Frank Wright

Unity
ESP Disk 4028

Known as “Reverend” for his soulful and impassioned improvisations, tenor and soprano saxophonist Frank Wright (1935-1990) brought the earthly fervor of his background as a Mississippi R&B player to the New Thing. These newly discovered tracks from 1974’s Moers Festival capture the saxman in full cry as part of his cohesive quartet of the time: bassist Alan Silva and pianist Bobby Few – both of whom had recorded with Albert Ayler, Wright’s mentor – and physically demanding drummer Muhammad Ali – drummer Rashied Ali’s brother, not the boxer.

Divided into two tracks of almost equal length, the performance is so passionately demonstrative, that listening to it straight through is almost as exhausting as playing it may have been. The second section is more stimulating, though, since all four musicians temper bravura emotionalism with populism. Silva, whose distinctive string-stretching, double and triple stopping plus broken chord bowing initially pierce the Free Jazz miasma, eventually adopts a steady 4/4; and Ali’s cross patterning ruffs and rebounds give way to a primordial shuffle beat sprinkled with cow-bell rattling and precise ride cymbal shots.

This is in response to Wright amplifying his reed and tongue glossolalia with a wailing altissimo variation on “Summertime”, as speech-like as it is shrieking. Concurrently, Few modulates contrasting dynamics to a walking bass line and eventually to echoing boogie-woogie-styled swells. With the four playing in quadruple counterpoint, the frenzied results rock as much as any rent-party sounds 1930s blues masters like pianist Sammy Price and saxophonist Buddy Tate produced. Reaching a climax of fire-engine-like reed wailing and cowboy yodels from Wright, the handclapping, revival meeting-styled track only wraps up when he runs out of breath. Unity is a high calibre reminder of when passion reigned supreme in jazz.

Ken Waxman

CODA Issue 332