With roots in tradition, jazz is known for sometimes inordinately focusing on tribute concerts and albums, paying homage to luminaries from Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk to John Coltrane. But when it comes to progressive trends after Coltrane's demise, not many artists dip their toes into lesser-exposed waters.
Enter saxophonist Nathan Frink, who moved to Pittsburgh several years ago to join the University of Pittsburgh's expanding jazz program.
During the transition period while pianist/composer Geri Allen takes over the department's reins from its founder, professor emeritus Nathan Davis, Mr. Frink attempts to address a realm of jazz that has never been touched upon in the Jazz Seminars of past years: the decades-long oeuvre of "harmolodics" inventor and saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Frink picked up the sax in high school because he was impressed with how Clarence Clemons sounded in Bruce Springsteen's band. But with the influence of the local NPR jazz station and his school's jazz band instructor steering him toward Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," Mr. Frink fell deeply under the spell of the instrument, absorbing jazz's gamut from Clifford Brown and Cannonball Adderley to Coltrane.
Cementing his interest in the avant-garde was his stint at Nazareth College in suburban Rochester. "The jazz band director was [trumpeter] Paul Smoker, who did recordings in the '80s with Anthony Braxton," he recalls. "He ripped me to pieces the first couple years I was there, but I needed somebody to be hard on me. During my time there, I learned about harmonies and jazz history, and in the final year we did a concert of Ornette's music with a small combo.
A year after leaving Nazareth, Mr. Frink applied to Pitt as an ethnomusicology grad student. "The program stresses academics so much, and I had never done that amount of research before. So I dropped playing for almost three years just when I was trying to get my chops up to snuff. I did a master's thesis in 2012 about Ornette's music in the 1970s, looking at new ways to analyze free music. Instead of transcription, I used spectral analysis, looking at waveforms and diagrams that show overtones. You can talk about 'regions of intensity' in free-improvised music and start to find form where sometimes you think there isn't any."
While analyzing Mr. Coleman's output from 1980-2010 ("a massive project"), Mr. Frink has communicated with bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma (of Mr. Coleman's double quartet Prime Time) and equally iconic saxophonist David Murray. "I've done copyist work for [Mr. Murray], and he gave me lessons in exchange. He's been helpful in trying to understand Ornette's philosophy. I'm also trying to reach John Zorn, who recorded a bunch of Ornette's music in the '80s. I would even like to get in touch with Ornette directly, and his son [drummer] Denardo, but they seem very elusive."
Even if Mr. Frink can't directly contact his free-jazz hero, now 83, the results of his fastidious research should reap rewards when his sextet (bassist John Bagnato, vocalist Lee Martin, tenor saxophonist John Petrucelli, trumpeter Joe Badaczewski and drummer Gordon Nunn) unveils some of his 1970s-era transcriptions tonight. "We'll do six pieces from between 1971 and 1973. What [Mr. Coleman] did during that time was to change his composition to include more instruments and greater sections of intensity that either use more dissonance or a lot of orchestration to back up vocal phrases. In the early '70s on 'Science Fiction' he started using voice [Indian-born vocalist Asha Puthli, who was later sampled by rapper Notorious B.I.G.].
"There are also sections of collective improvisation that didn't happen in his works from the '60s. These pieces grow from the mold of his earlier records ['The Shape of Jazz to Come' and 'This Is Our Music'], but they're different in the way the large ensemble is used," he says, acknowledging that the approach is somewhat similar to the "free-jazz big-band" styles that Europeans like Peter Brotzmann and Alexander Schlippenbach were creating during the same era. "Everybody does their own thing, and slowly it builds back up to something recognizable ... after the form is done, the music can go anywhere."
Mr. Frink has also been spreading his sax around Pittsburgh, working with Latin jazzers Batamba and jam-funkers Jazzam. "I'd also like to start a session that I envision as a collaborative environment where experimental jazz musicians could gather once a month and play each other's tunes."
His goal is also to bring more music back to Oakland. "It's wonderful that Geri Allen's there. ... She's receptive to new ideas in the department and having more performances on campus. We should get word out that there are great musicians at Pitt -- we've got guys that can write papers, but they can also play."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.