The Music Ensemble
Roaratorio Roar 03

History, especially jazz history, is a set of shared anecdotes and popular assumptions usually organized years after the fact. This approach’s shortcomings are made clearest when conjecture is transformed into cant, as was demonstrated by Ken Burns’ JAZZ series. Musical history — especially one as complex as improvised music — can’t easily be reduced to a theory of great men and neat transitions. Pesky details on the margins mess up these neat concepts, just like an exceptional jazz solo plays with the criterion of a conventional melody.

Which brings us to the slice of musically important history that is this CD. Recorded in 1974 and 1975, when conventional narratives would tell us that nothing else was happening on the jazz scene but pop-jazz-fusion and bebop revivalism, here’s the sounds of a precisely integrated, so-called avant garde band playing as if it was 1965 or even 1995. Not only that, but of the six performers, three would be celebrated as standard-bearers of New York-centred ecstatic jazz by the late 1990s.

Billy Bang, long before he joined the String Trio of New York, demonstrates his unique approach to the violin. Daniel Cater, decades way from being a linchpin of TEST and other Manhattan bands is here playing different saxophones, flutes and percussion. Bassist William Parker, who even then had already recorded a notable session with tenor man Frank Lowe, was beginning a career that would make him the most ubiquitous musician and organizer of present day free music.

Drummer Peter Baird, who recorded the session, is now involved with other music. However bassist Herb Kahn —who is only on the first track — and trumpeter Malik Baraka, who died soon afterwards due to a drug habit, are merely names.

Considering the sound was captured in two different New York area schools on a cassette recorder with a single stereo mike, except for some sections, it’s surprisingly clear and immediate. In fact, the only really negative aspect of this disc is that the improvisations on it have remained unreleased for more than a quarter of a century.

Made up of a core group of committed musicians, The Music Ensemble practiced regularly and intensively. It shows. At least the four joint tracks on this CD sound like compositions with definite themes, sections and codas, not as excuses to jam or grandstand.

Throughout Baraka, whose tone is thin technically, but expressive, sort of like Donald Ayler’s, blends impressively with others in the front line. Whether he’s wreathing in counterpoint around the surprisingly Bird-like alto lines of Carter on the nearly 32-minute “Stance Dance (Courage)”, creating a third meshed part with Bang and Parker’s strings or moving harshly and straightahead on “Arithmetical Mystic” he definitely has something to say. It’s a shame we’ll never know if his vocabulary would have developed further.

Even then Carter was versatility personified. Besides his outstanding saxophone work on the disc, his ethereal flute work on “Echoes Wind Transpire” is so close to Bang’s fiddling that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish one from another. Some of the massed percussion bottom favored by inside/outside performers of the time likely comes from his hands and wrists as well.

Bang can be romantic in sections as on “Echoes”, or slash away on the top of his range on “Stance”, as Parker’s bow scrapes the bottom lines. Responsible for keeping the forward motion of the tunes going despite the dense, buzzing concentration of the front line, Parker does so powerfully and memorably. Only rarely does he step forward, though, as he does on “Stance” where he delivers a lilting cello-like aside. Meanwhile unheralded Baird extends the percussive carpet with steady strokes from all over his expanded kit, sometime accenting the bass drum as on “Radiatory Fineness” or bringing out the tablas on “Stance” for contrast.

Don’t look for some of these musicians or the session to be noted in the next boilerplate jazz history or TV special. But do try to find this CD to get an insight into how —and when — the music really evolved and changed.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Stance Dance (Courage)* 2. Arithmetical Mystic 3. Echoes Wind Transpire 4. Radiatory Fineness

Personnel: Malik Baraka (trumpet); Daniel Carter (alto and tenor saxophones, flutes, drums percussion); Billy Bang (violin, percussion); William Parker, Herb Kahn* (bass); Roger Baird (drums, percussion, tablas, flutes)