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The Dynamic Duo - Remember Trane and Bird

Derek Taylor, One Final Note

Jazz has a habit of killing its kings. Charlie Parker and Albert Ayler died at 34. Coltrane lived until 40 and Dolphy was 36 when the reaper came calling. Brooklyn-born saxophonist Arthur Rhames carried the torch of these icons, mirroring their intense ardor for and dedication to the music with his own untimely mortality. In a way his story is even more tragic. Succumbing to an AIDS-related illness in 1989 at the age of 32, he left behind a legacy barely represented on record. Prior to this recent Ayler Records windfall his sole commercially available album was a poorly taped and less than impressively performed concert on DIW, Live at Soundscape. Rhames is one of the figures lauded by fellow musicians but largely unknown to the listening public. This two-disc set seeks and largely succeeds in explicating what all the fuss was about.
Dubbing themselves the Dynamic Duo, Rhames and drummer Rashied Ali gigged quite often in the late 70s and early 80s. This program comes from a summer festival date the two played at Willisau, Switzerland in 1981. Deviating from a normal musical format, disc one opens with a lengthy spoken introduction by Ali, who reads from and riffs on a set of written remembrances about his friend and former colleague (at one point sheets of note paper can even be heard rustling). It's an informative, if discursive, monologue, underscored in points with tinny audio snippets of the pair playing.

The actual music, which begins with a sprawling 23-minute improvisatory journey through "Mr. PC", incorporating a string of Trane-associative themes, does a better job at illustrating the kinship these two shared. Ali and Rhames hit the tune's head loose and at a galloping clip before quickly veering off into a succession of choppy and chatty detours, making substantial use of a blitzing 'sheets of sound' strategy. Ali keeps rigorous pace with the saxophonist the whole way, stamping out strenuous snare tattoos against a continuously roiling current of cymbal spray, and turning in two superb solos of his own.

Rhames wears his affinity for Coltrane prominently throughout the program. There are numerous points where he seems to channel the saxophone saint in wholesale fashion. Consequently, the majority of material favors the Coltrane songbook. Bird-associative tunes only crop up during a comparatively brief 10-minute medley near the close of the second disc. But unlike the legion of imitators that have milked the master's memory to point of rote adoration, Rhames appears intent on infusing his own sound into what on the surface feels like heavy homage.

For "I Want to Talk About You", another Trane staple that segues out of Ali's concluding solo on "PC", Rhames references his elder's habit of coaxing and caressing the dulcet theme through a series of note-pregnant phrases. Ali's steady brushes bracket the sagacious display of melodic logic, largely holding back as the saxophonist indulges in the sort of extended cadenza that was Coltrane's custom. As good as these tracks are, it's even more exciting to hear Rhames rip through the changes of "Giant Steps" on two separate medleys, though intrusive tape breaks mar the initial action on the first.

Further evidence of his musical-immersive life, Rhames also had serious talent on piano and guitar, frequently engaging in a practice regime on all three of his instruments that ate up nearly all the hours in any given day. His piano stylings receive the spotlight on several pieces, including the second half of the aforementioned "Mr. PC". His approach at the ivories shows an obvious debt to McCoy Tyner in the application of bright right hand cascades, penetrating left hand punctuations and a penchant for grand romantic gestures. Readings of the three parts of "A Love Supreme" are comparatively condensed and stripped down, but no less arresting in their visceral thunder. Several original pieces-"Extra, Extra - Read All About It", which features Ali reciting the title as a mantra atop a turblent tide of drums, and the set-closing rhapsodic piano romp "The Work of the Master"-also round out the program.

This timely Ayler release not only plugs a gap in Rhames' pitifully small catalog, it also points to the probability of more tapes of his artistry in existence. Jan Ström and Ayler Records have fired off a persuasive first shot. Here's hoping that others will follow suit and make more of Rhames' music available to the masses. The man may be gone, but, as in the case of other greats, his spirit lives on.