Soprano Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, Nagasuram, Flute – Charlie Mariano
Vocals (on “Mirror” only) – Asha Puthli
Written-By – Charlie Mariano (except A4)
Produced and mixed by Arif Mardin
Recording engineer – Gene Paul
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!
All of the compositions are by Mariano except for Michel Legrand’s famous “Summer of ’42” theme, which is here given a languid deconstruction where Charlie plays the flute. Slow funk grooves are blended with modal and outside riffing. The second track, “Shout,” is like the opening of a baptist tent revival meeting, with Charlie coaxing harmonics from his sax by overblowing furiously. F-Minor Happy is very Deodato-esque (Deodatismo?), a more rough-hewn and stoney take on CTI-style jazz funk. “Vasi Bindu (Raindrops)” is a free and open piece coming halfway through the second album side, as if to help us come down from the plateaus of the massive title track. The album closes with the short “Madras,” which features Charlie on the nagasuram for the first time on this album. This South Indian instrument ends the record on a truly ceremonial note, sounding a bit like Mariano may have been trying to beat Don Cherry to doing the soundtrack for The Holy Mountain. It makes you sit up and pay attention.
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.
A1 Spirit Dance A2 The Tenth Pyramid A3 John Coltrane Was Here A4 Ballad For Mother Frankie White B1 Samba B2 Unlocking The Twelfth House B3 Praise Innocence
Bass – Ray Drummond Percussion, Flute [Bamboo], Vocals – Baba Omson Piano – Ed Kelly Producer, Photography – Ed Michel Violin, Vocals – Michael White Vocals – Makeda , Wanika King
Engineers – Ken Hopkins, Rick Stanley Mixed By – Baker Bigsby Artwork and Photography – Philip Melnick
Pneuma (Part 1) 5:16
Pneuma (Part 2) 4:57
Pneuma (Part 3) 4:11
Pneuma (Part 4) 4:13
Pneuma (Part 5) 1:52
Ebony Plaza 9:18
Journey Of The Black Star 2:53
The Blessing Song 6:25
Bass – Ray Drummond
Engineer – Baker Bigsby
Percussion – Kenneth Nash
Piano – Edwin Kelly
Producer – Ed Michel
Violin – Michael White (2)
Vocals – D. Jean Skinner, Faye Kelly, Joyce Walker, Leola Sharp
If you are a person for whom jazz violin is an acquired taste, then the notion of “free jazz violin” will probably send you running or at least reaching for the earplugs. I confess that I am personally still grappling with the finer nuances of Leroy Jenkins and occasionally undergo a self-imposed “music appreciation course” at my house featuring his recordings. So you could say I appreciate the fact that Michael White’s music is not nearly as abrasive as Jenkins and in fact often crosses over into the downright accessible and melodic. White has a lengthy resume that includes sideman gigs with people as diverse as John Handy and Sun Ra, but it was his electric proto-jazz-rock band The Fourth Way that led me to seek out these two albums. Well neither “Spirit Dance” or “Pneuma” sound anything like The Fourth Way but if I felt any disappointment at that discovery, it didn’t last long. These are both excellent records.
