Baikida Carroll: Marionettes on a High WireLiner notes for Marionettes on a High Wire (OmniTone 12101)

"There are too many souls of wood not to love those wooden characters who do indeed have a soul."  —Jean Cocteau

Marionettes bestride the interface between the real world and that of fantasy.  Their handmade construction of very down-to-earth materials —usually wood —and the long hours of practice required to master their animation, belie the whimsy and wit with which they ultimately perform and entertain.

"Marionettes are a metaphor for the life of an artist.  The idea is to vehemently and colorfully explore your imagination," explains Baikida Carroll.  "To do this, one has to maintain an environment of open sinuosity or a looseness."  Taking care of the business of real life —paying bills, family life, politics, and getting to gigs —is the 'high wire' that every artist must traverse.  This balancing act, according to Baikida "has to be vigilantly maintained, to avoid plunging into the abyss."

This temperance comes from a true artist, a pivotal figure in the creative music world both as trumpeter and composer.  Since the early '70s, he has written music for theater, dance, television, film and live concerts, including acclaimed plays by Emily Mann and August Strindberg, among many others.  He has performed and recorded internationally with Dewey Redman, Oliver Nelson, David Murray, Jay McShann, Little Milton, Carla Bley and Dr John (just to name a few), and as featured sideman on distinguished recordings by Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette and Sam Rivers.

Cross-disciplinary sensibility forms the heart of every album Baikida has made as a leader.  He draws and reshapes music he's written previously and creates new compositions to round out the program, focusing on designing vehicles that allow the album's musical collaborators to best convey emotion, character and substance through music.

Baikida wrote the evocative "Griot's Last Dance" in memory of fellow trumpeter, the late Don Cherry, a musician with whom he developed a close relationship in Paris.  "He conversed through an unspoken aesthetic," recalls Baikida.  "He used that concept to communicate and tell stories around the world. He went from place to place, learned this music, and he was able to say what he said on a trumpet, not using the 'traditional vocabulary'....He would go places and play with people, and he would just speak with his horn. He was a griot —an Afro-American griot."

Baikida's desire, shared with Cherry, to transcend traditional vocabulary was at the heart of the gamboling "Ebullient Secrets," reminiscent of the tunes of another friend of Baikida's, Woody Shaw.  "I wanted to swing, but I wanted something simple, yet boundlessly expansive. Like a snapshot of the universe," explains Baikida.

Another dedication, the charming and deceptively complex "Velma" conveys the warmth, care and love with which Baikida's grandmother, the matriarch of the family, blessed him.  Recalls Baikida fondly, "She was the focal point of the family.  She always created this great mood, this atmosphere."

Three of the pieces result from Baikida's compositions written for theater.

Just as Baikida will write tunes specifically for a musician, he wrote "Miss Julie" as a string quartet specifically for actress Kim Cattrall, who portrayed the title character in the eponymous August Strindberg play.  Explains Baikida, "We had all these meetings, and it was based on the way she portrayed the part —I wrote it all out of her."

Two tunes from Emily Mann's Tony Award-winning Broadway play Having Our Say present studies in contrast, encompassing the rich lives of the Delaney sisters.  The liltingly heartwarming "Our Say" encapsulates the graceful strength of the two sisters who loved, laughed and embraced life after a century of living side by side.  And "Cab," a period piece based on players like James P Johnson and Art Tatum, quickly expands and then contracts in this masterful reworking to encompass the history of jazz through the post-bop era —all in less than two minutes!

Baikida's love of theater started in St Louis in third grade as The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz; he would later pursue this love in the multidisciplinary Black Artists Group.  "In there, we had a theater department, a writing department, a visual arts department, dance, music," reminisces Baikida.  In the synergy of the arts BAG had to offer, he developed close and lasting relationships with other influential BAG members including Oliver Lake, Malinke Elliott, John Hicks, Bobo Shaw, Lester and Joe Bowie and iconoclastic Julius Hemphill, who (along with Lake) he calls "a brother."

Baikida recalls how they bonded from the first moment they met in 1968.   He misses "talking really hardcore music" with Hemphill, and the energy he contributed to the planet.  "I really really really miss that.  It's a void, with people like him and Cherry and Lester, Philip Wilson, people that you develop your music with, and they're no longer here," Baikida avows.  "Flamboye" captures the flamboyant Hemphill —silver lamé suits and all —and Hemphill's alter persona, Roy Boye.

Hemphill personified Baikida's 'vehement and colorful' exploration of imagination; commends Baikida, "The artists on this record are that same type.  They take care of all sides of the music —technical, creative, they're good spirits.  People like Ade, Pheeroan, like Michael Formanek, like Erica, they're just beautiful human beings.  It comes out in their playing —the warmth of their playing, the sincerity of their lines."  On the death-defying title track, each player represents a marionette, precariously perched over the tense drums, each solo a sure-footed traverse of the tightrope.

"That whole idea of sitting in the audience, looking up at this tiny figure, totally exposed.  Death-defying," concludes Baikida.  "You just lay it all out there.  You're not relying on licks and formulas, it's just 'this is what it is, this is what I've learned, this is who I am, this is what I have to say.'"

—Frank Tafuri

[Read complete interview with Baikida Carroll.]

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