Monday, March 23, 2009
I remember about twelve years ago sitting in the Borders café in Topeka, Kansas (where I grew up) to watch some local improvisers play. I was by this point pretty “seriously” into jazz, or at least buying records and losing my mind over Albert Ayler, so stopping by to hear some KC-area players “blow” didn’t seem like the worst idea ever, even if it was limited to what could occur in a small-city coffee shop. The lineup consisted of reeds, guitar, bass and drums. It probably had its moments but what really sunk me at the time was the leader’s suggestion to “get into a mellow funk groove.” I cringed because to me, the melding of what I viewed as simplistic popular music with jazz or free improvisation seemed utterly antithetical and a waste of good blowing room. I had a few “boogaloo” jazz records at the time, but what I was really into was the heavy “free” stuff. So the idea of backbeats or, alternately, finger-cymbal-addled modal jams was really not my cup of tea.
With wiser (hopefully) ears and a gradual abating of ability to handle the more full-bore “out” jazz and improvisation (at least all the time), not to mention being in relationships with people whose tastes tend to the more popular end of the spectrum, has meant a somewhat dramatic shift in what I appreciate most in this music. It’s pretty hard for me to mince with a driving beat, slinky guitar and the spacey comping of electric piano or fuzz-organ. I dig simple, repetitive themes echoed by trumpet and tenor nearly buried by close-miked congas, or vamp-heavy post-Coltrane marches with dervish-like soprano solos. And though I used to cringe when somebody learned that I was a record collector and assumed I was a rare soul DJ because I was a bearded, scruffy white dude, now I’m more curious about some of these nuggets than ever before.
Amazingly enough, a lot of the really heavy material by some of the more interesting Afro-jazz figures remains woefully out of print – sessions by Dutch tenorman Hans Dulfer’s Ritmo-Natural, a band encompassing players culled from Dutch psych as well as Surinamese immigrants, are very scarce on vinyl and relatively unknown among the jazz DJ set. Ditto altoist Theo Loevendie, whose Mandela encompasses North African and Latin rhythms as well as a bit of freakbeat reference into a storming post-bop jazz mix. And Basque pianist Francois Tusques’ Intercommunal Free Dance Music records, though a little more “touted,” still haven’t seen a concentrated reissue program.
That said, there is still a lot out there that has seen the light of day in recent years – especially on the American angle (European free-funk seems to be lagging in interest). Here are a few things that I’ve been listening to lately, and for a while, that one would do well to check out on CD or vinyl reissue…
Nathan Davis ’65-’76, the Best of (Jazzman UK) – Davis plays tenor, soprano and flute and now teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. In the ‘60s he led some mighty fine post-Coltrane modal jazz groups and recorded for a host of small European labels. There are a few cheesy fusion moments towards the end of this disc, but the first half – with players like Art Taylor, Mal Waldron, Hampton Hawes and Kenny Clarke - absolutely smokes. Jazzman also do a nice job of reissuing rare Northern Soul 45s (the kind that fetch big bucks) and some of the oddball releases like Uncle Funkenstien (with former Blue Note Records regulars James Spaulding and Larry Ridley) are certainly worth picking up as well.
Sahib Shihab and the Clarke-Boland Big Band reissue series (Rearward/Schema) – Dusty Groove has been carrying both vinyl and CD reissues of these scarce European jazz sides for a while now. Most of them have the same lineup, generally speaking, with American expat bebop drummer Kenny Clarke and Belgian pianist Francy Boland at the helm of some seriously motoring, earthy big band grooves. Saxophone soloists like Shihab, Karl Drevo and Johnny Griffin are often out of the gates with real keening fire, but there are some nice ballad moments and vocal-and-bongos club tracks as well.
Boscoe (Numero Group)– This is a pretty ridiculously awesome collision of 70s Chicago soul and an aesthetic that at times recalls communal psych bands like Amon Duul. I really don’t know what to make of it but suffice it to say you’ve never heard anything like it. The original (on the Kingdom of Chad label) is rare as rocking horse shit, but Numero seems to be keeping these reissues in print. Also, the label has a number of really interesting funk/soul compilations from various corners of the world. Mostly harder stuff than you’d find on Honest Jon’s (another great label out of England who comb the globe for obscure Afro and Latin releases).
Byard Lancaster Funny Funky Rib Crib (Kindred Spirits) –Originally issued on Palm, this heavy side features reedman Lancaster and his “From a Love Supreme to the Sex Machine” sound with North African and French musicians as well as the wiry freakouts of Congolese guitarist Francois Nyombo. The label also reissued some great music by saxophonist Hal “Cornbread” Singer, with a similar band. Singer’s Blues and News (on Futura Records) is one of my all-time favorite jazz LPs in this or any vein.