Zen and the Art of Musical Maintenance | Music | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Zen and the Art of Musical Maintenance 

Gary Peacock

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As he worked with comparatively commercially successful artists like Davis, Evans, reedsman Jimmy Giuffre, and pianist-arranger George Russell, Peacock also became an increasingly active participant in the radical free jazz revolution that was beginning to explode the city's underground, collaborating with such upstarts as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Roland Kirk, and Steve Lacy, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and trumpeter Don Cherry. His most famous free jazz tenure, however, came in 1964, when he hooked up with the fire-breathing saxophonist Albert Ayler's trio for the landmark Spiritual Unity, the first album released by the vital ESP-Disk label. Arguably the definitive early statement of the genre, Spiritual Unity, which also features drummer Sunny Murray, divided listeners with its visceral screaming and formless, primitive power. Detractors of Ayler and his stylistic comrades, if they didn't simply run in the opposite direction, sometimes reacted violently; Peacock recalls bottles being thrown at the band in France. So were there ever moments of self-doubt as they stood their artistic ground?

"There was no ground to stand," says Peacock. "We did what we did, and the music simply was what it was. Music, if it's honest, is an offering, a gift. And a true gift is given with nothing expected in return. Playing free is about non-conceptualization—you never know what's going to happen next. After digesting everything about structure and key and learning all these standards, you're free to play and anything goes. But if anything goes, you also get people with no foundation who just [musically] throw up. Which isn't the same thing." Still, despite Peacock's decisive dedication to Ayler's vision, by the end of the decade that experience and others were beginning to take their toll. In 1969, after a brief return to Miles Davis's band to stand in for Ron Carter, he left the scene. "If I hadn't stopped playing then, I would be dead today," he maintains. "I basically had a nervous breakdown, which was precipitated by LSD use with Timothy Leary. It really shook me. I knew that I was, but I didn't know who I was."

So that year Peacock moved to Japan, in order to study the country's philosophy, medicine, language, tai chi, and macrobiotic cooking at their source. "I didn't stop playing entirely, though," says the musician, whose interest in Eastern thought began with the discovery of author Alan Watts's works in the early 1960s. "Sony Records heard I was living there and looked me up to make some records with [pianist] Masabumi Kikuchi," Peacock says, referring to his first two efforts as a leader, 1970's Eastward and 1971's Voices. "I think they checked every monastery in Japan, trying to find me [laughs]." He returned to the US in 1972, performing less frequently as he earned a degree in biology at the University of Washington and went on to teach music theory at Cornish University.

But in 1977 the bass player returned to the stage and the studio with renewed vigor, beginning his ongoing and fruitful relationship with ECM Records, which has resulted in several releases under his leadership, and forming a group with two fellow former Miles men, pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Informally dubbed the Standards Trio, the threesome has primarily concentrated on reshaping jazz and Great American Songbook evergreens. "The first time I heard Gary play was on an album with Bill Evans and [drummer] Paul Motian," says DeJohnette, a Woodstock-area resident who was profiled in the November 2010 issue of Chronogram. "I was very impressed with his sound, choice of notes, and, above all, the buoyancy of his playing. He is truly one of the great jazz masters of the acoustic bass." The trio's newest opus, the live Somewhere (ECM), was released this year and features awe-inspiring readings of Davis's "Solar," Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight," and the title Stephen Sondheim tune.

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