FARUQ Z. BEY & THE NORTHWOODS IMPROVISERS

19 Moons
Entropy Stereo ESR 011

Detroit Jazz is usually associated with that time in the mid-1950s when enough powerful musicians, including drummer Elvin Jones, pianist Tommy Flanagan and trumpeter Donald Byrd, suddenly stormed out of that city to populate nearly every major hard bop aggregation.

But the city’s improvisational history runs deeper than that, dating from the pioneering work of big bands like McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and Jean Goldkette’s in the 1920s to contemporary stars like tenorman James Carter and violinist Regina Carter.

Behind these national figures, though, was another group content to stay home, expand the scene and nurture younger talent. Featured soloist on this disc is one of those men, saxophonist/poet Faruq Z. Bey. Known in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the guiding forces in the sci-fi jazz outfit Griot Galaxy, with its echoes of the Arkestra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, his sidemen included bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal, best known for their work with Carter.

Now, after a protracted silence caused by a serious accident among other problems, he’s reemerged with this fine CD. Interestingly enough, while most of the compositions here are his, his collaborators aren’t Detroiters, but members of a longtime improv trio from Central Michigan, The Northwoods Improvisers.

Together for almost 20 years and having evolved from an alternate rock band, the three pinpoint a significant international trend: the existence of small pockets of improvisers in all sorts of unlikely places. At the same time, after a few albums on their own and an appearance at the Montreux/Detroit Festival, this concert CD is in no way cast as a meeting of a master with his disciples. Everyone is on equal musical footing, and bassist Mike Johnston even contributes one tune and wrote another with Bey. Throughout, vibist Mike Gilmore emerges as the second featured soloist after Bey, frequently fabricating a countermelody to his improvisations.

At the same time, the session is definitely cast in mould that recalls the exploratory ethos of the 1970s typified by John Coltrane’s later work as well as Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler then revolutionary thrusts. Alyer is honored with a Bey poem in the booklet and by Johnston’s gospelish composition of the same name. Given a certain lightness from Gilmore’s vibes, Bey uses multiphonics here, but his piece is far different — and in some ways more conventional — then Ayler’s. At times, in fact, it sounds as if he’s playing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” in the midst of his reed-biting solo.

True to the nature of deeper Detroit jazz though, there’s a connection to the tradition as well on Bey’s “After Death”, whose strange title may refer to his accident. Begun in the tenorist’s best Archie Shepp-out-of-Ben Webster breathy choruses, it soon develops a striding show tune lope, helped not a little by the inventive drumming of Nick Ashton, who simultaneously sounds as if he’s playing a regular kit and the congas. Gilmore’s four-mallet work allows him to devise many more tones, suggesting what would have happened had Tito Puente recorded with Trane.

Spiritually oriented dignity is the order of the day, however, especially when the band is expanded by Len Bukowski’s contra alto clarinet on three tracks and Patrick Boyer’s tambura on one. That piece, “Fountain” links the uncommon, protracted buzzing produced by those two instruments to straightforward bass and drum patterns underneath, as Bey embarks on a time-suspending saxophone flight. Then, on the title tune, a vibes and bowed bass intro gives way to reverberating, practically earth-shaking continuo courtesy of Bukowski and Johnston. When the melody changes once again to a slinky, pivoting outline, heavy on the walking bass, Bey adds enough irregular vibrato and flutter tonguing in keep the tone elevated.

It’s been more than 19 moons that Bey has been represented on disc. This session is doubly valuable however. For not only does it showcase an important, undercelebrated local improviser, but it’s also the newest status report on another unique group of musicians.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Fountain*+ 2. After Death 3. Mamaka II 3. Ayler 5. Moors 6. 19 Moons*

Personnel: Faruq Z. Bey (alto and tenor saxophone); Len Bukowski (contra alto clarinet)*; Mike Gilmore (vibes, bone guitar); Patrick Boyer (tambura)+; Mike Johnston (bass); Nick Ashton (drums)