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The Beatin' Path 

Merging atoms with Adam Rudolph

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo
"In Africa, there's a high level of understanding of the magic of sound. Sound is vibration, and all of creation is vibration, and we're all atoms vibrating at various rates, though we have the illusion of solidity. Many African traditions have learned to combine the overtones, the coloration of music, with the motion of it, so that it can affect people's vibrations in a profound, transformative way."

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You've gotta like the theory. How about in practice? On this chill January night at Venice's bare-bones Electric Lodge performance space, the particular format Adam Rudolph has chosen from the many in his repertoire allows him to cheat a bit: In addition to manipulating sound, he's exploiting the visual clout of Oguri, a Japanese improvisational dancer who often becomes a corporeal manifestation of the rhythms and accents rising from Rudolph's congas and other percussion paraphernalia, and bends with the electronic ghosts generated by Nels Cline's guitars, effects pedals, toy ray guns, etc. It's the first of six nights -- three here, three at New York's Knitting Factory -- and progressive-jazz viziers James Newton, Wadada Leo Smith, Joseph Jarman, Graham Haynes and Joseph Bowie are scheduled to succeed Cline as guest impressionist.

Wait. Where did that guy come from? A second ago, Oguri was absent; now he's there, frozen angularly in a trim charcoal suit, his sharp black shadow nailed to a white wall by a side light. He moves. For about an hour, he stop-frames through thousands of permutations of face and posture: stretching out desperate arms, trembling like paper, struggling against a mighty wind, eviscerating himself with an invisible knife, stretching, collapsing, visage seized at odd moments by a deadly stare or a horrible smile.

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Much of this is prompted by Rudolph -- the cavernous moans the percussionist gets by pressing a moistened fingertip across a conga head, the goat stampede he incites in his drums, the throat-singing Tuvan buzz he seems to produce from nowhere, the brief chants he occasionally shouts out. Cline, meanwhile, conjures unprecedented jangles and drones, subtly torturing his pickups and teasing out feedback. "I like doing it this way," he says afterward, downplaying the genius of his methodology. "I don't exactly play guitar -- I sort of wave it around."

At the end, Oguri stands rigid at center stage. And. Section by bodily section. The tension. Ebbs. Out of him. And he's there, just a human. The catharsis hits like an ocean breaker, and the overcapacity audience, many sitting on floor pillows, goes nuts. All right, gang. You did it.

Though Rudolph has spent some 30 years studying percussion techniques from Africa, India, Indonesia and wherever, he's the first to say that the impact he achieves comes not from strict traditionalism, but from applying his knowledge to the fundamental emotions he shares with people all over the world. "You could devote a lifetime to one tradition and still not master it," he says, "because of the connection of the music to the local life itself. People are playing their experience, and it's always been my desire to play mine."

That experience has been broad enough to forge links to most anybody. Raised in Chicago's Hyde Park district, Rudolph found himself, in the late '60s and early '70s, a neighbor to members of the experimental Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (Muhal Richard Abrams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc.), as well as bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. He caught a dose of hand-drumming fever from which he has never recovered, and, following a path that benefited Randy Weston, Art Blakey and Tony Williams, traveled to West Africa at age 21 to spend a year exacerbating his affliction.

Rudolph was one of the first to bounce diverse world musicians off each other, forming the Mandingo Griot Society with his old friend reedman Ralph Jones and Gambian kora player Foday Muso Susa in 1977, soon to be joined by Ornette Coleman's "twin," the late trumpeter Don Cherry, whom many credit with virtually inventing "world" music. Cherry added his indefinable smoke to much of Rudolph's music, including Gift of the Gnawa, a trancey 1991 project with the versatile Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun.

"Don was always finding a way to create with musicians from any kind of background," says Rudolph. "Much of what's happening with music now, especially improvised music, is a result of his efforts."

In 1979, Rudolph dropped by Los Angeles to visit his mentor and collaborator Charles Moore, a trumpeter he'd met at Oberlin, and stayed -- at least when he wasn't touring in Europe, Japan, South America or the Middle East.

"L.A. is one of the most difficult places to present your music," he says, "but it's a nice place to raise my daughter, and I like being away from the trendiness of the New York scene. There's so much space to find your own voice and direction here, and over the years I've encountered so many world-class, fantastic musicians."

Rudolph's main L.A. outlet this decade has been his Moving Pictures band, a fascinating blend of rhythm, improvisation, sonic experiment and foreign flavors featuring saxist Jones, multi-instrumentalist Jihad Racy and harpist Susan Allen; Oguri is also a regular partner in the concert performances of the group, which will soon issue its third release, the live Twelve Arrows. The album takes a daring leap into a mode of performance unfamiliar to most Western ears, wherein interinstrumental relationships develop slowly, naturally, with plenty of space.

"In my first week in Ghana," says Rudolph, "I went to a ceremony where it started in a very offhand manner, with everyone talking and sort of tapping on the drums, and next thing you know, these spirits are coming down and entering people. Or Gnawa healing ceremonies -- they start at sunset and go till about 1 o'clock the next day. When you're there the whole time, you can move through the transformation of it. On Java, the puppet shows go on for hours and hours. I want to explore that."

One of Rudolph's more ambitious stretches has been The Dreamer, produced in 1995 for his own Meta Records label (www.metarecords.com). Based on narrated texts from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and accompanied by the highly defined, resonant paintings of Rudolph's wife, Nancy Jackson, this surreal, ever-shifting opera is performed by a chamber orchestra featuring such L.A. improvimental luminaries as guitarist G.E. Stinson (himself a former Hyde Park resident) and violinist Jeff Gauthier. Watch for a reprise staging, which will probably again include Oguri in the title role.

Right now, Rudolph is busy as always, encouraged to find ever more receptive listeners and some shelter from the prevailing glare. "Hollywood is like these huge fluorescent lights," he says. "Our kind of thing is like candlelight. But other than the sun, a candle is the most beautiful light."


There's one figure it would be hard to omit from any discussion of Adam Rudolph: Yusef Lateef, friend and associate for 12 years. "Yusef has been the greatest inspiration, musically and personally, in my life," Rudolph says simply, and the man's example shows why.

Beginning as an admirer of Charlie Parker in the '40s, Lateef declared he wouldn't repeat himself, and hasn't. Acknowledged by John Coltrane for pioneering introductions of Eastern elements into jazz, he was a renowned saxist, flutist, what-have-you-ist, composer and pathfinder before lowering his American profile in the '80s by devoting four years to teaching in Nigeria. As the 78-year-old continues to fertilize future generations through his professorship at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, his works, though largely unknown among mainstream jazz listeners, have reached new levels of power and scope, lately even displaying a mastery of electronic invention. And Rudolph has been his strongest bulwark, lending his arsenal of instruments and his musical direction to numerous tours, as well as such discs as the orchestral The African American Epic Suite (ACT/WDR), the 12-musician The World at Peace (recorded for Meta Records at L.A.'s Jazz Bakery), and the moody, sinuous flute-guitar-percussion statement Like the Dust (the last two available from Lateef's YAL Records, P.O. Box 799, Amherst, MA 01004).

--G.B.

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