by Howard Mandel
Copyright © 1995 Howard Mandel

A husky voice breaks the silence of dusk. A circle of voices answers back, like a camp party roused. A central drum sounds loud, steady, solid. The voices join in purposeful chorus. It's the Chief Cliff Singers of the Kootenai-Salish Reservation of Elmo, Montana, chanting in throaty, rough unison.

Now a troupe of strong, lean, athletic figures - the members of Garth Fagin Dance - spin out across Lincoln Center's outdoor stage, turning and leaping in long, lithe extensions to the implacable beat of the drum and voices. And in sweeps the sound of Don Pullen's African-Brazilian Connection, a modern jazz ensemble with the will and ability to shake everything up and forge true, new experience from any available artistic or spiritual material by applying unfettered imagination, instrumental virtuosity and conviction.

Pullen's ABC comprises master percussionist Mor Thiam of Dakar, Senegal; alto sax and flutist Carlos Ward, like the bassist Santi Dibriano, originally from Panama; U.S.-born traps drummer J.T. Lewis, and D.D. Jackson, a Toronto- raised, conservatory-trained pianist of African-American and Chinese heritage. Pullen initially assembled the quintet with bassist Nilson Matta and percussionist Guilherme Franco from Bahia, and Cameroonian saxist Jean Claude Yegba during a two-week residency devoted to multi-cultural collaboration at Pennsylvania's Yellow Springs Institute for the Arts in 1990. Once together, the ABC's projects jus' grew - as documented on four Blue Note recordings. The last issued was live from the Montreux Jazz Festival. The next, Sacred Common Ground, Pullen's music with the Chief Cliff Singers, is ready for January '96 release.

Like most other bands pianist-composer-iconoclast Pullen played in or led since arriving in New York in the late '60s (with bassist Charles Mingus; drummers Dannie Richmond, Milford Graves and Beaver Harris; saxists David Murray and George Adams; Kip Hanrahan's Conjure, many others) the ABC revels in impassioned improvisations. Pullen himself was a powerful, technique- blasting keyboard player, who was likely to advance the hummable melodies he kept up his sleeve through elegant single note runs or explode them with palm- knuckle-edge-of-hand clusters and ringing ten-finger chords.

On opening night of Lincoln Center's Out-of-Door series in Damrosch Park last August the ABC was especially full of feeling, because Pullen had died of cancer just weeks before at age 53, without seeing his final project - this daring, deep, historic collaboration "Earth Eagle First Circle" - realized, triumphantly, nationwide.

This was a personal but also esthetic triumph. Here the solo warrior's song framed a program of intense reflection and enduring testament. The pow-wow met the blues. The monolithic drum grounded rampant collective blowing as the ocean tosses up and catches back tidal waves. The heroic efforts of Pullen, literally on his deathbed as the music came together; Fagan, for whom the half-hour dance was his new season's world premiere; the Chief Cliff Singers, who made their first treks to New York City and Washington D.C. to record and introduce their piece; instigating producer Arnie Molina of Helena (Montana) Presents, co-producers District Curators (Washington, D.C.) and Lincoln Center, co-sponsors including Meet the Composer, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, Kentucky Center for the Arts (Louisville), University of Washington World Dance Series (Seattle), made "Earth Eagle First Circle" the first collaborative musical creation between 20th century America and its indigenous people.

Yes, Indian music has been admired, adapted, casually assimilated or profitably appropriated into U.S. culture - as early as the 1790s. German-born "Father" Heinrich pre-Civil War, late 19th century "Indianist" composers and modern-day song-writers for shows about Peter Pan, Howdy Doody and Pochahantas all have fiddled with American Indian themes. None, though, engaged in the cooperative manner of Pullen, Fagan and the Chief Cliff Singers. There is little record of performances by ethnic Indians and later Americans. There are a significant handful of jazz players with Indian blood (Jack Teagarden, Oscar Pettiford, Don Cherry, Jim Pepper spring to mind). But there are few if any precedents for combining authentic Indian musical practice with driving swing, open structures and far-ranging harmonies.

