If ESP-Disk was the original home of free jazz, then the French label BYG/Actuel was its summer vacation home. Between 1969-1971, BYG/Actuel recorded and released 52 essential documents of boundary-breaking music, including this exhilarating quartet recording led by drummer Sunny Murray. A frequent sideman to Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, Murray is accompanied here by the double saxophone assault of Byard Lancaster and Kenneth Terroade, with the Art Ensemble’s Malachi Favors on bass. Spiritually grounded yet totally “out there,” this is free jazz at its apex.
Another jazz masterpiece from Joe McPhee, courtesy of Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series. This trio date from 1971 (following McPhee’s equally-essential UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and NATION TIME LPs) features McPhee on saxophones, trumpet, and pocket cornet, Mike Kull on keyboards, and Harold Smith on percussion. Appropriately recorded in a church parish hall, this music is spiritual, soulful, and uplifting. “Ionization” is a sprawling, 28-minute opus that begins with a powerful interchange between McPhee’s bellowing sax and Smith’s muscular drumming, then moves into much quieter territory with a subtle dialogue between piano and percussion. McPhee then rejoins and the piece ultimately concludes as a blues. Of the two shorter tracks, “Astral Spirits” is a quiet, reflective piece featuring multi-tracked saxophones as an homage to the Ayler brothers, and “Delta,” with its psychedelic-tinged electric piano, reminds me at times of Sun Ra in a small combo setting. An interesting technical note: due to the length of its tracks, the original vinyl release of this album had to be sonically compressed. This is the first time these recordings have been heard with their full dynamic range.
In 1979, the top-selling jazz album of the year was Herb Alpert’s RISE. And the Steve Lacy 3 played a concert at Soundscape in NYC. Coincidence? You decide. But seriously, this Steve Lacy concert sounds as fresh now as the day it was recorded. I’ve always loved the jazz trio format, especially for free improv. (Three instruments are about all I can hear simultaneously without losing the plot!) And here we’ve got three first-class jazzbos: Steve Lacy on sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Dennis Charles on drums. The conversation is freewheeling but not too noisy, experimental but grounded in melody. Proof once again that valuable music was being made in the 70’s…if you only knew where to find it.
Steve Lacy is, without a doubt, one of the most important jazz artists of the last 40 years. A master of improvisation and composition, he is also stylistically restless, and has explored virtually every avenue of jazz, from traditional dixieland, to the work of Monk and Mingus, to free jazz and modern electronic improvisation. CLICHES is a reissue of an album from 1982 (originally entitled PROSPECTUS), though it’s missing a few tracks due to deterioration of the master tapes. It features the great George Lewis on trombone, in addition to the sextet that Steve has recorded with many times since the early 80’s. The tracks here showcase some impeccable ensemble playing as well as exhilarating spontaneity. Of particular note is the title track, which begins quietly with some African percussion and French vocals, then gradually builds in intensity throughout its 22-minute length. The bluesy “Wickets” is also a particularly fine showcase for soloing. It’s nice to have this album back in print.
David Hillyard, sax player for ska bands The Slackers and Hepcat (among others), fronts his own group for this outstanding collection of ska-based jazz. The album opens and closes with two dixieland jazz tracks that highlight ska’s connection to the New Orleans sound. In between those tracks you get eight rousing instrumentals and two vocals, including an instrumental cover of The Beatles “Norwegian Wood.” Recorded “live in the studio” to preserve that spontaneous feel, the band’s vitality comes through in spades. With elements of R&B, reggae, and even Latin music spicing the mix, this is one hell of a joyous record that will make you want to see the band live.
Jamaican-born saxaphonist Joe Harriott was an influential figure on the British jazz scene of the 1960’s. Unfortunately he died of cancer at the tragically young age of 44, and most of his recordings have long been out-of- print…until now. Harriott was a contemporary of Ornette Coleman and in fact developed his own unique style of “free jazz” at roughly the same time, documented here on FREE FORM. Compared to our modern expectations of “free form,” this 1960 recording is more “form” than “free.” Musical themes are introduced and re-stated to begin and end a piece, time signatures are followed fairly strictly, etc. But there is a great exuberance to the solos here that keep the recording from sounded dated in the least. Harriott went on to even more original projects, fusing classical Indian ragas with jazz in a series of albums with John Mayer, before his death in 1973.
