Daniel Carter, Steve Swell, Tom Abbs and David Brandt — The Transcendentalists: Real Time Messangers (CIMP 264)
Daniel Carter and Reuben Radding — Luminescence (AUM Fidelity 025)
WHEN I was a student of English at Leeds University half a century ago, we studied a course on the “American Renaissance” in literature of the mid-1900. Among the prescribed oracles of this era were the “Transcendentalists” — writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry David Thoreau, and to Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.
I loved their idealism and conviction to humanity; their belief in union; freedom and democracy; their optimism and lack of fear for the future; their faith in the spontaneous and their ambition, as Emerson had put it, to “mount to paradise, by the stairway of surprise,” or as Whitman earnestly declared: “I will not make poems with reference to parts. But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble.”
Looking back to those grey Yorkshire days and boozy nights with so few “leaves of grass” around, I can see now why I loved these writers so much and five decades onwards, how much their words relate to music.
This was a realisation prompted by listening to the powerful improvising album on the CIMP label The Transcendentalists: Real Time Messengers by an astonishing quartet of hornmen, of saxophones, clarinet, flute and trumpet and ex-street and subway virtuoso Daniel Carter, born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1944; free trombonist Steve Swell born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1954, the Seattle-born bassist Tom Abbas and the drummer from Palo Alto, California, Daniel Brandt.
They came together on this album recorded in rural New York state at the Spirit Room studio in February 2002, a few months before the “shock and awe” in Iraq, with a purpose, as Swell wrote in his sleeve poem to “stop the violence in real time, feed the hungry in real time, pray for the clarity of thought for all in real time, once and or all, for all time” — quite an intention for an improvising quartet.
The opening track, The Nowness of Pure Potentiality with Swell’s growling slides, Carter’s keening alto saxophone and Abbs and Brandt in full communion, manifests the American heart of this recording, and Carter’s alto full of joyous cadences in The Spirit of Aspirations Beyond has the essence of exultant birdsong. With Brandt’s drums are the relentless rhythms of the Long Island surf that Whitman would hear as he wrote his long, tidal lines, composing on the beach.
Carter plays some sizzling trumpet in a brass colloquy with Swell’s powerful declamations on The Effects of Right Effort and an almost spectral clarinet through The Effects of Selfless Giving — with Abbas’s bass pulsating through the Earth.
The Final track, The Moment of Being the Sound, is a momentary 16 minutes of improvising testimony that shows that the impetus and truth of the quartet of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman still reverberate.
As the label founder Robert D Rusch describes this 21st-century foursome: “It is the music of possibilities and, for the listener who connects, the realisation of the best of life.” Mutual understanding, the deepest connection and sheer sonic invention and beauty — the transcendentalists would have a recognised an immediate comradeship here.
The Marvellous Carter makes a duo with the Washington DC-born bassist Reuben Radding on the 2001 album Luminescence, recorded in Seattle shortly after the catastrophe of September 11 2001. Security baggage restrictions ment that Carter could only take his alto on the plane from New York which curtailed his phenomenal multi-instrumentalism.
The first track, You And I Are Disappearing, and its successor are slow, with a mournful beauty, perhaps reflecting contemporary events. Carter’s naked melodism floats over Radding’s deep twang, his buoyant lyricism like a song of love and loss, almost a levitation. In Refracted Light and Grace, Carter swings with suppleness and agility and Radding’s sawing bow brings it all back to the real ground.
Carter’s alto sometimes reflects the geometric corners of his namesake of an earlier generation, Benny, and in the album’s penultimate track, Qualcosa Verso Azzurro, he seems to be climbing Emerson’s “stairway of surprise” in a way that the old transcendentalists could only have dreamed.
“Do not the great always live extempore?” he once once mooted, a century before Carter was born. Yet he was anticipating his very American sound and what Radding calls “the audible light that emanated from in when he played.” Hear it here, and savour its pure luminescence.