RONNIE BOYKINS – THE WILL COME, IS NOW
Label: ESP Disk
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: The Will Come, Is Now; Starlight at the Wonder Inn; Demon’s Dance; Dawn is Evening, Afternoon; Tipping on Heels; The Third I
Personnel: Ronnie Boykins: bass & sousaphone; Joe Ferguson: soprano and tenor sax, flute; Monty Waters: alto and soprano sax; James Vass: alto and soprano sax, flute; Daoud Haroom: trombone; Art Lewis: drums, percussion; George Avaloz: congas
Additional Information: Recorded 1975; engineered by Marzette Watts
The only solo recording by Sun Ra bassist Ronnie Boykins, ‘The Will Come, Is Now’ has something in common with the ‘spiritual’, Afrocentric jazz of the period, as well as harking back to earlier styles, and it demonstrates lessons learned from Ra, with a collective approach that sees all the musicians doubling on percussion and mixes tightly-arranged grooves and compositional material with plenty of space for individual soloing. The title track is a near-13-minute piece built around Boykins’ steady, percussion-complemented, groove. It’s followed by a ballad feature for his arco bass with a melody that comes very close to a Mingus tune; in sound, it harks back to late 50s and early 60s jazz, Boykins taking on the role of a saxophone soloist gliding over the swooning interjections of the horns, his deep and sonorous bowed tone imparting familiar-sounding melodic contours with a slow-paced elegance. The jovial melody of ‘Demon’s Dance’ gives way to a collective improvisation in which the horns pursue separate melodic lines, honking, shrilling, and spinning out intertwining be-bop licks. ‘Tipping on Heels’ opens with an unexpected burst of old-fashioned swing jazz, big-band style, and the collective solos that ensue have the joyous flavour of the improvised ensemble playing in classic New Orleans jazz, with brightly-pitched soprano saxophones taking the place of trumpets and clarinets. A conga solo connects this with African roots. We might compare this approach to that of Archie Shepp on ‘Mama too Tight’ or to Mingus on numerous recordings: encompassing roots and futures in a historically-aware but living and flowing music.
What’s most striking about ‘The Will Come, Is Now’, is the great attention paid to texture throughout: listen to the way Boykin’s bass vamp blends with the low-toned percussion on the opening track, giving the music a real low-end rhythmic force, or to the sparse and spooky opening of ‘Dawn is Evening, Afternoon’, with eerie conga moans timed to create just the right unsettling effect, and an alto melody imparted with an almost desperate fragility before a sudden switch to invigorating up-tempo soloing; listen to the way individual instruments emerge to solo over the dense, heavy percussion of ‘The Third I’, Boykins’ growling sousaphone contrasting with the more lilting high timbre of flute and the more piercing high timbre of soprano sax. If not a record of great surprises, ‘The Will Come, Is Now’, remains a very fine listen. (DG)
BOBBY BRADFORD WITH JOHN STEVENS & THE SPONTANEOUS MUSIC ENSEMBLE
Tracklist: CD One: His Majesty Louis; Bridget’s Mother; Room 408; Tolerance/To Bob; CD Two: Trane Ride/ Ornette-Ment/ Doo-Dee; Norway; Rhythm Piece; Fragment
Personnel: Bobby Bradford: trumpet; Bob Norden: trombone; Trevor Watts: alto and soprano saxophone; Julie Tippetts: voice and guitar; Ron Herman: bass; John Stevens: drums, percussion and voice
Not entirely a re-issue, as some of this double album has never been released in any format before. But notable all the same.
Notable as a rare meeting between two musical worlds, remarkable in themselves, which were not in the habit of meeting at the time of recording (1971). Bobby Bradford, a member of the rather neglected Californian contingent of the new thing, who played but did not record with Ornette Coleman in the early 1960s just after Don Cherry’s departure, and John Stevens, later to be known for his ubiquitous and wide-ranging approaches to musics of all kinds from fusion with Away to the non-jazz, non-idiomatic free improvisations with Derek Bailey. But despite sharing a fair bit of common ground musically, at this stage there had been little interaction between the U.S. ‘avant-garde’ and the diverse British improvising scene which had been growing since the mid 1960s.
