Although his name appears on classic records by Mingus, Chico Hamilton, Shelley Manne, Elvin Jones (hey, lots of drummers seem to like him), I think I first started really paying attention to Charlie Mariano through his work with the wonderful Toshiko Akiyoshi, to whom he was married for a few years in the 60s. Incidentally this is also how I discovered Lew Tabackin, who became Toshiko’s second husband and formed a much longer musical partnership. Along with Phil Woods, these artists constitute a group of highly prolific jazz cats about whom I’d love to spread some enthusiasm. Might as well start here, even if this is an atypical example.
I had no idea Mariano had made any records this heady until I stumbled on it. The garish cover art, with a creepy eyeball thing glaring out at you, acts like a sort of magnet. It either attracts or repels you away, depending on your musical polarity. I’m not sure the album art does the music justice, and in fact I would nominate it for my art gallery of Garish and Gaudy 1970s Jazz-Funk Album Covers, a project I am initiating right now (other inductees include a Blue Mitchell record I picked up recently, and this amazingly fugly George Duke/Billy Cobham thing).
Musicians of Mariano’s caliber can pretty much do whatever they want and pull it off. I don’t know what kind of soundscape he had in mind when he went into the studio to make this album, but with the help of some very competent friends, he created a canvas on which he could moan, wail, and shriek (pleasingly) on soprano and alto sax in ways I did not expect. The band he put together to create this moody, genre-blurring music with vaguely spiritual inclinations is more than up to the task. One pleasant surprise is the presence of a young Tony Levin on bass, years before he would start progging it up with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. Levin was not a complete stranger to soul jazz/funk sessions in the early 70s – other records I have with him from this period include Jack McDuff and Deodato – but this is probably the first time that he really stood out for me in this capacity. This may partly be due to the fact that he is featured right alongside upright bassist George Mraz. Levin lays down the lower register funk, freeing up Mraz to do more textured and melodic things in the upper register.
Airto is somewhat underutilized on this record. He doesn’t seem fully present or into it all the time, sometimes more like a percussionist “playing in the style of Airto” rather than the man himself. Perhaps Mariano kept his eccentricities on a short leash, or maybe this was just session #374 for Airto in 1972 and goddamnit what do you want from the guy, does he have to be on fire all the time or what? Keysman Pat Rebillot satisfies the urge to hear some Fender Rhodes and also favors us with some acid-drenched, reverby organ on the opening cut, but his solos don’t really push the music anywhere adventurous. Session vet David Spinozza gets in some nice solos on the guitar, in particular on the title track. Drummer Ray Lucas is one of those guys who probably never got his due recognition. His credits include King Curtis, Roberta Flack, Eugene McDonald, Shirley Scott, Donny Hathaway and a ton of other people: he was even briefly a bandmate of Hendrix, as part of Curtis Knight and The Squires. There is nothing flashy about his playing, it doesn’t call attention to itself, but it casts a solid foundation to build around, and provides agile fills and texture when needed. Never underestimate the importance of simply playing time. Indian singer Asha Puthli contributes vocals to the album’s titular track (she also appeared on Ornette Coleman’s “Science Fiction” sessions from the same year). At first I thought this was wordless vocalizing before I checked the back of the LP cover and saw that she was singing the free verse poem there. I’ll have to assume her voice is deliberately submerged in the mix, perhaps to trigger subliminal spiritual contemplation.
Deliberate, because producer Arif Mardin was no amateur. That guy knew how to mix. And this record sounds great. In fact, in spite of the fact that I started with a not-quite-perfect copy (although in better shape than the cover would indicate), the sound is pretty solid. This is not only the mixing but also the famous Monach Pressing Plant who should get a shout-out. Quality control!
This record goes pretty deep, but is also just a damn pleasurable listen that you can enjoy while going about your day. I feel the need to point that out because a lot of the adjectives used in this post (heady, spiritual, free, modal) would tend to indicate a record that might get in the way of activities like reading a novel, making love, writing a novel, or tidying up the house (unless you are the type of person who likes to fold laundry and clean bathrooms while listening to Anthony Braxton or AEoC in which case this warning doesn’t apply to you). I hereby declare this record completely safe for “taking care of business.” It might uplift you and inspire you to seek enlightenment, but it won’t automatically induce a trance state, epileptic fit, or other central nervous system anomaly.