Graham Haynes: Pilgrim’s Progress

Graham Haynes is a pilgrim. The young cornetist always seems to be in search of some way to play music that’s rooted in jazz, relevant to current urban pop and consistent with his generally utopian, futuristic mindset.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Haynes has noodled with all manner of electronic music at one time or another. Recent Sunday nights have found him and such co-religionists as guitarist Vernon Reid and spinners DJ Spazekraft, DJ Spooky and DJ Logic searching for the right frequency during “Electric Church” at Walker Stage in TriBeCa.

That said, in the past Mr. Haynes has often won more points for ambition than execution. His cornet work is handsome, with a brittle, world-weary tone that recalls Miles Davis, as well as the pocket trumpet (actually a small cornet) of Don Cherry. But if Mr. Haynes’ brushstrokes were fine, the larger canvas was often sprawling and unfocused.

Mr. Haynes’ last major-label album, Tones for the 21st Century (Verve) in 1996, was a radical if disastrous bid for New Age satori that sacrificed acoustic instrumental interest on the altar of ambient blips, blats and spoken-word loops.

My dim view of Tones might simply be chalked up to my larger failure to embrace the electronic millennium, except that I think Mr. Haynes’ latest, BPM (Knitting Factory Records), is the best thing he’s done.

His cornet blows winningly over samples and thudding percussion tracks taken from the stripped-down style of electronic dance music known as drum-and-bass. While the album’s rhythmic sense owes little to conventional swing (and I don’t even want to think about the Oedipal implications of embracing drum-and-bass when your father is the monumental jazz drummer Roy Haynes), it has a gritty propulsion that is at least on speaking terms with jazz.

BPM , which alludes, presumably, to “beats per minute,” the standard unit of measurement in the adrenalized drum-and-bass world, still has too many undigested electronic special effects for me. (You, on the other hand, may enjoy the sample of Austin Powers’ “Yeah, baby!” on the album’s fourth track.) But, all told, it’s a worthy companion album to last year’s Animation/Imagination (Blue Note) by the veteran trumpeter Tim Hagans. (The trumpet’s metallic bite must somehow invite miscegenation with machine music.) Mr. Hagans is a resourceful, virtuosic tourist in the land of drum-and-bass. Mr. Haynes has gone native–he does most of his own programming and sampling–and the commitment is audible.

Now the Wagner question. The past couple of years have seen a handful of jazzers and rockers mining Wagner for gorgeous melodies (see pianist Valerie Capers’ Wagner Takes the A Train , pianist Uri Caine’s Wagner E Venezia and guitarist Gary Lucas’ Evangeline ). But drum-and-bass Wagner is probably the least expected.

More than a third of BPM channels the old master and ur-Nazi: a jumble of themes and samples from Parsifal on the first track; “Variations on a Theme by Wagner”; the central melodic leitmotif from Parsifal on the second track; “Variation No. 2″; and the “Liebestod” theme from Tristan und Isolde on the sixth track, “Tristan in the Sky.”

Why Wagner? On the surface, his cycling open harmonies might seem far removed from the ragged discontinuities of drum-and-bass. Maybe Wagner’s orchestral themes provide a 19th-century link to the ambient aesthetic that animated Tones for the 21st Century , and to the larger idea of beauty in stasis.

We don’t know, because nothing on BPM addresses the choice of source material. It is simply the grist for the most interesting part of the album: on the first track, a frantic postmodern farrago; on the second and sixth, a rhapsodic center in the drum-and-bass hurricane. But the lack of a conceptual throughline is hardly crippling. Nothing about the demented hash of Christian-Buddhist-Teutonic mysticism that was the original Parsifal made logical sense either. It just sounded good.