Documentary on one of NYC’s greatest jazz groups, pioneering ’60s avant-garde collective the New York Art Quartet, premieres Sunday

Founding members turn up at Anthology Film Archives to celebrate the film's release

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Photograph: Raymond Ross Archives / CTSIMAGES


No short list of NYC jazz classics would be complete without the self-titled 1964 debut by the New York Art Quartet. The album might not have summoned the blinding intensity of Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity, recorded earlier the same year, or later free-jazz landmarks by John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, but as a document of a group of musicians seeking and realizing a new paradigm for collective improvisation, it remains a benchmark, 50 years after it was made.

Sadly, we've lost two members of the NYAQ in recent years: saxophonist John Tchicai in 2012 and poet Amiri Baraka—whose incisive, incantatory verse lent a deep sociopolitical gravity to The New York Art Quartet and other performances and recordings by the band—this past January. But thankfully, filmmaker Alan Roth chronicled the group's 1999 reunion, when Tchicai and fellow cofounders Roswell Rudd and Milford Graves—a trombonist and drummer, respectively, both of whom remain vital performers to this day—joined up with Baraka and the group's sometime bassist Reggie Workman to open for none other than Sonic Youth at South Street Seaport.

The resulting documentary, The Breath Courses Through Us, premieres at Anthology Film Archives this Sunday, May 18 (in conjunction with "Semper, Roi, Semper," a series devoted to Baraka), with Roth, Graves, Rudd and Workman all expected to attend. Also on hand will be historian Ben Young, an essential presence on NYC's WKCR radio station and the producer of 2013's call it art, a phenomenal five-LP box set devoted to the NYAQ.

Having seen the film, we can say that it's a beautiful snapshot of a unique creative partnership; footage of the musicians conversing over dinner is as engrossing as the copious live-performance clips and cameos from NYAQ fans including Thurston Moore and the late saxophonist Steve Lacy. Anyone interested in the history of avant-garde musicmaking in NYC should consider their Sunday evening fully booked.

Here's the trailer for Roth's film, to whet your appetite:




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