Rick Margitza, as is often mentioned in discussions of the young tenor man, was with Miles Davis for a number of the trumpeter’s last few disjointed years. Widely disparaged, the recordings remaining from that phase of Davis’ career form an interesting, if painfully unfocused vision of the future of popular, yet posterity-enduring black music. His trumpet statements emerged from a confused mix of rhythms as brief, tart, unmelodic jabs, the musical equivalent of a formerly-forceful Muhammad Ali being painfully swallowed into Parkinson’s. Although the brassy bravado, the stinging formal accuracy had undergone the emasculation of time, its absence engendered a sharpened glare, a focusing of the most malleable and defiant remaining tool: rhythm. Late Miles was, in many ways, the consolidation of and commitment to American music’s blackest root, the darkest sap squeezed from twelve bars of pain - the sermon-ready, open-ended, soul-satisfying vamp.
Little wonder, as evidenced in Rick Margitza’s latest offering, that he was the saxophonist on call to counter and expand Miles’ final rhythmic phrases. If not wholly groundbreaking in this volume of solid quartet jazz (indeed, he is not), then at the least he is masterful at putting his rhythmic vocabulary - his strongest asset - on display. And while he perhaps cannot claim sui generis authority over each of his hop, skip, a step back, and then a jump ideas, he commands praise for the playful, intense manner by which he strings them together. What he testifies to time and again over this hour-plus set of music, is the surprise and startling satisfaction that was first unleashed on the world the moment Satchmo stepped back, waved his crumpled hanky, and translated that word "swing" so that white ears could hear it too. Margitza testifies to the possibilities still imbedded in that dense translation, which, as Miles always mentioned, has at its heart rhythm - in excess, displacement, and restraint. Here, in this "Memento," Margitza remembers the ideas of that other Miles alumnus, Wayne Shorter, by placing at the heart of his musical surprises (and, therefore, successes), the notion that beats are meant to be divided, then avoided, then finally to be arrived at - an emphasis that finally (and this is the real meaning of "swing") restores meaning to rhythms, and claims their speech as one’s own.
This is tall order for a jazzman of the 21st Century, and, to say the least, should be commended rather than ignored for its traditional trappings. As well should be applauded the other musicians making Margitza’s work possible, in particular drummer Brian Blade, and bassist Scott Colley. As the latter holds down the overwhelmingly traditional harmonies (at least half the tunes are blues with little or no substitutions), Blade allows himself his usual indulgences with regards to telepathic communication. Never close to overbearing, he constantly tethers himself away from the rhythmic center, suggesting a myriad of implicit options, circling around the two and four with the grace, complexity, and balletic movement of gravity-ensconced planets. His rolls and fills are roles filled with a prodding insistence, never happy until Margitza has sidestepped them, responded, and opened onto a new bar-trampling idea. Blade provides backbone in full measure that requires the most skillful type of measure-crossing playfulness - together, he and Margitza define dialogue like a pair of old buddies testing one another’s potentials, and their limits. Quarter notes careen into thirty-second, and typical two-five-one blues resolutions complicate themselves with unconventional blue notes - wasn’t this, ultimately, the message of Miles? Perhaps, jazz need not constantly look outside its badly-defined boundaries for inspiration, but examine the dust-encrusted corners of its master technicians’ sermons; what was it black leaders of the sixties muttered, through clenched teeth, about success through self-determination?