The emphasis, as the listener might expect, is on interaction of what Evan Parker sometimes calls the ‘close listening’ kind. The opener is the track which has something most resembling a ‘head’ in the sense of a well-defined piece of thematic material played at the beginning and end of a piece, usually by the whole band. (Like the other tracks it is credited to a composer.) But the improvisation is truly collective, which accentuates the Armstrong (New Orleans) connection, apart from the elegiac tribute from one trumpet player to another.
The compositions may have nominal composers, but there is nowhere much evidence of the straight ahead foregrounding of a soloist playing lines or runs ‘above’ a rhythm section. A constant dialogue is in play, with musicians either ‘agreeing’ by following each other, as Bradford and Watts do for a while at the beginning of Trane ride, or by complementing each other less dependently, as in Tolerance, where long, keening notes from horns and voice are juxtaposed with a stop-time section from bass and drums. Motifs are developed collectively almost like a ‘pass’ in some ball game; pace, momentum, dynamics, density are all varied so that it is as far removed as possible from the ‘power’ kind of free jazz on one hand, and drifting space music on the other, but does achieve a compositional kind of expressive continuum.
There is plenty of give and take, toing and froing to such an extent that all the musicians do not play on every track. Rhythm piece is almost entirely voice, bass and drums, Bridget’s mother is all horns and voice. This last number, plus Norway, which is without drums and trombone, seem to stem from Stevens’ workshop exercise known as ‘drones’, where all concerned concentrated on sustaining notes as long as possible, while Rhythm piece bears some relation to the exercise known as ‘pips’ where the shortest possible notes are played. Special mention should be made of Julie Tippetts’ role, not just as a vocalist who uses the voice instrumentally, at which she compares favourably to her contemporaries, Maggie Nicols and Norma Winstone, but at the way her voice is on equal terms with the horns, reacting and helping to shape the music’s development. There is a particularly seamless blend of voice and horns on Norway, where it is almost impossible to tell them apart.
Bradford recorded again with Stevens and Watts two years later in the company of Kent Carter. The results can heard on Love’s dream (Emanem), music deserving close attention.
Martin Davidson should be thanked for making so much of SME’s music available on his Emanem label. The album reviewed here may not be quite so radical as Frameworks or Quintessence, but with Oliv, Karyobin and other albums reaching the ‘hen’s teeth’ category of rarity, it is a valuable and engaging addition to the readily available SME discography. (Sandy Kindness)
BYARD LANCASTER – PERSONAL TESTIMONY
Label: Porter Records
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: (Then – 1979) Miss Nikki; In Lovingkindness; Dogtown; Hoodoo; Brotherman; What A Friend We Have in Jesus; Marianne and Alicia; Brian; Mind Exercise/ (Now – 2007) Prayer Cry; Tribalize Lancaster; Afro-Ville; Free Mumia; Global Key; Loving You
Personnel: Byard Lancaster: voice, piano, flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, soprano & alto sax, percussion
Additional Information: Tracks 1-9 released as ‘Personal Testimony’ on Lancaster’s Concert Artists record label in 1979. Tracks 10-15 are new pieces recorded by Lancaster especially for this re-issue (entitled ‘Personal Testimony: Then & Now’).
Having released a very fine group recording by the Byard Lancaster Unit (‘Live at Macalester College’, reviewed in Issue 2 of ‘eartrip’), Porter Records have now decided to re-issue a solo recording in which Lancaster, best known as an alto sax player, demonstrates his capabilities on a wide variety of instruments. ‘Personal Testimony’, the original nine-track album, is supplemented on this issue by five new recordings from 2007 – not quite enough material to make an entire new album, but a significant addition nonetheless. The 1979 recordings feature Lancaster on saxophone, bass clarinet and flute; the newer recordings are mainly Lancaster on flute, piano and various bits of percussion, with the occasional use of voices as well. Most of the tracks are dedicated to various people and places of personal significance to Lancaster: one of the new pieces is for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and there are songs for family, loved ones, and for the community – Lancaster, a community activist, has done much to bring jazz music to Philadelphia.
