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OGJB Quartet: Telling Stories Through Sound

Over the years many people have urged Barry Altschul to write a memoir. The 74-year old drummer, composer and bandleader has certainly led an eventful life. The subject of collecting stories came up over drinks at the High Horse after the OGJB Quartet (Oliver Lake, Graham Haynes, Joe Fonda and Barry Altschul) gave a spirited performance at Amherst College’s Buckley Recital Hall on Sunday, March 5. The concert kicked off the 28th season of the Magic Triangle Jazz Series.

Altschul told us how as a 12-year old, he introduced himself to Louis Armstrong after an outdoor concert. “Let me give you a piece of advice,” Armstrong told the budding drummer, “if your wife isn’t your biggest fan, fuck it.” The Bronx-born percussionist graduated from Taft High School with Larry David (“sarcastic even then”), along with a crazy dude named Kramer. He told us about an early crossroads experience, having simultaneous offers to join the bands of Chick Corea and Jimi Hendrix. Paul Bley, his boss at the time, told him “you’re a jazz drummer.” He went with Chick. We heard stories about an alto saxophonist named Gambino who sounded just like Bird and never left Sicily, about Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey sharing drum secrets with him, and his life-long friendship with Roy Haynes (Graham’s father and grandfather of fellow drummer Marcus Gilmore.)

When I asked Joe Fonda, who lived in the Valley in the second half of the 1970s, if he had ever played in Buckley, he told me he had not, although he had a peak experience hearing Altschul play there in 1975 with Anthony Braxton.

More history was made on Sunday, as the Quartet played a 70-minute concert to over 250 people. The collective, whose first recording is due next month on the outstanding Finnish label, TUM, has only performed live a handful of times. But the veteran band (Lake is 75, Fonda, 62 and Haynes, 56) played with a loose cohesiveness, while exploring originals by all four members of the ensemble.

In creative music, terms like “front line” and “rhythm section” lose meaning. Figure and ground constantly shifted within each piece. So did roles. Neither alto saxophonist Oliver Lake nor trumpeter Graham Haynes play a lot of notes or hog the spotlight. But each has a distinct and easily identifiable sound that lent personality to each composition.

Highlights included Just a Simple Song, a beautiful ballad written by Altschul that began with a haunting unaccompanied solo statement by Haynes. Another high point was a Haynes composition, Bamako, a spiritual journey featuring Haynes on the West African stringed ngoni, Altschul on thumb piano, Fonda playing arco bass and Lake reciting an original poem. The finale, Listen to Dr. Cornel West, written by Fonda, was the most overt swinger of the set, anchored by an insistently funky bass line. In general, the music was delivered in knots of sound in sure-footed, but shifting meter. The engaged listener was rewarded with a coherent, well-balanced evening of music made by four active modern masters.

Although jazz musicians come in all types and shapes, it should come as no surprise that many are master storytellers. They are, after all, contemporary griots, itinerant world-travelers, constantly accumulating experiences across cultures. Their job is to communicate feelings, translate emotions into sound. Let’s hope Barry Altschul puts down his drum sticks long enough to pick up a pen and share some anecdotes.


Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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