December 10, 2001
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 Thorntons 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 Coltranes funeral in 1967, but not released until 1969 on Thorntons own label. While the sounds he and his regular quintet produced were good, they werent on the same level as the masterworks of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman or even Shepp. This is cast in boldest relief when Tranes 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 isnt a satisfying New Thing session, that can be enjoyed by any followers of the genre and other open-minded folks. Its 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, Colemans 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 hes more-or-less aping the attack of Elvin Jones in Coltranes 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 drummers two tunes, even with the band swelled by Edward Avents cornet and second bassist Tyrone Crabb, who was in McPhees combo of the time. Avents military-style horn appears to be playing either Reveille or Taps on both tunes, perhaps appropriate for The Wake — a threnody honoring Coltranes 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 Tranes 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 theyre featured. Some of his double-timed, flamenco-style strumming characterizes the bassists work here. Meanwhile, goosed by McPhees 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 trumpeters high-register squeaks even spur Thornton into creating a memorable gravelly solo on O.C.T. (alternate take).
If youre 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 dont 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. Babes 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)