Fiddler off the Roof

Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America

LEROY JENKINS, who will perform at Jonathan Swift's next Monday and Tuesday on a double bill with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, belongs to an odd generation of musicians who have performed and recorded a large body of influential music without ever reaching beyond a narrow, rather cultish audience. The 47-year-old violinist has been a primary member of the Creative Construction Company and the Revolutionary Ensemble, two groups that have provided important alternatives to the stale conventions of the post-Coltrane New York avant-garde. All the same, Jenkins is hardly a household word, even in the rarefied vocabulary of the modern jazz enthusiast.

Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America is probably not destined to change all that, but Jenkins' latest release offers solid, meaty examples of some of the frontiers at which more convention-oriented jazz musicians may find themselves in a couple of decades or so.

Jenkins is unique among the few top-notch violinists that jazz has produced. Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti have been the instrument's two most successful improvisors, each using a fluid instrumental technique that can approach the offhand fluency of a saxophone or trumpet. Jenkins is the most violinistic violinist in improvised music; his effective use of double-stops (two notes bowed together), rapid bowing, and pizzicato techniques places him much closer to the classical violin tradition than any of his predecessors in jazz.

Jenkins' music is strongly influenced by the innovations of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based musician's collective of which he has been a member since 1965. The best-known exponents of AACM art are Anthony Braxton and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The music on Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America has more to do with the sophisticated conceptual experiments of Braxton than with the visceral, intuitive, and often theatrical approach of the Art Ensemble.

This is not to say that Jenkins lacks soul; unique moments of pure personal communication are the goal of nearly all jazz expression, and Jenkins' playing, especially with the Revolutionary Ensemble, reaches peaks of almost frightening emotional intensity. But what Space Minds... most reflects is Jenkins' interest in creating the new and exciting structural contexts that can expand the expressive range of jazz improvisation.


Side one is the title cut, "Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America," a 21-minute suite that explores a staggering variety of instrumental and ensemble textures. "Space Minds..." is something of a departure for Jenkins because of his use of synthesizer-player Richard Teitelbaum. This is the first time that Jenkins has written for an electronic instrument, but in Teitelbaum he has clearly found a kindred spirit.

Teitelbaum, who has performed with Anthony Braxton as well as with his own electronic group, Musica Elettronica Viva, contributes lean, sensitive synthesizer work that is quite compatible with the suite's carefully structured textures and its theme of relentless exploration and discovery. Jenkins likes the futuristic associations of his oblique song title, and also "the poetic aspect, the way it can be said. 'Space Minds, New Worlds Survival of America.' It has a certain rhythm to it."

SIDE TWO, which features four shorter Jenkins compositions, is entirely acoustic and much more wide-open. The writing here suffers from a certain bland sameness, but, fortunately, the work of the individual musicians that Jenkins chose for this session is of high quality and originality. "Dancing On a A Melody" is self-descriptive: Jenkins bows an abstract written theme while trombonist George Lewis improvises on top. Lewis represents the younger second generation of AACM musicians, and here he manages to coax from his horn a variety of fluid sonorities that it was probably never intended to make.

"Through The Ages Jehovah" is an experiment in repetition; Jenkins' ensemble plays a familiar, Gershwin-like melody many times with improvised embellishments and slight changes in inflection. Pianist Anthony Davis and percussionist Andrew Cyrille prove a precise, if a bit complacent, rhythm section, neither one stepping out to make a memorable statement.

Leroy Jenkins' advanced experimentation with unusual instrumental pairings and contrasts, and his vanguard violin stylings are all represented on this well-produced, nicely annotated recording. This music is not for everyone, but experience has proved that today's esoterica can easily become tomorrow's essential background.

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