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Apfelbaum Comes Home for ‘Jazz on Fourth Street’By IRA STEINGROOT Special to the Planet

Friday May 13, 2005

This weekend’s ninth annual Jazz on Fourth Street Festival marks a musical homecoming for multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum. 

The Berkeley native last played here in February 2002 at Freight and Salvage with the same kind of small group he will be bringing to Fourth Street this Sunday. He is best-known locally, though, for his creation of the Hieroglyphic Ensemble, a 17-piece group he founded in 1977 when he was 17 years old. At one time or another, this group was the incubator for such now-renowned players as pianist Benny Green and saxophonists Craig Handy and Joshua Redman, among others. Since 1995, most of his baton-wielding has been with smaller Hieroglyphic Sextets and Septets and, since 1998, Brooklyn has been his home base. 

Beginning as a precocious teenager, Apfelbaum’s career reads something like a moebius strip. “All its further destinies are prefigured in its origin,” as Franz Rosenzweig put it. 

Peter was leading a big band, writing music and performing on reeds, keyboards and percussion at an age when most musicians are still mastering the rudiments of their axes. At the same time he was still learning. He names Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Pharaoh Sanders as early and important influences. He studied with John Tchicai when the great Danish saxophonist and free jazz pioneer was teaching at Davis in the early ‘90s. By 1987, the critics were paying a lot of attention to the Hieroglyphic Ensemble. In 1988, the ensemble began performing with trumpeter and former Ornette Coleman collaborator Don Cherry, and was featured on his Multikulti album.  

At that time, the shape of jazz to come was like an unborn chick still trying to egg tooth its way through the hard calcium carbonate shell of ‘60s free jazz. All the innovation of Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Coltrane and Dolphy cried out for synthesis, but few knew what that synthesis would be like. For Apfelbaum, growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, listening and playing everything from jazz to rock to indigenous folk music to contemporary classical, the answer was to be a premonition of the music of the next quarter century. 

Jazz would take its place as the flagship of post-colonial culture, not borrowing from other musics in order to stay contemporary, but demonstrating that it already had refined the techniques necessary to make all these sounds and improvisational methods work together. 

As the Kabbalists say, Apfelbaum was already prepared and arrayed for the unification. The Hieroglyphic Ensemble was playing a polyrhythmic, improvised jazz, cognizant of the musical traditions of India, Africa, the West Indies, Latin America and Asia before the terms world music or world beat existed. Apfelbaum’s genius was not in appropriating, but, like any true jazz composer, synthesizing the possibilities that were around him and creating structures for improvisation. 

The term “hieroglyphic” arose because that is how the musicians in the band first described his notation. Yet the word remains fitting for this music since it contains multivalent references to Egypt and Africa; lost and refound wisdom; gnosis; and non-linear, instantaneous modes of communication such as symbols and emblems. 

His newest album’s title, It Is Written, continues to play with our concepts of knowing and learning. He told me that for him it had the suggestion of something always meant to be: kismet, fate, destiny, or b’shert, as the Yiddish has it. It’s the writing on the wall but in this case the tagger is the collective unconscious. Like jazz and African music, his compositions are grounded in what was his first instrument, the drums, unlike Western music which begins with the elements of chords, keys, scales and harmony. The songs have no fixed meanings. Instead they are oral/aural symbols which, hopefully, trigger associations in the minds of listeners. At the same time, this is a music of propulsive rhythms, high energy and fiery beauty. 

For a wonderful, al fresco introduction to this cutting edge music, catch the Ninth Annual Jazz on Fourth Street Festival, a benefit for the Berkeley High School Performing Arts Program and the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble. This free event takes place on Sunday, May 15, from noon to 5 p.m. on Fourth Street in Berkeley, between Hearst and Virginia. 

The Peter Apfelbaum Septet, consisting of Peter Apfelbaum, tenor sax, keyboards and percussion; John Schott, guitar; Rachel Durling, violin; Jeff Cressman, trombone; John Shifflett, bass; Deszon X. Claiborne, drums; and Josh Jones, percussion will perform from 1:15 to 2 p.m. Also featured on the program are blues guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Chris Cain from 2:15 to 3 p.m.; and Son Montuno-style Cuban band Palenque from 3:10 to 4 p.m. Two Berkeley High School combos and the award-winning Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble will open and close the festivities. For more information call 526-6294.