Octet is moved by spiritual inspiration of the east

Boston Globe, November 17, 2006

NEW YORK—Sparked in the ’60s, the conversation between jazz and the East was always a serious matter. While the interest of hippies came and went, jazz musicians found in Indian, African, and Arabic music limitless material for inspiration and research. Yet today, the musicians at this crossroads fall in no prevailing commercial category, and toil mostly in obscurity.

Percussionist Adam Rudolph, who came up in the Chicago scene and went on to work with some of the greatest names of jazz and world music, is a perfect example. Despite decades of maturation, his sound remains rarely heard. His gig tomorrow at Brookline Tai Chi with his Moving Pictures Octet will be the first time the Los Angeles-based artist presents his work to a Boston audience.

The venue tells part of the story. Creative music, as cross-genre improvisational music is sometimes called, finds its locales where it can. In Europe it has access to major festivals; in New York, where Rudolph has spent the fall, he played this week at Symphony Space. But in many US cities, some of the most interesting programming occurs away from the usual-suspect clubs and concert venues.

Playing at a tai-chi studio makes sense, Rudolph says, sitting in the living room of his Manhattan sublet, where a set of three congas and a djembe stand in a corner.

“Doing concerts in yoga studios or tai-chi centers has become more attractive to me and a lot of musicians,” he says. “The well-endowed venues that support European classical music aren’t really open to us, and we don’t play what is traditionally considered jazz, even though that is the foundation of what I do. But also a practice like tai chi, Taoism, Buddhism, is really connected to what I do with Moving Pictures.”

A Moving Pictures piece takes Rudolph’s compositions and travels open-endedly as the musicians feed off each other and the audience. Numbers and instruments vary; tomorrow’s octet features such masters of their craft as Hamid Drake on trap drums, Steve Gorn on the Indian bansuri flute, and Morocco’s Brahim Fribgane on oud.

No loosey-goosey jam session, this is collective improvisation that rests on deep research. Rudolph is versed in the compositional structure of Indian raga, the mystical concept of tarab in Arabic music, the rhythms of the Moroccan gnawa, the cosmogony of the Dogon people of Mali. From all this Rudolph has created what he calls “a handful of signal rhythms” that recur in his compositions.

Flute and saxophone master Yusef Lateef, arguably the first jazz musician to look East in the early 1960s, has worked with Rudolph and sees in him a master of what Lateef calls “autophysiopsychic music,” or “music which comes from one’s physical, mental, and spiritual self.”

Moving Pictures, Lateef says, makes “organic orchestra music of such aesthetic quality. It’s a unique-sounding group. I have never heard one like it.”

Rudolph’s journey began in Chicago’s Hyde Park when it was a jazz holy site, home to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and many other exploration-minded musicians. He became a percussionist at a charged time when hand drums were associated with African roots, and thus a transgressive choice for a white musician. Hand-drumming also inevitably drew him toward the percussion traditions of other countries.

“I knew from the get-go that if I was going to have a long career in creative music, I wanted to learn everything I could,” he says. “The energy that had to go into seeking knowledge about hand drums was very different.” It was long before the rise of world music; recordings were hard to find.

After studying ethnomusicology at Oberlin College in Ohio, Rudolph found his way to Detroit, New York, and eventually Ghana, where he fell in with master musician Fode Musa Suso. Since 1980, Rudolph has made his home in California but frequently travels to study in Morocco or perform in Europe or Japan. He records on his own label, Meta Records.

Following the road less traveled has meant commercial obscurity but the freedom to do truly distinctive work that combines the mystical force of hand drumming with well-honed jazz instincts.

“I grew up around blues and jazz; I’m much more influenced by Elvin Jones in terms of what I do on hand drums than I am by Mongo Santamaria,” Rudolph says. “And I’ve even designed my own set of hand drums; they don’t sound like Latin drums, they have their own sound and my own way of pursuing it. In other words, my voice.”

His mentor Lateef agrees. “I would say he has formulated his own voice, and that is hard to do,” Lateef says. He suggests that the audience cast away its preconceptions and categories when approaching a Moving Pictures gig.

“I would suggest that they come with an open mind to listen intently to what is happening,” Lateef says. “I am sure they will go on an aesthetic trip. Music with deep psychological content has a way of making an impression.”