There's a powerful precedent now. Sacred Common Ground features a fierce boogie, a valse triste, haunting solos and one track, "At Rest, On The Trail," that's as profoundly "free" as anything since Coltrane's Ascension. Jazz aficionados may argue over the merits of this, Pullen's last CD, but Sacred Common Ground will claim a place in world music history, and not soon fade away.

"The creation of this piece on the whole was a jazz process," says Fagan of "Earth Eagle First Circle" - the collaborative effort, not just the dance or the music. Fagan is Jamaican born and he says he's been a "pow-wow junky" since his mid '20s in the mid '60s. "The project really started when Arnie and I took Don to his first pow-wow. His eyes got big as saucers when he saw what was really involved in the dances. He was blown away that I guessed all the pow-wow winners right, too!

"Then we stayed up all night, talking about it. Don was so perceptive - he noticed everything, asked about everything. I wasn't surprised at his curiosity and real interest, his determination or the final outcome. This was Don Pullen!"

Inspired by Trinidadian poet Derek Walcott's text, Fagan and Pullen had previously collaborated on "Until, By and If," using Pullen's composition "Silence = Death." The American Indians, however, knew about Fagan and Pullen only through word from Arnie Molina.

Francis Auld, the Chief Cliff Singers leader, recalls, "We first encountered Don along with two or three other drum groups, like at an audition. We had some surface chatting, b.s.-ing, and about a week later we were invited to his concert in Missoula. So we contacted one of our advisors, I guess you'd say, to explore the idea. He's a spiritual man, up on cultural events and he talked about it among the elders, too. This collaboration would probably be a good idea, and fun, he finally told us. Just set your boundaries and don't overdo it or get involved in exploitation or that kind of thing.

"We've worked as the Chief Cliff Singers for 20 years now, singing at pow- wows, and at first we didn't think too much about this project. It was just another thing, though this is the first time we did anything like this. My perspective was not to get that excited; it was just something Don wanted to try and Garth wanted to be a part of. It was an experment for us, and a challenge.

"I mean, we'd never been approached before to get involved in any expansion as serious as Don Pullen took it. He spent quite some time with us as a group, listening, asking questions, sharing. We didn't know he was ill until about three months went by. By then we'd started working, and he encouraged us to go on. 'Whatever happens I'd like you guys to continue,' he said.

"Musically, we pretty much stayed with what we had, and Don's music worked around us. Our lead singer Mike Kemille makes up songs, and I made the one about the eagle staff, but if you go to a pow-wow you see it's all pretty much in the same tempo. We didn't do anything different for this here. What's compromising about this project is the other music that's involved."

For less daring collaborators, that other music - Pullen's ABC band roaring, as well as his own deeply personal pianism - might have suggested too great a compromise. "At the beginning it sounded to me like a lot of racket," Auld readily admits. "Not being schooled in contemporary music, understanding the pitches and the highs and lows, the language sounds different from our music. But then I got a chance to watch the rehearsals on video, and I got to see and hear Mor Thiam with his drums. At first it sounded way offbeat, but as you got meditative to this sound, different impressions flit through."

"Don's rather free-form, cacophonous music was the most problematic to work with," Fagan agrees. "Of course, Don always took a firm hand in conducting the performances of his music, especially those aspects involving texture and dynamics. For the first three performances - in Helena, Washington, and New York - we had the ABC and Chief Cliff Singers live. Since then - for our season at the School of the Arts in Rochester - we used the tapes of the music that Don prepared.

"That's a dollars-and-cents issue, naturally, but the tape also makes it easier for things that should be in sync to stay in sync. The Rochester production was more sophisticated, detailed, complex, with fine lighting and other high tech than we could do out-of-doors."

"One of my major penchants is to give jazz choreography more sophistication than just 'Shake your booty, snap your fingers,' which is what it's been taken for so long. I want to capture some of the majesty of the living, contemporary music, as its created by musicians who have tradition on their side. I've been fortunate to be able to work quite a lot with great jazz artists and their scores - including Max Roach, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, Abdullah Ibrahim and Thelonious Monk.

