Thursday, May 06, 2021

CD Review: Steve Tintweiss & the Purple Why - MarksTown

Steve Tintweiss and the Purple Why

Bassist Steve Tintweiss was involved with many of the free jazz artists of the '60s whose albums are now considered canonical. He appeared on Patty Waters' radical, cathartic version of "Black Is the Color Of My True Love's Hair" (on Sings) and the equally loose "Wild Is the Wind (College Tour). He also worked with pianist Burton Green and saxophonists Marzette Watts and Frank Wright. When Albert Ayler toured Europe in 1970, Tintweiss was the man behind the bass.

Considering his regular appearances with artists on the ESP label, it's surprising that Bernard Stollman didn't release an album by the Purple Why, the group that Tintweiss helmed. The group had the outspoken politics of bands like the Fugs and the free jazz vision of their other labelmates. As these recordings attest, they played some pretty solid compositions too.

Along with Tintweiss (who also blows some melodica and sings), the group features tenor saxophonist Mark Whitecage (who played and recorded with a number of bands in New York before passing away in March 2021), trumpeter James DuBoise, drummer Laurence Cook and vocalists Judy Stuart and Amy Sheffer. Baritone saxophonist Trevor Koehler (who played on Erica Pomerance's ESP album and also played in the Insect Trust) appears briefly as well. 

MarksTown features two live sets from 1968. While the fidelity leaves a little something to be desired, the instruments cut through clearly enough that most ESP fans will enjoy it. The first half of finds the band at St. Marks Church at a rally for Operation Biafra Airlift, a weeklong set of concerts that raised funds for that African nation. The group was limited to a 20-minute set so they played a medley of five compositions as a suite. 

The Purple Why combined free meter with composed themes rather than going for all-out free blowing. This blend of structure and looseness sounds like few of their peers from that era, save perhaps the New York Contemporary Five. When Whitecage and DuBoise play counterpoint in the somber "Ramona I Love You," they predict what groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago would do in coming years. "Contrapuntal" begins with some bowed bass, but moves into a theme that almost sounds through-composed and doesn't lose any edge when Tintweiss picks up a slide whistle. 

Less than a month later, the group showed up at New York's Town Hall for an even more impassioned set. While vocalists in free jazz groups often attempt to emulate their instrumental bandmates (with disastrous results) or sing bad poetry, Sheffer and Stuart almost function like a Greek chorus here, adding some angelic whoops in the background which suit the music and make the space of the room come through the tape. Tintweiss, on the other hand, wails away in the foreground on a few tracks, like the 10-minute "Monogamy Is Out." The lyrics consist of little more than the title repeated between solos and he sounds closer to a punk poet than a jazz singer. But his enthusiasm is infectious, a gateway to the mindframe of wilder era, so don't fight the feeling. 

"Space Rocks" ends the second performance majestically, with a thunderous drum intro leading to counterpoint horn lines and a dramatic bass solo (bowed and plucked) that cues an intense climax of wails.

The Purple Why stayed together until the mid 1970s but this is the first release of any material by the band. Tintweiss, who is now 74, continues to play in a variety of projects. Why the world has never heard anything by this group remains a head scratcher. But the liner to MarksTown lists upcoming Inky Dot releases, which includes a performance by the band at Tompkins Square Park, so there is more to come.

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