In 1962, veteran jazz drummer Chico Hamilton re-aligned himself with a more modern style of jazz by recruiting a lineup of talented young players for his new Quintet. Included among them were Gabor Szabo on guitar and Charles Lloyd, the group’s musical director, on alto and tenor sax, flute, and clarinet. The resulting album, DRUMFUSION, is a relentlessly rhythmic and bluesy album sure to keep your feet tapping. All six tracks are great, but I’m particularly fond of the three on Side B: the growling sax lines on “Homeward,” the more subtle flute and guitar duets on “A Rose for Booker,” and the hard-swinging finale, “Transfusion.” This quintet was very successful at the time, and the two members mentioned above went on to even more success in solo careers. A great reissue, even if it is a bootleg.
The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is the brainchild of AACM member Kahil El ‘Zabar, who has provided the rhythmic foundation for a revolving cast of band members since the group’s inception in the mid-70’s. This time out the lineup includes trombonist Joseph Bowie (brother of Lester and founder of Defunkt), saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, and guitarist Fareed Haque: an exemplary group of jazz musicians, creating soulful, spiritual music. I can never get tired of the funky, Eddie Harris-penned title track. Guitarist Haque swings mightily on “Mama’s House,” and the voice-and-percussion treatment on “This Little Light of Mine” really shines. (Ouch.) Seriously, this is great stuff.
One of the busiest trumpeteers in modern jazz, Dave Douglas has recorded with everyone from Braxton to Zorn, and released several albums under his own name with various instrumental configurations. This time it’s a quartet, featuring Douglas on trumpet, Chris Potter on tenor sax, James Genus on bass, and Ben Perowsky on drums. The result is a melodically sophisticated but perhaps too polite collection of nine original Douglas compositions, ranging from the swingin to the moody and meditative. On “Padded Cell” the band plays a little more freely and this, for me, was the most interesting track.
The evolution of New York jazz continues with this latest release from the infant AUM Fidelity label. Whit Dickey is a first-class drummer best known for his work with Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware. On his first recording as a leader, he is aided and abetted by Rob Brown on alto sax and Chris Lightcap on bass. Inspired by the music of Thelonius Monk and David S. Ware, the trio skitter and squonk through eight tracks of exhilarating free jazz. All three players are equal partners on this recording, creating an intricate conversation of rhythm and mood. While challenging at first, the record opens up upon repeated listening. Favorite tracks: the intensely moody Penumbra, the drums/bass/flute combination of “Tableau,” and the excellent ensemble piece “Kinesis.”
Repeating the success of his brilliant album of Jimi Hendrix covers (THIRD STONE FROM THE SUN), renowned flautist Robert Dick again teams with the Soldier String Quartet to re- interpret the work of others. This time the goal was to cover songs that had, up until now, remained relatively uncovered, including compositions by Coltrane and Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, and Hendrix (again). The arrangements by David Soldier are stellar and the performances, particularly by flautist Dick and violinist Regina Carter, are awe-inspiring. Of special note: the blues jam of Hendrix s Machine Gun, the complex eastern funk of Coleman’s “Three Wishes,” and the cinematic exotica of Coltrane’s “India.” An album that refuses to be ignored.
Build an Ark is a spiritual jazz mega-group led by one Carlos Ni’o, DJ at Los Angeles’ Pacifica radio station KPFK and member of the bands Ammon Contact and Hu Vibrational. Joining him on his quest for universal unity are seasoned jazz vets like percussionist Adam Rudolph, Tribe Records founder Phil Ranelin, and Derf Reklaw of The Pharoahs. Fans of that other Pharaoh (Sanders) will feel right at home from the album’s opening track, a swingin’, squonkin’ cover of “You’ve Gotta Have Freedom”. From that upbeat beginning, though, the album turns more quiet and reflective, with different combinations of the group’s 28 members featured across a total of 18 tracks. Instrumentation is varied, as you might expect from an ensemble this large, but percussion is featured most prominently. Much respect for “Love is Our Nationality,” a timely spoken word track based around Funk, Inc.’s “Let’s Make Peace and Stop the War.” And the album closes brilliantly with a jam session on Ronnie Laws’ “Always There,” as band members chant, clap, and shout out the names of their favorite jazz heroes. In channeling their inspiration from the past, Build An Ark has created a future classic.
It’s impossible for me to review this CD without first saying how incredible the sound quality is on this recording. This is the kind of CD you’d want to take to your nearest high-end audio shop and play on their $20,000 sound system. Just close your eyes and YOU ARE THERE! The clarity, the separation, the depth…wow! Fortunately, the performances here are indeed equal to this marvel of recording technology. Anouar Brahem is a Tunisian oud virtuoso who has spent years learning Arab classical music, but who also seeks to explore new contexts for his instrument. On this album he is joined by two near- legends in jazz: John Surman (on bass clarinet and soprano sax) and Dave Holland (on double-bass). The result is an incredibly beautiful and intimate trio recording, blending jazz and Arab classical musics into something wholly original. Five stars!
