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Alex Coke’s New Texas Swing

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I first heard Alex Coke back around 1978 or so when I was a freshman at UT and he hosted a weekly jazz jam at the old Buffalo Grill on far west 6th Street. I’d go to hear him and Rich Harney backing up various cocktail-lounge chanteuses at clubs around town and also blowing more experimental stuff now and then. I think I even attended the very first show of the Creative Opportunity Orchestra (CO2), the long-running big band dedicated to experimental jazz co-founded by Coke.

In the intervening years Coke and I both left Austin and returned. From the Austin Chronicle I learned that he had gone to Amsterdam to be in the Willem Breuker Kollektief, an influential Dutch jazz group. Then from an inspirational piece on Fresh Air I learned that Breuker was all wrapped up in a musical movement known as “New Dutch Swing”, documented in NPR jazz critic Kevin Whitehead’s book of the same name. I was excited to hear that New Dutch Swing brought together the “traditional” elements of avant-garde jazz — free improvisation and its antecedents in bop and Coltrane-era jazz — and some not-so-common elements, notably a return to swinging rhythm, an openness to vernacular music outside the jazz repertoire and a quirky sense of humor.

Wow, I thought. Let’s hope Alex Coke bring some of that spirit back to Austin! So I was delighted when I heard about a project he had started under the name New Texas Swing. I took that phrase and let my imagination run with it, and soon visions were dancing in my head of Bob Wills colliding with Thelonius Monk, with a generous side of polka and a scoop of Ornette Coleman on top.

Well, last night I finally got to hear the real thing at the New Texas Swing record release party at Waterloo Ice House. The lineup was Alex on tenor and flutes, CO2 leader Tina Marsh on vocals, and two players I didn’t recognize on bass and drums. I was at once impressed and disappointed. Impressed because Coke and Marsh have grown in the 20+ years since I listened to them regularly into the possessors of monster technique. Coke was all over the sax and flutes, especially the bass flute. At times he played apparent polyphonics that seemed to be high and low, soft and loud at once. Marsh’s vocal technique matched his, taking the role of an instrument as vocalists rarely succeed in doing; often it was hard to tell which sounds were Coke and which were Marsh.

But I was disappointed, too, because I can’t say I found much “new” in New Texas Swing. The music was not far from what I would have heard at one of Coke’s or Marsh’s avant-garde gigs twenty-plus years ago — usually a driving rhythm and bare-bones bop-style melody and chord progression carried by the bass and drums, over which the winds and voice explored increasingly “outside” harmonic and tonal techniques. The emphasis on humor and swing I was hoping Coke might have picked up from his Dutch experience was nowhere in evidence. The “Texas” in New Texas Swing appeared to consist of an interest in the songs of Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Leadbelly), but with their earthy side removed so they sounded like spirituals.

Of course I shouldn’t fault Coke for not fulfilling an agenda I imposed on him. Coke and Marsh are superb musicians dedicated to their craft. If I’ve become a bit of a philistine when it comes to the tradition of free improvisation, that’s probably my loss. But I still wonder: where are the musicians who could fulfill the promise of that name “New Texas Swing”? It seems to me that a fusion of Wills and Monk is still out there in the ether, waiting for someone to turn it into sound.

(P.S. The New Texas Swing CD is unknown to Amazon or B&N. You can find ordering info or local Austin stores that carry it at Alex Coke’s site and listen to samples at the CO2 site. And if you want to listen to that Fresh Air interview with Kevin Whitehead, it starts about 37:30 into the clip.)

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