CLIFFORD THORNTON

Freedom & Unity
Atavistic Unheard Music UMS/ALP 225 CD

One of the standard bearers of the Black Nationalist branch of the New Thing, trumpeter/valve trombonist Clifford Thornton’s musical profile nearly vanished in the years before he died in Switzerland in the mid-1980s.

Perhaps it was caused by his late 1960s detour into academe at Wesleyan University, plus his stint in the 1970s as an educational counselor at the African American Institute. Maybe it was because Thornton, who was once barred from entering France as a suspected Black Panther, and who plays a composition entitled “Free Huey” on this CD, found this his commitments were out of fashion in the conservative jazz world. Certainly he and other radicals like trumpeter Cal Massey were usually shoved into the background by the pronouncements of his more articulate and news-generating associate, Archie Shepp.

Or the clues might come on this session, recorded five days after John Coltrane’s funeral in 1967, but not released until 1969 on Thornton’s own label. While the sounds he and his regular quintet produced were good, they weren’t on the same level as the masterworks of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman or even Shepp. This is cast in boldest relief when Trane’s bassist Jimmy Garrison and future musical explorer Joe McPhee — on trumpet — make their appearance on three tracks. Suddenly you can hear the music ratcheting up to a much higher plane.

Not that this CD isn’t a satisfying New Thing session, that can be enjoyed by any followers of the genre and other open-minded folks. It’s just that even in the context of 1967, the trombonist and his sidemen showed themselves as followers rather than trailblazers.

Alto saxophonist Sonny King, for instance, who wrote three of the tunes here, is very much in thrall to Coleman in more than his solo work. Each of his pieces has a head that echoes, without copying, Coleman’s writing for his first, highly influential quartet. Each of his tunes also has a straightforward bass line — played by Don Moore who had been in the New York Contemporary 5 with Shepp and Bill Dixon — which defines them as unvarnished freebop, not more experimental fare. Drummer Harold (Nunding) Avent powerfully smashes away on many tracks, but he’s more-or-less aping the attack of Elvin Jones in Coltrane’s influential quartet. Plus the vibes and horns voicings on “Uhuru” sounds like the sort of arrangement Shepp used for similar groups.

Throughout, however, with a touch of multiphonics and more grit than usually appears in the offerings of practitioners of that bastard ‘bone, Thornton is the only soloist in his regular combo who appears to be trying to transcend his influences.

This same timidity creeps into the drummer’s two tunes, even with the band swelled by Edward Avent’s cornet and second bassist Tyrone Crabb, who was in McPhee’s combo of the time. Avent’s military-style horn appears to be playing either “Reveille” or “Taps” on both tunes, perhaps appropriate for “The Wake” — a threnody honoring Coltrane’s passing perhaps? — but less so on “Free Huey”. Sudden cacophonous horn improvisations add a fill-up to the pieces at times, but when on the first, the two basses begin playing in unison it merely brings to mind how that was done on Trane’s OLÉ session rather than anything else. Audio faults also appear during the quiet bass solos, and since part of the CD was dubbed from rare LPs some surface noise is amplified as well.

Although McPhee was in his twenties at the time, he and the more experienced Garrison appear with fully formed personalities on the three tracks on which they’re featured. Some of his double-timed, flamenco-style strumming characterizes the bassist’s work here. Meanwhile, goosed by McPhee’s upper register trumpet blasts the two versions of “O.C.T.” — the second of which is two minutes longer than noted in the CD booklet — suggest the multifaceted talents that would be amply revealed — and noticed — during the next couple of decades. The trumpeter’s high-register squeaks even spur Thornton into creating a memorable gravelly solo on “O.C.T. (alternate take)”.

If you’re interested in hearing a young improviser at the beginning of his career, exemplary soloing from a now-departed veteran bassist, plus the practically amber-preserved sound of indisputably 1960s New Thingers, then this CD will be for you. But don’t expect to discover any fresh musical revelations.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Free Huey* 2. 15th Floor 3. Miss Oula 4. Kevin (The Theme) 5. Exosphere 6. Uhuru 7. O.C.T.+ 8. The Wake* 9. Babe’s Dilemma+ 10. O.C.T. (alternate take)+

Personnel: Edward Avent* (cornet); Joe McPhee+ (trumpet); Clifford Thornton (valve trombone); Sonny King (alto saxophone); Karl Berger (vibes); Don Moore, Tyrone Crabb*, Jimmy Garrison+ (bass); Harold (Nunding) Avent (drums)