On ‘Exactemente’, a 1974 release with percussionist Keno Speller, Lancaster plays a very fine piano solo, full of rhapsodic scales and chords, and ‘Miss Nikki’ has a similar vibe, with overdubbed sung and whispered vocals adding just the hint of R&B ballad. ‘In Lovingkindess’ has the gentle feel of Lancaster’s composition ‘Last Summer’ (featured on both the Macalester recording and what is probably Lancaster’s best-known album, ‘It’s Not Up To Us’, featuring guitarist Sonny Sharrock). Reverberant flutes hover, melodically intertwine, and swoop up to high, tongued exclamations. The flute and piccolo of ‘Dogtown’ are more strident, building shrill eddies and cascades of sound from the funky melodic line. ‘Hoodoo’, for soprano sax, is the first track not to featured overdubbing; it has a gospel flavour, combining a laid back, lazy-afternoon feel with a quietly passionate melodicism. ‘Brotherman’ mines the rich textural combination of overdubbed bass clarinets: breathy and sinuous, they pursue simple scalar patterns which hover around long, held tones. As more active improvised lines start to emerge, the piece loses none of its warm, hazy quality. The gospel tinge heard on ‘Hoodoo’ emerges fully on a straight alto rendition of ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’. Rather than the Ayler-like vibrato one might expect, what emerges is much more metallic in sound, though with a certain softness in tone as the notes die away.
‘Marianne and Alicia’ emerges seamlessly from the last silence in the previous piece as alto and soprano intertwine around another supremely relaxed melody, with some vocalised tones and fast fingerwork on soprano contrasting with the alto’s continued declamations of the theme. ‘Brian’ is an alto piece showing Lancaster’s be-bop roots – not something you hear that much in his work, as he tended to be stereotyped as a free jazz player – while ‘Mind Exercise’, the original closing track of the album, hints at some sort of futuristic bent with the subtitle ‘Complicated Planning 2030’, and is an upper-register exercise in the vein of someone like Roscoe Mitchell. As Michael Cuscuna writes in his liner notes, players like Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, in their solo recitals, were taking the idea of the exercise, the study, focussing on a particular range or particular aspect of technique – such as the upper register – and transforming it into the basis of the whole piece. Such a commitment to technique was never, whatever its detractors might say, without ‘soul’, and it’s this sense of unfussy sincerity which marks out Lancaster’s playing on all the original ‘Personal Testimony’ tracks.
So to the 2007 recording: ‘Prayer Cry, which is predominantly vocal, has a joyous, South-African flavour, as Lancaster alternates between loud screams and declamations and barely-audible whisperings and mutterings. The piece concludes with Lancaster blowing melodic counterpoint on flute to a tape of a traditional African performance. ‘Tribalize Lancaster’ continues the feel with melodic flute over softly pattering percussion. Despite the up-tempo emphasis, the feel of almost spaced-out calm that suffuses the 1979 recordings is also present here, as Lancaster’s languid spoken vocals drift over overdubbed flutes on ‘Afro-Ville’ and the perkier ‘Free Mumia.’ ‘Global Key’ – which, at about seven minutes long, is the longest of the new pieces – is built around rippling piano textures, with a dreamy feel induced by assorted interjections from flutes, voice and percussion and thumb piano. A rumbling, more dissonant central section flows back into a calm conclusion. ‘Loving You’, with Lancaster picking out chords under his own flute melodies, and singing softly, almost to himself, provides a mellow conclusion. While the 1979 date overall has more variety, there’s something nicely personal about the later tracks, the spoken and sung portions giving the impression that what are clearly carefully though-through performances have been tossed off in a quiet hour, drifting out of an open window on a mellow afternoon. Fans of Lancaster’s work, and those seeking an accessible, varied solo recording, should certainly enjoy this release. (DG)
THE REVOLUTIONARY ENSEMBLE –VIETNAM
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Vietnam 1; Vietnam 2
Personnel: Jerome Cooper: percussion; Sirone: bass; Leroy Jenkins: violin
Additional Information: Recorded at the peace church. Originally released 1972.
A re-issue of the first recording by this superlative group, whose ‘avant-chamber-jazz’ approach seemed something of a rarity at the time, and still does so today, given the dominance of much more forceful instrumental line-ups (saxophone, trumpet, rhythm section, etc). In terms of small group work, you’d have to go back to the early 1960s trio of Paul Bley, Jimmy Giuffre and Steve Swallow for something comparable, and the Revolutionary Ensemble’s music is very different to the crisp pointillism of that trio. Indeed, the term ‘chamber jazz’ may be somewhat misleading, suggesting a constraint which his nowhere present in the music itself; quite the contrary, in fact, for the inventive sweep of this performance in no way feels formal or staged. One might even argue that the one lengthy piece presented (split into two tracks for the LP release) is somewhat episodic. At least, one might argue that in theory; in practice, transitions are seamless and there’s a total avoidance of the ‘sawtooth’ model of improvisation (rise to loud climax, subside, then rise again). Things vary from the variations-on-a-theme which opens the disc, to the lengthy mid-section, where the employment of long silences, punctuated by a distant harmonica, sits eerily against the loud, droning buzz which evidences imperfect recording quality (but which ends up forming another component to the music, in a serendipitous mesh). The music frequently stops as individual members of the group take solos, in which the focus becomes even more intense, moves to another level of concentration. Particularly at these moments, there’s a real sense of being drawn into a sound world that matters, a necessary and wholly beguiling place.