Initially the listener is likely to be struck by what the records lack as opposed to what they offer – the absence of any horns whatsoever, as well as a traditional trap drum kit. The versatile percussionists (Baba Omsun for “Spirit Dance,” Ken Nash for “Pneuma”) manage to let you hardly miss the drums, and as for lack of reed or brass instruments.. well you’ll just have to deal with it, because the tonal palette is a bit thin in the upper register at times. The upside is that when he lost the horn charts, White gained not only a unique sound but also the flexibility that makes his avant-garde and free jazz flourishes more focused. Considering the technical designation of the piano as a percussion instrument, Michael White is often the only voice here that isn’t in the rhythm section, which liberates him to switch between riffing on melodies and freaking out at will. The stuff stays grounded, though – there are quite a few shortish compositions with audible roots in blues and gospel, and the group often leans more towards modal jazz than free jazz. Note the very brief use of an overdubbed violin at the end of the first track “Spirit Dance” here, too. The turgid tabla of The Tenth Pyramid reminds me of the few months that I took tabla lessons – is this in tintal? – but it only lasts for four minutes so if sloppy faux-Indian jazz annoys you then at least your suffering will be brief. “John Coltrane Was Here,” besides having a great smile-inducing title for a tribute to the late deity, is a lovely modal piece with the almost requisite quotations from ‘A Love Supreme.’ It satisfies your nagging curiosity about what a violin-jazz invocation of Coltrane’s spiritual vision would sound like. Now that you know, you can finally sleep at night. Again there is judicious use of overdubbing – is this cheating? I’m not keeping score so I’ll let it slide. Another interesting piece here is the unimaginatively titled “Samba,” which may leave you scratching your head until you hear the congas and the electric bass guitar whose notes accent the downbeat where the surdo drum would be. The abstract sandbox of “Unlocking The Twelth House” is a great closer for the album. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually end the record, but since I usually just skip over the last track, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – this is a great way to end the record. However if atonal wordless vocals sung by children are your thing, by all means crank up “Praise Innocence.” After all you may have been hoping to annoy your neighbors with this album, and up until now you may have not succeeded. This ought to do it.
I usually don’t listen to the two records included on this disc back to back, in order to “maximize their efficacy” or something like that. While “Spirit Dance” manages to keep things fun, “Pneuma” actually ranks a bit higher for me. It may be a bit more sombre but it also seems more fully-realized, like he went into the studio with a more single-minded approach to make a statement, as opposed to recording a collection of pieces. The original first side of the LP is comprised entirely of the “Pneuma” suite. For a spiritual jazz homage to the breath of life, it actually boasts a pretty traditional jazz arrangement, with each instrument getting equal time to lead the group after the primordial swells and slow, sustained crescendos of the opening. First White’s violin, then the bass (acoustic this time, which is a welcome choice), then piano, and finally percussion before wrapping the whole thing up. It’s pretty brilliant and if you are only going to listen to one “side” of this two-on-one release, I would pick this one. The second half of “Pneuma” is just as impressive, with the additional textures of vocal arrangements on “Journey of the Black Star” and “The Blessing Song.” The latter is just downright catchy and merits a place on a compilation of that ill-defined ‘genre’ referred to as “spiritual jazz.” It’s a beautiful and sweet resolution to the little musical journey Mr. White takes us on, which is one where his intensity is balanced by warmth that is often missing from these styles of jazz. Solid stuff. And check out The Fourth Way if you don’t know them.
Recorded at Sound Ideas, New York, NY (01/15/1976).
Arranger: Harry Whitaker.
Players: Harry Whitaker (piano); Lani Groves, Edna Holt, Sandy Nakarmura, Assata Dolby (vocals); Azar Lawrence (soprano & tenor saxophones); David Schnitter (tenor saxophone); Woody Shaw (trumpet); Buster Williams (bass); Billy Hart, Howard King (drums, percussion); Mtume, Earl Bennett (percussion)
For those of you who have never heard of this album, it will come as a lovely surprise. For those who have heard about it but have yet to actually hear it, it might well seem a bit over-hyped, due in no small part to the douchebaggery of one Giles Peterson, who prattles on in the liner notes about how cool he is for knowing about it and showing it off to any other DJ’s who “dared to challenge” him. Well if you ignore that bloated musical neocolonialist (and snappy dresser), you can immerse yourself in what was truly a lost gem, lost even to its creator for decades.
