|Rarely does an artist emerge
who combines a profound respect
for the state of Jazz past and present,
with the ability to add something unique.
Makanda Ken McIntyre was such an artist.
One Final Note Review Over the course of a sadly too-often interrupted recording career, multi-instrumentalist Makanda Ken Mcintyre (1936-2001) seemed to specialize in the curio. He first came to notice for Looking Ahead, an early 1960s Prestige date that remains known chiefly for matching him with Eric Dolphy. There followed three highly original sessions—one “with strings”, one a quartet, and one a quintet—on United Artists, released at the time to virtually no notice, compiled with great care and affection by Michael Cuscuna in the CD era but since deleted by Blue Note. Stints with larger ensembles led by Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, and Charlie Haden followed, as well as an appearance on the Wildflowers anthology. And there was, in the mid-1970s, a run of LPs for the Danish Steeplechase label featuring appearances from musicians such as Kenny Drew, Jaki Byard, Beaver Harris, and Buster Williams.
But never from all of this was it really possible to assemble a complete picture of McIntyre as a musician. As the company he kept suggested, was he a free jazzer? (Not really.) Was he another garret-dwelling, neglected post-bop genius a la Herbie Nichols? (Not exactly.) Was he an academician? (He was a teacher.) Was he a Third Streamer? (He certainly was a very distinctive composer who worked in a variety of idioms.) As curious as the posthumously issued In The Wind, a collection of quartets performed solely by McIntyre on woodwinds in 1995 and 1996, is, it also allows us to begin to formulate a definitive answer to the question of his true musical identity.
Achieved via overdubbing, In The Wind consists of eleven performances of roughly equal length: Three clarinet quartets (two B-flat, alto, and bass); three double-reed quartets (two oboes, English horn, and bassoon); three flute quartets (two concert C, alto, and bass); and two saxophone quartets (soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone). (That’s 13 different instruments, by the way.) The program itself features calypsos (“Puunti”; “Peas ‘N’ Rice”), the blues, hard bop style (“Chitlins and Cavyah”), modal workouts (“Home”; “Chasin’ The Sun”) and ballads (“Charshee”; “Blanche”). And the predominant mood is one of play, if at times querulously so.
McIntyre enjoys major keys, melodies that twist with very tuneful subtlety, and arrangements that are rich without being cluttered. In fact, his harmonies have a sort of Manny Albam (cf. his “Alto Cumulus”) or, occasionally, John Lewis/MJQ flavor, charming, stately, featuring only the gentlest of dissonances. This quality is most apparent in the three flute quartets, which, rather than being thin and precious, are without question the finest performances here, delicate, attractively grainy, and lyrical without sacrificing any eccentricity.
As a soloist, however, McIntyre sounds quite at odds with himself as a composer. Though he can improvise capably and quite individually in all ranges, he loves to make forays into the stratospheric register of his (given) horn. He splatters notes, slips and slides around tonality, leaps over risky intervals, gallops (surely Anthony Braxton listened closely to him), and drops into speech-like patterns that mumble or declaim. McIntyre might start a solo with what under other circumstances might be the climax and work backwards. And he is never less than fleet, no matter how unwieldy the instrument; hear his bassoon on “Chitlins and Cavyah”, and what sounds like a leaky tenor sax on “Black Sugar Cane”. Although he will probably be forever linked with Dolphy in many listeners’ minds, the man McIntyre most resembles here is fellow Bostonian Sam Rivers, only more mercurial.
Yet even the finest of McIntyre’s many solos here—on baritone sax on “Puunti”, followed as it is by sax counterpoint that starts to pull the piece apart, like a hitch in the weave that guarantees the new pattern will end in utter unraveling; over the colliding rhythms of “Mambooga”; his first oboe statement on the truly interstellar Baroque stylings of “Home”; on the gorgeous “Charshee”—must vie against a certain stiffness to the music. In order to pull it all off, the music must remain somewhat schematic. McIntyre simply cannot put down a line that will be impossible for himself to follow. Consequently, these pieces often ask to swing but cannot quite manage it. With its almost foursquare rhythms, regular ostinatos, and series-of-solos structures, the music loses savor in direct proportion to the length of time one spends with it. In other words, it is better in bits.
Then again, such glibness—or is it a form of drabness?—is a danger inherent in the kind of virtuosity of which McIntyre was an adherent. And, pleasing as it is, In The Wind’s excellence is not due to any novelty of sound or method, but to the fact that it reveals how wonderfully split McIntyre’s musical personality was. The least successful of these studies are simply pleasant and colorful. They are too much about unison and, while they do not grate, they do not necessarily reward the listener equally with each replaying.
But the best performances on In The Wind—the flute and double reed quartets, “Eileen”, and “Puunti”—have a uniquely timeless quality. They feel both warm and cool, cloudy and bright, breezy and calm, ethereal and earthy. Like a outwardly perfect day in a spring that, one is gradually sad to realize, is marred in that it remains innocent of autumn’s inevitability. Only artists graced with a certain restless generosity of spirit can give us music such as this, and, on the evidence of this recording, Makanda Ken McIntyre was one of them.