LUTHER THOMAS

Funky Donkey
Atavistic Unheard Music UMS/ALP 215 CD

The twin battering rams of Jazz's Young Lions and the Hip-Hop Nation have tried to obliterate some memories of the recent past. But despite their efforts it's a fact that the connection between the so-called avant-garde and Black vernacular music was quite solid during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"Outside" players such as Archie Shepp, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders had a definite presence in their communities. Plus members of organizations like Los Angeles' Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension, Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and St. Louis' Black Artists Group bicycled concepts back and forth between creative improvised music ensembles and groove-oriented funk bands.

BAG, which numbered brassmen Baikida Carroll, Lester Bowie and Joseph Bowie and saxophonists Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, J.D. Parran and Luther Thomas among its members, was probably the most roots-conscious of the collectives as this reissue proves. Taking Hemphill's COON BIDNESS and Lake's NTU one step further, this 1973 session, recorded in a St. Louis, Mo. church, attempts to fuse heavy percussion and simple electric guitar and bass riffs with post-Ornette Coleman soloing. Luckily, besides a coterie of local players, the Bowie brothers — who certainly had enough experience on the Chitin' Circuit — were along for the ride. Trumpeter Lester and trombonist Joe easily made common cause with the sort of players whose musical life revolved around juke joint gigs.

There are times here when the hometown rhythm section locks into the kind of steady groove you'd expect from The Ike and Tina Turner Revue or King Curtis' Kingpins. On top of this lockstep funk machine altoist Thomas spins out cry-inflected reed dialogue that presage the sort of dialogue Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill effectively used with electric ensembles, while Parran's piping flute intonation owes more to Mozambique than Missouri. The Bowies smear the tunes with dirty, down-home glissandos — someone even briefly quotes "Dixie" on Lake's "Intensity — and Bobo Shaw exposes his collection of whistles and percussive "little instruments".

The problem was that while the Missouri sidemen may have been rhythm masters, they were also local jobbers committed to getting funky and turning the beat around for anyone. So too often — especially when guitarist Marvin Horne is given his head — the freeform scenarios advanced by the visitors get wedged into Les McCann-Crusaders soul ruts rather than being allowed to fly free. Additionally, St. Louis' Brea Presbyterian Church was no professional recording facility, so that much of the instrumental subtlety ends up fighting for audio air in the generally muddy mix.

All and all, FUNKY DONKEY is a nonpareil glimpse of how genuine jazz-funk fusion circa 1973, generically arose from the heartland. It also adds another session to the catalogue of thinly recorded Thomas. Listen to this CD for its historical value and rhythmic intensity, but be prepared to put up with less than stellar sound.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Funky Donkey 2. Una New York 3. Intensity 0 Personnel: Lester Bowie, Floyd LeFlore, Harold Pudgey Atterbury (trumpets); Joseph Bowie (trombone); Luther Thomas (alto saxophone); J.D. Parran (reeds, flute); Marvin Horne (guitar); Eric Foreman (electric bass); Charles Bobo Shaw (drums); Abdella Ya Kum, Rocky Washington (percussion)