"Now, the Indians were a very sophisticated and contained unit throughout everything. I didn't know the Chief Cliff Singers before, though I'd heard of them," Fagan continues. "Both Don and I developed such respect for their music and dance. Their soloist Mike Kemille is breathtaking, his head voice is so pure - and he's a consumate artist to work with. They all were.

"I don't know if the dance looks the same way to them as it does to more Western eyes. I've been criticized about it being too repetitive, but I wanted to remain true to what's essential of the Indian esthetic. We were sensitive to charges of appropriation, of course, and we made sure to use only secular, not sacred songs. We worked hard on the look with Linda King, our costume designer. She's an Indian woman, and she did the introductions when we presented it the first time, in Montana. After all, there were 15 elders sitting in the front row, for a program ranging from Pullen to Vivaldi!

"Dance-wise, I courted some risks by having women do more, and more energetic, things in the air - jumps rather than on-the-ground work. But I wanted to push the envelope and explore. 'What if American Indians did jump and spin, were to take it off the ground?' I wanted to reverse our Afro- American movements, too, and put them on the ground.

"The pursists are always about divisions, not inclusion, which is why jazz gets put on the sideline: because it's about inclusion," Fagan surmises. "You have to listen to put in your self in jazz. You have to listen to others.

"Music for dance is different than music for the ear, you know, because you're seeing and listening both - you're getting two things and they have to meld. Some of the music as Don had conceived it was too long to maintain interest in a dance. But before Don died, we talked about his preferences, and he said to me, 'I know how you edit. This is for you, brother,' giving me carte blanche.

"So we got it together and performed it in such a way that Don lives. I'm afraid there's a move against multi-culti in this country today, though I still think we should look at, analyze and celebrate our differences, all of us together, take on what's positive and bury what's negative. That was the spirit of this piece and of Don Pullen's work, with the African Brazilian Connection and before. Not to take anything away from anybody - but there is only one Don Pullen, And I mean that in the present tense like I said it."

"As far as the performances, it's sad Don didn't get to finish it," Francis Auld concurs, "but he'd heard it; the music was part of him. I felt at the performances he was there, if not his physical presence. I felt an emotional swell from his spirit and to see the members of his family that were there at these musical and physical resurrections of him. There was a piece of him in each of them, who got to see it.

"As for the project: we got to finish it, so it was completed. And through the recording, the music has a possibility to carry on all over the world. I'll be interested to see the reactions. Is it a political statement? Some people in our group viewed it like that, that for the first time indigenous people of North America, South America and Africa came together. We pioneered that step. The work also refers to Indians' ongoing struggle, and Don's illness, too. Like I said, we'll have to wait to see.

"This was a difficult project to work with Pullen on. He'd been up here to our headquarters a lot, the dancers knew him and knew he was ill, and they were sad. That sadness threatened to get under the whole the piece. I was feeling cheated we did't have more time to refine it as we'd had in our earlier work process. There would have been little things we could have smoothed out about timings and textures, I don't know what else...

"There's nothing in any planning stage," Auld says of the possibility of further cross-cultural collaboration for the Chief Cliff Singers, "but that doesn't mean there can't be. As long as the other artists come with that type of attitude of respect, not to overindulge or try to expose our spirituality, yeah, we'd be willing to do something like this again.

"But sometimes you get overbearing people who want to know our mysteries, or tap our spirituality. There are thousands of Indian tribes on this one continent, and centuries ago there were probably many more. The Kootenai want to be left alone to freely practice our own ways. As for other Indians, as long as neither you nor they generalize their particular beliefs, I'm comfortable with what they do. If the view among Americans becomes 'Well, all Indians do this' - I'm against it."

All Indians don't do this. Maybe they would if they could, but to date only the Chief Cliff Singers have stretched their heritage to embrace so radically universal an esthetic as Garth Fagan and Don Pullen proposed. What's radical about that esthetic is not that it claims everyone is the same, but that it believes art to be capacious enough to encompass great diversities. The place where different peoples meet, in respect and collaborative creativity, is sacred common ground.

This article was originally published in RhythmMusic, Jan1996

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