Monday nights, the jazz is free
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 19, 2003) – The piano player kicks off the piece with the skeleton of what sounds like a melody. The bass player’s fingers run up and down an octave, punctuated by an occasional, seemingly random cymbal crash by the drummer. Then the bassist makes a feint toward an actual dance rhythm before backing off. The pianist lets loose with a lyrical volley of notes on top and the bassist states a rhythm again. The drummer kicks in with more startling accents on cymbals and skins, before the tall woodwind player picks up an alto clarinet and plays a quick figure hinting at classic, swing-era jazz. But just when you think the band is going to play something old fashioned, the reedman lets loose with a flurry of honks and squawks.
On Monday nights, the jazz is free at Club Helsinki, in more ways than one. Firstly, there is no cover charge or table minimum. Listeners are invited to drop in at any time – the music usually gets going around 8:30 or so – and sit for as long as they like. No one is pressured to eat or drink, although let the listener be warned – you will likely be tempted to indulge, as the music is a provocative, sensory assault which stirs up all kinds of primal hungers and appetites.
But the jazz is free in more significant ways. Every Monday night, drummer, composer and bandleader Randy Kaye leads an improvisational concert with a select crew of musicians who are up to the challenge of instantaneous composition. On a typical night, the crew – usually a quartet including pianist John Sauer, bassist Pete Toigo, and reedman Charlie Tokarz, but sometimes featuring keyboardist Allen Livermore or trumpeter Jeff Stevens – plays two 45-minute-to-hour-long group improvisations. It’s music that has never been played before and never will be played again. It’s the jazz ideal. And it’s some of the most brilliantly creative and spontaneously exciting music you will ever hear.
Every time the clarinetist goes up a scale, the piano player echoes him by going down. They seem to be doing a kind of mirror dance, playing the inverse of each other. While they are engaging in their antonymic pas de deux, the bass and drums play a walking rhythm for a few measures, before the drummer stops and brushes the top of his skins. The clarinetist picks up the pace, and the group builds to a crashing crescendo. Then, suddenly, all that’s left is the sound of the piano playing a palimpsest of a pop tune.
The music that Kaye and his group play every Monday night harkens back to what Kaye played 30 years ago on the “avant-garde” or “free jazz” loft scene in New York. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Kaye began playing out in clubs while still a teen-ager. By the time he turned 20, he had played with members of Sun Ra’s band and been exposed to some of the most cutting-edge improvisers on the scene.
“I began making the rounds of groups, when Roland Kirk was running Monday night jazz at the Village Vanguard,” said Kaye over a recent lunch at the funky nightclub, just a few feet away from the stage where he performs with his band on Mondays. Periodically during the interview, Kaye would gesture over to the stage, which sat empty, as if the only way to make a point about his band was to summon up the evanescent sounds that might still linger somewhere in the area.
“Keith Jarrett would sit in sometimes, guys like that,” said Kaye, who still speaks with a heavy Brooklyn accent. “Then I was hired by Tony Scott to play with Paul Chambers and Jaki Byard. I was still under-age and my dad had to come and pick me up at the club after the gig to take me home.”
Then clarinetist Perry Robinson joined the group. Robinson, who had studied at the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959, had played with experimental musicians such as Paul Bley, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon and Roswell Rudd.
“We’d invent scenarios,” said Kaye. “Before going on, we’d say, ‘Let’s play as fast as possible, but as softly as possible.’ Or, ‘Don’t play every note, just think about the sound of them.’ If time happened, people would get upset. ‘That’s old,’ they’d say. It was about thinking about the tempos and not playing them.”
Throughout this time, Kaye also played more conventional music, working in dance bands and playing with vocalist Sheila Jordan. He even had a brief stint playing with Jimi Hendrix, when the guitarist was looking to put rock music behind him in favor of more experimental instrumental music. (Hendrix’s agent nixed that idea a few weeks before the Woodstock festival, and Kaye was out of a job.)
It was Jordan who referred Kaye to the man with whom he would become most identified. Through most of the 1960s, Jimmy Giuffre played with drummer-less ensembles. But when he heard Kaye, the reedman found the one drummer who was up to his standards. In 1970, the two began a musical partnership that would last for the next 25 years, until Parkinson’s disease forced Giuffre, who still lives in West Stockbridge, to retire from music.
“Jimmy Giuffre was the best leader, both as a player and as a man,” said Kaye, who spent a quarter century playing with Giuffre, mostly in Europe, where audiences seemed to be more open to the kind of music they played.
Suddenly, the band switches gears, and the rhythm section kicks up a Latin beat from south of the border. The bassist plays a deep ostinato, a repeating figure, while the pianist comps on some Cuban block chords. The drummer, who has been laying low until now, kicks up a Brazilian backbeat, and the reedman, now on tenor saxophone, blows lines up and down and all around the pianist’s latticework.
“It’s a dangerous type of music we play,” said Kaye. “It could be rambling on. But so is a straight-ahead gig, with ninety choruses of the same song. I have devices in my head that keep things moving. The challenge is to move it along without dominating the players.
“It’s not a jam session. It’s not about how good anyone is. It’s about playing from your heart. It’s a bridge between the intellect and the emotions. It’s a different way of playing. It’s not about ego. The solos come out of the ensemble. It becomes one, an organic whole. That’s the way most of the groups I loved were.
“Sometimes people say, ‘I like it but I don’t understand it.’ That really makes no sense to me. What’s there to understand? We have to understand it. Why do people feel compelled to understand it? Do they understand the structure of a tune? They just have to like it or not.”
Kaye still goes out on the road. When he’s not teaching private students or at Simon’s Rock College, he often plays in Europe with the French-based band, Three Windows. The group has a beautiful album called “A Portrait of Jimmy Giuffre.”
Gigs like the one at Helsinki – where musicians are paid to create on the spot in a nightclub setting -- don’t exist anymore, anywhere. “There are some gigs like this in Europe, but that’s it,” said Kaye. “It’s an art form. If you come with an open mind, that’s our approach, too.”
The bassist bows a deep melody, while the pianist seemingly is searching for one perfect note near the top of the keyboard. The bassist and piano just delicately duet like this with each other for several minutes. Then the drummer kicks back in with a persistent beat on cymbal and kick drum. The reedman blows fast phrases on alto saxophone, running hot bebop lines, challenging the pianist to keep up. The bassist begins to drive the band. The saxophonist and pianist keep finding corners to explore, before the drummer beings to chop the lines into beats with sharp hits.
And the band plays on.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 23, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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