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Fortunately this new interpretation of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” swings mightily. Originally recorded in 1966, following several trips to Asia and the Middle East, the suite blends the sounds of the jazz orchestra with musical instruments and concepts from Iran, Japan and China. To commemorate Ellington’s 100th birthday, director/conductor Anthony Brown has re-arranged the work for his 12-piece Asian American Orchestra. This album contains great pieces of almost every length, from the short, swinging “Depk” to the 15- minute “Ad Lib on Nippon” that’s almost a suite unto itself. Also be sure to check out “Mount Harissa,” which starts and ends with a beautiful piano/percussion duet, and the powerful big band sound on “Amad.”
Following the deaths of founding members Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, the future of the Art Ensemble may be open to question. But there’s certainly no question that SIRIUS CALLING is a strong release from a venerable band. Recorded before Favors’ death in January 2004, this album features shorter tracks than the Ensemble is typically noted for, and in so doing, may be a good entry point for new listeners. Instrumentally, it’s just as eclectic as ever, with a variety of percussion instruments, flutes, recorders, bells, whistles, and what-not. It all sounds about as comfortable and effortless as free jazz can get, with all four players contributing in equal measure.
Under a grant from the Odwalla juice company, the venerable Art Ensemble of Chicago was recently given an all-expense-paid trip to Jamaica and over two months of studio time to record this, their first studio album in six years. Odwalla’s generosity is our gain: COMING HOME JAMAICA is one of the finest jazz albums of the year and possibly of the Art Ensemble’s entire 30+ year career. Their motto, “great black music: ancient to the future,” continues to provide inspiration in this recording, which features elements of everything from blues, ragtime, and swing to African and Caribbean rhythms. The album’s tracks are more tightly structured than many previous Ensemble recordings, but the players’ outstanding solos and inventive use of percussion keep things interesting throughout.
Recorded live at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May of 1998, BASSER LIVE is Tatsu Aoki’s seventh album of solo bass improvisations. And by the sounds on this album, there’s still plenty of exploration going on within those narrow confines. Of the eight long tracks here, two are augmented by Asian percussion (“Wed Lock” and “Fisherman’s Song”), and one is an arrangement of a Japanese pop song (“Sukiyaki”). Complex rhythms and funkiness abound. Though some of the tracks may go on a bit too long, Aoki is obviously having a good time, and you will too.
Doo wah Sun Ra… What an interesting time capsule on the
outstanding (and appropriate) Unheard Music Series from the
Atavistic folks. Hermetically-sealed Herman Blount sounding
very earthbound, anchored to a trash can on the corner, but
still with eyes searching for Saturn in the sky…and ears
angling for angles in the stars. He punches his Chicago
ticket twice at the end of the Nu Sounds section. There’s
a sweetness to the jingle-like melodies, and more than a
few jewels to the roughness here. Honestly, “Ra Coaching
Roland Williams” may be my favorite. Or the Lintels
picking up “Blue Moon” from scratch or the little racing
dips in “Louise” (a favorite of my departed mother-in-law
who is undoubtedly somewhere in the galaxy begging Sun to
do another rendition of that number.) A lot of older folks
will get jukebox shivers hearing these tunes. Liner notes
are a must. Zoom zoom zoom…
You shoulda heard just a what they saw…or sawed. When I
first heard this I thought either they had some electric
whammy guitar or distant voice on the first track. I just
rejected the idea that saw would be used in the free jazz
context. You hear it on the opening of #5, and it sounds
like Niels Harrit’s saw is almost not there, it comes off
as more than tape hiss but less than a fierce wind catching
the mic. Franz Beckerlee’s sax seems to charge the most
with it…buzzing into a held not alongside it, but then
scorching away. When Hugh Steinmetz jumps in on his trumpet
the saw is almost vanquished by the dual horn thorniness…
but instead it never gives up, never backs down and it helps
to keep the sax and trumpet from just spiraling away with
the entire performance. Ultimately the saw blossoms again
usually while Bo Andersen whips the drums and cymbals along
or for one of two sturdy bass solos by Steffen Andersen. For
all of its limited range, Harrit’s saw is repeatedly spell-
binding and a big reason this quintet still sounds so damn
Camille Howard seems to have been one of those musicians that could have much more well known except for the fact that she was Black, and American culture at the time would not let her succeed to the level of her skills. From this recording you will hear OUTSTANDING Blues, Jazz, and some AMAZING Boogie-Woogie piano, great singing, and fine arrangements of original songs from the late 40’s to the early 50’s.
There is a detailed bio in the liner notes.
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