There is a term among record collectors that I’ve never really felt an alliance with, though I enjoy the music: “spiritual jazz.” I suppose it defines the music made in the wake of John Coltrane’s death, often modal in nature with frequent use of Afro-Asian instrumental textures and “little instruments” (a la the AACM). A lot of these records were released on small labels or privately-pressed. Often, as with Coltrane, there is an overt religiosity to the proceedings, but that’s not required. My main problem is that one’s spirit can’t really be codified in such narrow terms and given such specificity, so an ad hoc “spiritual” genre seems lacking (I’m not counting Negro spirituals in this brief discussion – that is a musical form with a very detailed history and attached musicological analysis). Part of why it “lacks” as a term is why a lot of things “lack” as a term – what they’re describing is too diverse, and why things like “free jazz” or “minimalism” don’t fit with their respective genres.
All that said, reedman Phil (or Phill) Musra is one of those figures who could make a case for “spiritual jazz.” His work has graced these pages – and I don’t use the word “graced” lightly – on a number of occasions, both for historical recordings with multi-instrumentalist Michael Cosmic (1950-2001) and drummer Hüseyin Ertunç and newer music with pianist Walter Barrilleaux and drummer Don Hooker. Musra is an intensely spiritual person, and his performances and recordings are offerings to a higher power; while commercial interests have never been part of the music’s creation, it has been a struggle for him to find a label or label to keep his work in print and easily available (the few dates he did for Sagittarius A-Star are out of print, not to mention his rare cooperative LPs for the Intex label in the 1970s). This is where things like YouTube come in – Musra has several performances available for viewing on the video site, and those give an indication of his musical activities in recent years.
One film that was just uploaded is rather short, but provides a clip of Musra on soprano saxophone performing on the street in Glendale, California. Musra has been performing on the street for some time now, where he passes out photocopied documents of his performing history and work, as well as selling handmade CD-Rs of both recent and vintage music. In addition, Musra offers healing and prayer, blessing the sick and in need with music and words which, whatever one’s feeling about preaching or ministry, is still a powerful gesture. Musra views each aspect as interconnected – the musical offerings to God and humanity, the possibility that these offerings might help someone, whether healing or just lifting the spirit and brought to bear with the collectivity of experience. Here’s the clip:
Please keep an eye out for more Musra-related material here and elsewhere. Hopefully I'll soon get around to re-uploading tracks from Michael Cosmic's Peace in the World, with better quality files.