It didn't seem to limit his opportunities. He'd play with Henry Threadgill's experimental big band one minute, with Gillespie bebop trumpet disciple Jon Faddis or smooth saxophonist Stan Getz the next, and with young innovators like Geri Allen the next. Inside or outside tradition, Cox could play it.
By 1990, he was offered the chance to make his first CD as a leader. Enduring a romantic breakup and contemplating a move back to Minnesota away from the East Coast grind, he threw himself into composing and lined up a strong, inter-generational ensemble. As things happened, when the recording date came, saxophonist Dewey Redman hadn't taken the time to learn the music. "I was like a first-time director of a low-budget film watching my big chance totally turn around. I literally sat there and said, 'I think I'm a failure,'" Cox recalls. Fortunately, drummer Billy Higgins goaded Redman on, while Cox "went to plan B" and made a more impressionistic record. Entitled Dark Metals, it established Cox as something more than just an ace sideman.
In fact, aside from occasional appearances with saxophonist Joe Lovano, a longtime cohort and the current Downbeat jazz artist of the year, Cox isn't a sideman for anyone anymore. Even as he fills out his busy recording schedule, he says, "I'm at a point where there has to be some mutual respect. I'm not just going to be the hired gun and kill myself for their vision. I'm into concepts and projects where I am the leader or coleader."
The top priority right now is Rios, a group that released its first CD last year and has since reconfigured itself to include coleaders Cox and vibraphonist David Friedman, plus a French accordionist and a New York percussionist. They will tour Canada and then head for Europe and mainland China beginning in the fall, with another recording date to follow. Cox also hopes to resurrect most of the quartet that played in 1993 on Factor Of Faces, his second CD as a leader.
And there is Power Circus. Cox concedes the trio is still experimenting and is not yet ready for national exposure. But for this week's gigs he promises exciting, risky interplay, mixing originals from all three members with vanguard compositions from Ornette Coleman and Carla Bley, plus bop tunes like Monk's "Uncle T," rearranged in what Cox calls a "more contemporary way."
"We are working on changing the way we play, and that isn't easy," Cox says, noting the prejudice of many jazz fans toward electric music, and their own efforts to avoid fusion clichés. "I notice that when I pull out my upright bass and say 'Let's just play,' we immediately go into this open-ended language. But when I do it with my electric, everybody just freezes up sometimes. That's the barrier we are going to be breaking." CP
Power Circus perform this Friday through Sunday at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul; 292-1359.