about Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis's ensemble



The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles 

by Bob Gluck(2016) 


Chapter 7 The Revolutionary Ensemble 




Texture as a Musical Feature 



A third key aspect of the Revolutionary Ensemble's musical approach is attention to texture, the use of sonic qualities as a musical device. A clear example of this is found in Vietnam, part 2. Following Jerome Cooper's drum solo, we hear quiet harmonica phrases in the background. In the foreground, Sirone plays sharply articulated, highly amplified fragments of a musical line. Then Leroy Jenkins steps forward with a delicate, harmonic minor solo line, which leads us to the sounds of bird whistles in a forest. Within that sound event, Jenkins plays a melancholy lyrical line, at times echoing the birdlike gestures. A happy/sad harmonica quietly joins Jenkins in a duet, disturbed only briefly by a gong. A bugle phrase appears ever so fleetingly before Sirone enters on arco bass, above which Jenkins hints at the opening melody.  



The band's textural interests and the physicality of its instruments come together not only in the spontaneous improvisation but also in the players' choices regarding musical form. Cooper comments: 



My music was based more on what I would call "structured and patterned," because as a drummer I don't rely on B-flat and C-sharp. I have to rely on colors. I would write out a letter A, in which I might say at letter A, I want you to play viola, Leroy ― improvise. And we'd move into letter A1, where Sirone would come in with trombone, and then we'd move to letter B, which would be the written out song-things that would be really written. Then we'd go into letter B2; it would be a variation of, maybe, B. It would be like that. 



When I first [started] writing, I used to write my tunes in the old bebop way, meaning you write a melody and improvise off that melody and play the melody and end the song. It wasn't musical from a drummer's point of view. If you took away the harmonization and just left the drums there, it would be totally unmusical. 





In its place, Cooper offered structures and instrumentation, reflecting his coloristic interests.  



Each of the three musicians composed, and often the works presented unique challenges. Sirone describes the preparation for a reunion concert in 2004: "Leroy had this incredible piece that we didn't even use. It was changing rhythms, damn, every four bars and sometimes every two bars and I'm not talking common 4/4 rhythms. I'm talking about 9/8s, 7/4, 5/4." His reflective conclusion was that "each one of our compositions is very different. But the beautiful thing about it is the freedom to create; get that color; that sound; that expression; that motif, and it comes from the raw spirit; from the soul." 



The Revolutionary Ensemble really constructed collective sound paintings. Whether playing a melody, a rhythmic pattern, or a more abstract sonic gesture, the varying qualities of sound itself were central to the band's musical inventions. 







Cooper remembers how tenuous the existence of the Revolutionary Ensemble was: "When we got together ― we had no work from 1971 to '75 ― what kept us together was the music. The Art Ensemble, them cats worked. Air [another AACM-related improvisation ensemble] used to have a lot of gigs. I don't know. Maybe it's because we weren't like a trio. We were three individuals playing. A lot of times, people would come up after the concert and say, 'Leroy, I really like that song you wrote.' And it would piss Leroy off, because it would be my music." 



Cooper's observation that the Revolutionary Ensemble was "three individuals playing" ― unlike a conventionally conceived band ― is a helpful guide to understanding this group. Its music, like everything else about it ― its internal process as a group and its face to the world ― was informal and collective. This was collaboration in the purist sense. Although compositions could be tagged to individual composers within the group, the spirit of the Revolutionary Ensemble was that of the revolutionary anarchist. As I recall strongly from my own experience seeing the band perform, there was no formal presentation: the band just got up and played. There also was no discernible business plan, because the band played for the sake of making music, doing its best to go from club to club in search of gigs, but often happening into them. And the timing proved right, for a very brief time, for the music of the Revolutionary Ensemble to fit within the vision of a record producer, resulting in a major label record contract. Yet the band had no marketing scheme, just an ad hoc affixing of posters to light posts, walls, and bulletin boards. 



The collaboration was sustained despite strong wills, as Cooper recalls: "So me and Leroy ― a lot of people think we argued ― we did argue, but we argued about how we were going to go about something, so you've got to get your point across. I loved Leroy. Leroy was really cool." Well-formed musical personalities aside, there was also no front person representing the band. There was just... the Revolutionary Ensemble. Sirone's observation about the band's focus and work ethic, that "we rehearsed three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday four hours a day, and in-between we'd be looking for jobs, so it was every day, really," is summed up in his conclusion: "But the first thing we thought about was the music."  



Love of shared music-making was not enough to keep the Revolutionary Ensemble alive, however, and the group disbanded in 1977. As Cooper recalls, this happened for "a lot of reasons. The main reason was we didn't have no work. There was no work. And the other reason, musically, we were going in different directions. I was going into more of a shamanistic journey. I was hanging out with this Mexican, pre Columbian drummer, Antonio Zapata. And Sirone was going into theater and moving to Berlin. Leroy was going into a more notated European music." Sirone's interest in the theater continued throughout the rest of his life. 



Six years was nonetheless a substantial duration for a band. While the Art Ensemble of Chicago remained together for decades, the Miles Davis Quintet of the '60s lasted five years, Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band for three, Davis's Lost Quintet for a year and a half, and Circle for less than a year. 



Leroy Jenkins passed away in 2007, followed two years later by Sirone. Yet even in the years after the demise of the Revolutionary Ensemble, Jenkins and Cooper's musical bond remained strong. Cooper recalls: "After we broke up, me and Leroy kept playing. We did the Chicago Jazz Festival together as a duet. Leroy would hire me as a composer for his European classical stuff. So I could play through his connections." The drummer's admiration for Jenkins has never faded: "Leroy didn't show off. Very undercut. His shit was really ― you know what I mean ― he wasn't no show-off cat. He could play his ass off, and he wasn't a show-off." His death came as a shock: "When he passed away, I just got back from Burma ― something told me to come back, and Roscoe [Mitchell] called me up and said, 'Leroy died.' I said, 'What?' He said he died of lung cancer. And Leroy didn't smoke that much. That's crazy." 



Sirone sums up the experience of all three members of the Revolutionary Ensemble: "It was very difficult even to be alive for the three of us, and it's a miracle in itself playing this music; the dedication that we put towards this music... having the rare opportunity to write music like that and have musicians to honestly approach it. That just don't happen every day."  



The daily miracle experienced by Sirone very much defines the Revolutionary Ensemble. Yet it is not distant from the ever renewing and evolving musical journeys of Circle and the Miles Davis Lost group. 



For all three bands, every musical moment was filled with surprise and spontaneity. At the same time, the Revolutionary Ensemble was a far less economically sustainable organization than either of those peer groups. With limited financial expectations, the band played for the sheer joy of making music, seizing whatever opportunities might emerge. Despite its inability to build a listener base beyond its largely informal network of listeners and fellow musicians, the band remained vital for a number of years. And twenty-five years later, it returned for a final, energetic bow.