This group was a favorite of many avant-garde jazz fans in the '70s, appealing to a generation of listeners who had been weaned on Frank Zappa, some only temporarily lured into his camp by the intoxicating sound of electric violin soloists such as Jean-Luc Ponty and Sugarcane Harris. The violinist in the Revolutionary Ensemble, Leroy Jenkins, was cut from the same mold as these players, bluesy and swinging, but he created his sometimes fiery solos within the context of something like a free jazz power trio, removed from the corny Zappa arrangements or repetitive rhythm & blues structures. This is just a partial description of the music of the Revolutionary Ensemble, however, just as calling Jenkins a violinist was only part of the story. He was also a composer, and played a variety of so-called "little instruments," the point of which wasn't so much the development of virtuosity but the creation of a musical space where some spaced-out tooting on a kazoo or harmonica might make sense. Percussionist Jerome Cooper and bassist Sirone, also known as Norris Jones, were the other members of the group, also as likely to create an ambient universe of miniature sounds as to take off and cook. The group's early recordings on labels such as ESP often suffered from crummy pressings, the soft passages inspiring "you had to be there" reactions, while the louder, swinging sections with electric violin soloing converted one and all.
Eventually the group's big break came; a signing with the fledgling Horizon label, a "class" project of A&M Records devoted to what seemed like the ultimate presentation of jazz artists, complete with musical transcriptions and "stereo field" charts. The People's Republic was something of a masterpiece, although flawed like all of this group's masterpieces, and was the source of a wonderful bit of music-industry mythology, or perhaps truth. As the tale is told, Quincy Jones was a dinner guest of Herb Alpert, owner of A&M. The latter Tijuana Brass trumpetman was eager to show his Oscar-winning Hollywood composer and Grammy-winning pop arranger guest his cool new line of jazz discs. "What's this?" quoth Jones, holding up a copy of The People's Republic. "Want to hear some?" asketh Alpert. Next thing is, Jones is lecturing Alpert on how he has been conned: this isn't even music, let alone jazz. The story ends on a sheer note of tragedy for jazz fans; the entire label is canned, its saintly producer John Snyder sent off to the unemployment line.
It was hardly the end of the Revolutionary Ensemble, who continued on for several more years and several more albums. Although there was one reunion performance at the Nickelsdorf Jazz Festival in Austria in 1990, the history of this group is basically the history of the '70s, at least as far as free jazz is concerned. The group formed in 1971 following the arrival of Jenkins in New York from Chicago, where he had been an important part of the latter city's Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. Jenkins had been one-third of the Creative Construction Company, an avant-garde supergroup also featuring the multi-instrumentalists and composers Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith. The arrival in New York must have been a bit like being a missionary from another planet. The Big Apple jazz scene was still based on the old-school "cutting contest" rituals, while the new Chicago developments had been about collective activity. Rather than being able to join a band and get in on the New York scene, Jenkins was really forced to start his own group in order to continue playing music the way he had been. The result was a group whose subtlety was basically unmatched in the new music of the '70s, although many tried. The group's music, however, had come together in the only real tried-and-true way, by a great deal of practice and testing. Recalling the early days in an interview, Jenkins said, "So we got together and practiced every day. In fact, we were rehearsing on 13th Street there every day, five days a week, anywhere from 11 to two o'clock. I mean, we just hung out. We just played and played, and my art of improvisation got tremendously better, and the group got beautifully tight." Although the hungry New York nightlife crowd is always looking for new "hip" venues, part of the appeal of the new jazz lofts in the '70s was the groups playing in them. The image of Jenkins as a kind of pied piper, leading free jazz fans by the nose from one loft and art gallery venue in lower Manhattan to another is actually a pretty good description of what was going on at the time, minus the occasional mugging.
By 1978, the highly motivated and ever-questing original members were ready to go their own ways. The most high-profile career has belonged to Jenkins. The violinist seems to have a steady stream of projects including new groups, premieres of compositions, and recordings in which he reinvents himself while maintaining the nuance of his original stylistic appeal. Sirone was a highly in-demand free jazz bassist before the group, and continued lugging his massive instrument around Manhattan to play with leaders such as the thundering pianist Cecil Taylor or the honking, barking saxophonist Dewey Redman. Cooper received much praise for his solo performances and recordings in the early '80s, delving into specific areas of tempo, instrumentation, or texture in his own unique manner; the concepts similar to the solo work of British percussionist Eddie Prevost as well as the formidable composition examples of Braxton. By the late '90s, Cooper was less active on the New York scene, although he still performed house concerts in the East Village. ~ Eugene Chadbourne
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