Jenkins, as ever, plays the most exquisitely shaped lines with an ease and grace which belies the speed of thought required for such manoeuvres. Sirone, avoiding the temptations of walking bass or too much woody pizzicato, is just as happy forming a twin melodic strain to Jenkins’ violin as he is falling into an accompanying role, or varying the texture by repeating a particularly notable phrase. Cooper’s drumming is so subtle that it’s to forget just how hard it must be to play alongside two stringed instruments; and, in a music that’s as often about melodic flow as it is about the sort of propulsion normally associated with free jazz, he has the rhythmic subtlety and the instinctive understanding to contribute something to the texture without dominating it and without destroying the mood. And it’s a mood (or series of moods) that’s sustained throughout the album. Well worth hearing. (DG)
CHARLES TYLER – CHARLES TYLER ENSEMBLE
Release Date: 2009
Tracklist: Strange Uhuru; Lacy’s Out East; Three Spirits; Black Mysticism
Personnel: Charles Tyler: alto sax; Joel Friedman: cello; Charles Moffett:
orchestra vibes (track 1); Henry Grimes: bass; Ronald (Shannon) Jackson: drums
Additional Information: Originally released 1966.
Charles Tyler, best known as a baritone player, displays a strikingly forceful alto tone on this, his debut album. Granted, this kind of free jazz setting is one where ‘forceful tone’ is par for the course, yet it seems to me that Tyler really does take things outer than out, to Ayler-like levels of vibrato-heavy intensity and scalding multiphonic shrieks, fully justifying Leroi Jones’ comment, around the time, that “only Charles Tyler of the Ayler unit has the big wailing heavy alto sound that satisfies my particular need for flesh and blood.”
In fact, Tyler doesn’t play as much as might be expected, tending to state the melody and take a brief solo before leaving space for Joel Friedman, the other most dominant voice in the band, around whose cello lines weave Charles Moffett’s tinkling ‘orchestra vibes’ (sounding oddly and eerily child-like in such an avant context) and Henry Grimes’ typically active bass. The combination of cello and bass is an interesting one, also to be found on the one date Gato Barbieri cut for ESP, ‘In Search of the Mystery’ (also recently re-issued by the label), where Sirone and Calo Scott are the musicians in question. This album is perhaps less claustrophobic than the Barbieri, less rhythmically static and less focussed on melodic improvisation – even when Friedman suggests folk-tinged modes with an Eastern European or Jewish flavour, Moffett’s always prodding him onwards with sparkling fast runs. Thus, though sometimes the cello sounds like it’s on the verge of smooth lyricism, the other musicians don’t allow that to happen, pushing Friedman on instead to rough rhythmic scrapes and woozy slides around the instrument’s high register. That said, Tyler’s keening improvisation over arco strings when he re-enters the opening piece, ‘Strange Uhuru’, is far from orthodox ‘fire music’. Much 60s free jazz abolished, or at least complicated, the sense of linear time engendered by the theme-solos-theme format of traditional jazz, often by speeding up the pulse to sustain a whirling, trance-like atmosphere, and Tyler does employ this approach at times, but, as on the aforementioned passage in ‘Strange Uhuru’, his ensemble is also capable of slowing almost to a stop: a different kind of suspension, with a much more mysterious and muted atmosphere. In large part this is due to Ronald Shannon Jackson (who’d played alongside Tyler in Albert Ayler’s band) demonstrating a particularly sharp sense of his role in relation to the other group members, sometimes dropping out altogether, in order to allow the full colouristic implications of the unusual instrumental line-up to assert themselves. Of course, this being an ESP Disk, he does he whip up plenty of jittering energy elsewhere – on the final track in particular, where Tyler really gets the chance to wail, playing super-fast runs and honk-tonguing clarion call after clarion call in a vicious, buzzing lower register. This is a fine recording all round. (DG)