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Although he’s covered a song or two on previous releases, The Literature (Pine Eagle) marks Rich Halley’s first full immersion into other people’s compositions. The adventurous Portland, Oregon-based saxophonist selected a dozen tunes by touchstones such as Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, interpreting them in his muscular, edge-walking tenor style alongside trio mates Clyde Reed on bass and son Carson Halley on drums. The results are bracingly fresh, suffusing familiar numbers with a raw energy and revivifying deep cuts such as Miles Davis’ “Little Willie Leaps In” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Chano Pozo.”
For Halley, 71, revisiting the artists and tunes that set him on his path as a teenager was a labor of love. Switching from clarinet to saxophone when he was 14 sparked an interest in jazz. And when his family finally purchased a stereo, down the rabbit hole he tumbled. “I bought some really good jazz records,” Halley says, conversing by phone from his home in his native Portland in September. “I got a Sonny Rollins record and a Miles record and a John Coltrane record … about a half dozen things like that. And immediately I said, ‘Man, this is cool!’”
There was no disconnect, he says, between his appreciation for straight-ahead jazz and the music’s more outré iterations. From the drop, he dug what Ornette was doing, although he says the first album he heard by the avant-garde pioneer was the more mainstream (but still edgy) Ornette, his 1961 release with Scott LaFaro on bass. “It swings and they tell a story,” Halley explains. “I didn’t actually feel like it was that far out. To me, it seemed really natural. Ornette was playing the tradition, he just changed a few of the parameters.”
Halley also reveals that he was playing free jazz with his high-school bandmates. So, while he was learning tunes and playing changes, he was also experimenting with more abstract modes of expression. That proved to be valuable training for what he encountered a couple of years later, when he enrolled at the University of Chicago. And while the city’s remarkable blues scene was in full bloom in 1966 — Halley would sometimes sit in with distinctive West Side guitar great Otis Rush — a burgeoning underground jazz movement also captured his ear.
The nascent Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was headquartered in Hyde Park near the university, and artists such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman and Fred Anderson played concerts on campus. “I went to that stuff all the time,” Halley says. “This was in the very beginning, when the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] was just starting to form. I was still listening to people playing tunes, but since I’d always played free, as well, I kind of liked the whole spectrum, and I could see how they were just different ways to emphasize the same basic kind of thing.”
That mix of broad-shouldered blues and fiery abstraction forms the foundation for much of Halley’s aesthetic. A strutting swagger propels his read of Ornette’s “Broad Way Blues,” his roisterous gait shadowed by Reed’s menacing bass, and he goes from jagged and threatening to slinky and sinuous on Mingus’ “Pussy Cat Dues.” He also nods to R&B honkers like Red Prysock on a version of Sun Ra’s “Kingdom of Not,” as he and Carson double up on the handclaps. Naturally, Halley utilizes riffs, hooks and blues motifs as a launch pad from which to extemporize. But he makes an exception for Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” which he plays fairly straight, his breathy, textured tenor woozily leaning on a walking bass line and lightly applied cymbals and snare. “I felt like I didn’t want to try and turn it into some kind of super-abstract thing because it’s such a great mood piece,” the saxophonist says.
With the inclusion of tunes by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Hank Williams, Halley reveals another facet of his musical architecture. Maintaining the melodic integrity of these Americana gems, Halley also raises their emotional temperature with explosive improvisations. “When I was pretty young, I used to work out in the woods, on trail crews, planting trees, things like that,” he says. “The people were mostly rural in origin, and they listened to country-western music. So I went back and listened to the history of it. I was interested in how it interfaced with jazz. There was more common ground than you would think, back in the early years.”
The majesty of nature provides another important element in Halley’s paint box. A hiker and mountain climber, he craved wide open spaces and scenic vistas, eventually gravitating back to the Pacific Northwest. This was after he completed a master’s degree in field biology at the University of New Mexico, where he researched rattlesnakes along the mountainous Arizona-Mexico border. And no, he never got bitten. “It wouldn’t be good because the venom of most rattlesnakes causes tissue damage,” he says, pondering what that would have done to the hands that work the keys on his sax. “So I was really careful. I had a great time. It’s a beautiful area.”
It may seem incongruous for jazz to be inspired by landscapes devoid of the buildings and bridges of its usually urban milieu. Halley relates how he blew the minds of fellow climbers in Yosemite when he brought his horn to the campfire rather than a guitar or harmonica. He also led the seven-piece Outside Music Ensemble, a group that performed only outdoors in natural settings sans amplification. One such setting was Powell Butte Nature Park. “The audience actually had to walk maybe three-quarters of a mile to the top of this butte,” he recalls. “You can see all the mountains, there’s no roads around, and we just set up in a little meadow. I really loved playing up there.”
Still, Halley does return to more citified environs on occasion. In August, he traveled to New York to record with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor-Baker. A completely improvised session, the album is slated for release on Halley’s own Pine Eagle imprint. The label name bespeaks the saxophonist’s family origins in rural Oregon: his father hailed from Pine Valley, his mother from nearby Eagle Valley. And while his connection to the land is more explicit on previous recordings — his 2017 duo recording with Carson, for example, is titled The Wild — the impression is indelible.
“What was it Charlie Parker said? ‘If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,’” he says. “The way you play is strongly related to your life and your experiences. So I don’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking, ‘I’m going to write this tune to evoke this specific thing about a mountain’ or something like that. I just write or play music, but because a lot of the rest of my life is involved with those things, it comes through.” - Bob Weinberg