Trombonist Jeff Albert recalls improvising with the sax great on "The Tree on the Mound." 

photo of Kidd Jordan by Erika Goldring
By Erika Goldring

"At Jazz Camp, everyone's afraid of him until they get to know him."

 Jackie Harris is telling the local chapter of the Jazz Journalists Association about saxophone player Kidd Jordan, who teaches at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp that she founded. At a ceremony Tuesday, she was just one of the people singing the praises of Jordan at Cafe Istanbul as the JJA named him a "Jazz Hero" on International Jazz Day 2013. Lucas Diaz, Director of Mayor's Neighborhood Engagement Office, read a proclamation recognizing Jordan "for the indelible mark he has made on jazz and his community," and David Kunian saluted him, saying, "He treats music as he's lived it, as an art and a craft."

Jordan began his acceptance speech, saying, "I don't have anything prepared but I live my life by improvisation," then he delivered talk rich with gallows humor ("I have been a hard taskmaster and friends don't mean nothing to me. I've got too many friends now."), bravado ("I've got a little arthritis in my fingers, but I can play without these anyway," holding up two), history (remembering being one of four people at a John Coltrane concert in Detroit while there with Smokey Johnson working for Motown), and wisdom, as he stressed the importance of fundamentals. His goal as a teacher at the Arts Camp and the Heritage School of Music is not to get young musicians to play like him or Coltrane or anybody else. He sees fundamentals as the route for them to learn to play like themselves.

Trombonist Jeff Albert was on hand for the ceremony. Albert runs the Open Ears Series, a home for avant-garde and improvised jazz that takes place Tuesday nights upstairs at The Blue Nile, and he recently released The Tree on the Mound with The Instigation Quartet, a group featuring Jordan, percussionist Hamid Drake, and bassist Joshua Abrams. Albert met Jordan on a horn line on a Temptations show at a Mardi Gras ball in the mid-'90s, then they ran into each other at the union hall, where Jordan hired him for another Temps show. They first shared a bill at the Blue Nile, Albert playing with the Improvisational Arts Council, Jordan with Drake, bassist William Parker, and sax player Fred Anderson. Albert started performing regularly with Drake, so he and Jordan's paths circled each other but they didn't come together. 

In 2010, Albert wrote a series of pieces titled "instigation quartets," text-based improvisation starters that he wrote them for a trip in Germany. He performed them over the course of the next six months with different combinations at Open Ears shows and on trips to Chicago, and he knew this material would form the basis of his next album. While in the audience watching Jordan perform with drummer Andrew Cyrille at Sweet Lorraine's last July, Albert realized, "Kidd's who I'm supposed to record these with." But as Jordan's speech at Cafe Istanbul suggested, he can be intimidating. When Drake told Albert he'd be in New Orleans in November, Albert asked him if he wanted to record, and if he could help get Jordan for session.

"Those recording sessions were the first time I had played an freely improvised music with Kidd," Albert says.

The compositions are Albert's way of leveling the musical playing field from the start. "Whenever you do freely improvised material, there's always a period of negotiation at the beginning," he says. "Where is this going? Is it going to have time, or is it going to be spacey? Is it going to be melodic or kind of weird? There's also the influence of the personalities. For instance, if I'm playing with Kidd or Hamid, I'm probably going to defer and do whatever they decide we're going to do. These pieces cut down the negotiation. Kidd's instruction might be, Play long tones. The next instruction might be, Wait 15 or 20 seconds, and Hamid come in with time but not a groove. Then Jeff, play a melodic line, and Josh, play a countermelody. It never says, Play a B-flat major. One of the instructions was Snakey line, and I was thinking of Kidd when I wrote that. Everything else is a free improvisation, but it says we're going to start here. It hedges the bets a bit in favor of the audience."

One of the functions of the instructions is to push the players out of their tendencies. Abrams will often play a groove, but Albert's instructions gave him permission to go other directions. "It allows me to in a subtle way make Kidd play melodically to begin with," he says. "We all have our things that we go to, and his melodic stuff isn't at the beginning. It often comes later." The parts were numbered rather than assigned to players are instruments, and when performed live, the numbers were assigned on the bandstand. "Nobody knew before the instant we played them what their role would be. It allows you to make drummers behave like horn players and make horn players play grooves."

The Tree on the Mound was cut in one day of tracking at Piety Street Studios, performing the instigation quartets first, then the title track and two Fred Anderson compositions, "Three on Two" and "The Strut." For improvisers, Jordan looms large, not just in New Orleans but around the world. He has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from New York City's Vision Festival and recognized as as a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, and he has performed with the improvisational greats around the world. Since they had never improvised together before, Albert had mild anxiety about the session and was relieved when they finished the first piece and Jordan joked, "Albert, that was pretty good. I might have to charge you extra." After the second piece: "Yeah, we ain't going to need to do any more takes of these."

In the studio, the four were set up so that Drake faced Abrams and Albert faced Jordan. During one section, Albert played with his eyes closed. When he opened them, he saw that Jordan was staring at him with one eye, head cocked, challenging him. C'mon, let's see what you've got. "At first it was horrifying," Albert says. "Then I realized, Okay, time to step up. And that's what he was doing. C'mon, here we go. That was pretty exhilarating. I'm getting this thing from Kidd.

Kidd Jordan and the Improvisational Arts Council play the Zatarain's/WWOZ Jazz Tent at Jazz Fest today at 1:25 p.m.