Recorded on Martin Luther King Day in 1976, Whitaker invested his own hard-earned money as an arranger, writer, and session player into making this boldly uncommercial soul-jazz exercise in musical stretching. It features understated riffing from Azar Lawrence, David Schnitter, and the eternally-underrated Woody Shaw. Anchoring the rhythm is stalwart bassist Buster Williams with Howard King on drums and James Mtume on percussion. These latter two would go on to release the first album from the band Mtume the following year, and it’s interesting to keep that in mind while listening to this. While the first side of this album straddles a line between between mellow funk and spaced-out soul jazz (and is a bit long-winded at 23 minutes), the second and shorter side ‘Magic Ritual’ is a more aggressive, agitated piece of Afrocentric celebration. There is effective use of spoken word here that puts us comfortably in Strata-East and loft scene territory. More industry/label hype is compelled to claim this is “one of the earliest examples of rap” or some such nonsense. How many records are we going to bestow that honor on? At any rate claiming this for an album released as late as 1976 is a ludicrous statement that ignores so many musical ancestors it barely merits discussion. So, I’ll stop discussing it.
Since it is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, and since the next US president is likely to abolish that holiday, this makes today probably the last opportunity to celebrate this album without being locked up and held in indefinite detention without Habeas Corpus.
The sound on the CD is burdened with distortions, but given that the masters were destroyed and the source used here is presumably the Japanese bootleg that until now was the only available release, at the end of the day it sounds surprisingly good.
Doug Carn – piano, electric Piano, organ
Jean Carn – vocals
Bob Frazier – flugelhorn, trumpet
George Harper – flute, tenor, saxophone
Al Hall Jr. – trombone, trombone
Henry Franklin – bass
Michael Carvin – drums
Produced by Gene Russell
Although he recorded a 1969 album in a trio setting for Savoy (which I’ve never heard), Doug Carn is of course most famous for his relationship with the independent Black Jazz label. His albums on that imprint may be single-handedly responsible for the label’s canonical status in Afrocentric spiritual jazz. They are remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is the presence of innovative lyrics sung by his then-wife Jean Carn, who not unlike Abbey Lincoln used her voice as part of the ensemble arrangements rather than as a vocalist with a backup band. The communal family vibe is accentuated by the beautiful album cover photography and the opening tune Little B’s Poem; together with the cover photo, I feel like I knew their daughter and wonder where she is now and how she feels about all the musical attention today. While the following albums from the Doug and Jean Carn would push further with original material, this first album is noteworthy for it’s reworking of compositions by jazz heavyweights that they admired – Bobby Hutcherson, Horace Silver, Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Wayne Shorter. In particular, adding lyrics to that material and making the compositions into something else is the big achievement here.
I have a repress vinyl of this that sounds pretty good and began to mess around with a digital rip of it, but am unsure whether or not to keep working on it. This CD pressing from 1997 sounds okay but the second side (of the original LP) suffers from nasty wow and flutter from whatever source tape they used. This was the first appearance of this album on CD and I am not sure if there has been any other remastered versions since, but I kind of doubt it. In fact last year somebody claiming to have a set of Black Jazz master tapes was selling the whole bundle on Craig’s List for a hefty sum; the auction was dubious as they were comprised of 1/2″ reels, which even for a studio on a budget in the early 70s would have been a substandard format, and claimed to come with full reproduction rights. Most likely the reels were production copies or just plain counterfeit, the listing was not online long before it was either met with an offer or taken down. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that we’ll be seeing a new series of reissues mastered from 1/2-inch tape.. Unfortunately a few of the other extant Doug Carn reissues have the same wow-and-flutter problem. Badly stored tapes, damaged playback equipment, sloppy transferring, or all of the above, it doesn’t really matter – the end result is that this precious, important music hasn’t received the treatment that it merits. But the most important thing is that it is still available and people can hear it. Since the reissued vinyls were most certainly just the CD master with an R$AA equalization curve applied, there isn’t much point in having both versions except for purely fetishistic reasons. Unless I can manage to get my hands on original vinyl pressings, they are however all we’ve got..
The liner notes by Doug Carn are a treasure. Written just for the reissue, they have a remarkable amount of detailed recollections for being composed more than thirty years after the recordings, showing just what a special time this was for everyone involved. While this is not my favorite of the Carn albums on Black Jazz, it is unique and on its own it is a great record. The title cut, which according to the notes was the first fruits of Doug’s experience with writing lyrics to other peoples’ music, stands out as the most fully realized work here.
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