Fred Ho & the Saxophone Liberation Front

Mutable Music/Big Red Media 002

Fred Ho & Quincy Saul

The Music of Cal Massey (A Tribute)

Mutable Music/Big Red Media 004

By Ken Waxman

Revolutionary Marxist, convinced polemist and canny social critic, baritone saxophonist Fred Ho is all this and more. Critically, as these exceptional CDs prove, Ho’s high-quality composing, band-leading and improvising are memorable long past the point of agit-prop.

He’s particularly skillful in forging into music expressions of his beliefs that include the need for oppressed people’s liberation and the intrinsic beauty of indigenous African-American and Oriental-sourced sounds. Snake Eaters, a matchless demonstration of Ho’s talents uses only the reed textures available from a saxophone quartet. Via a larger sonic canvas available with 12 players, The Music of Cal Massey is even more spectacular, as Ho interprets compositions by Massey, another politically sophisticated improviser.

On the first CD, Ho’s Saxophone Liberation Front (SLF) – Hafez Modirzadeh: soprano; Bobby Zankel: alto; Salim Washington: tenor; and Ho – work in a manner midway between the ROVA quartet’s aleatory conception and the studied funkiness of the World Saxophone Quartet. Although the SLF’s sophisticated interpretive techniques are aptly demonstrated on a couple of Thelonious Monk covers plus a jokey “Misty” played as if was a soundtrack from Rob Zombie, the key components are two suites: “Yellow Power, Yellow Soul Suite” and “Beyond Columbus and Capitalism”.

Building on traditional Far Eastern melodies, parts of the first suite are surprisingly tender, especially Modirzadeh’s soprano saxophone lines. Most tunes however mix reed vamps and screeches with Oriental-sounding motifs to demonstrate Ho’s Black Music-Yellow Music cohesion. “Hero Among Heroes” is the major statement here. Fittingly there appears to be echoes of Amerindian sounds added to the Oriental and Europeanized narratives as the sequence balances the soprano saxophone’s angled oboe-like tone with quivering intensity from Washington’s and Ho’s hefty bottom tones.

Alternately mocking and celebratory, the four-part “Beyond Columbus and Capitalism” was composed by Ho in 1992, to point out that the Columbus quincentennial was no celebration for indigenous and anti-imperialist forces. Stand-out sequences include the exquisite stair-step saxophone harmonies on “Civilization or Syphillisation”, which follow a display of staccato vibrations and split tones with timbres ranging from the subterranean to altissimo. Another, “The New World Odor (The Huge Farts of Red-meat Eating Imperialists Foul the Earth)” features tongue-slapping mostly from Ho, aurally demonstrating what the title promises. Unsurprisingly, the concluding “Ghost Dance on the Grave of Capitalism” has the most joyous melody, as the four make this dance macabre sound like an invitation to the dance floor.

Zankel and Washington also appear on Present The Music of Cal Massey (A Tribute), joined by 10 others plus conductor Whitney George. Massey (1928-1972), best-known for his association with Archie Shepp and John Coltrane, was a Philadelphia-based trumpeter and Black Nationalist, who recorded sparingly. Ho has long championed Massey’s repertoire, with Massey’s politics striking a responsive chord with him. Clarinettist Quincy Saul helped produce the disc.

In the jazz repertory spirit, Ho sets out to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Massey’s major statement, “The Black Liberation Movement Suite” a nine-part work, composed in the 1970s. Although in 2013, honoring Eldridge Cleaver as a hero of Black Liberation alongside Coltrane, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton and Marcus Garvey strikes a jarring sociological chord, it doesn’t alter the excellence of the music.

As complex as contemporary notated compositions, Massey did a lot more than compose an Afro-centric suite for jazz-oriented big band. Royal Hartigan’s African percussion color the proceedings throughout, and first-rate contributions are made by Zankel’s irregularly bisected reed trills, trombonist Frank Kuumba Lacy’s kinetic lines which combine gutbucket grit with a JJ Johnson-like staccato attack, and Jackie Coleman’s muted trumpet work; but the strings players aren’t there for mere prettiness. For instance on “(Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change”, pinched, double-stopping from violist Melanie Dyer helps describe the agitated narrative alongside reed riffs. The tune’s finale melds swinging horn riffs with musicians chanting the lyrics in a style that’s half-agitprop and half-ring-shout. Coleman’s plunger tones are put to good use tracks such as “The Damned Don’t Cry”, contrasted with swaying sheets of sound from the reed section with counterweight in the form of Wes Brown’s bass pumps. Like all of Ho’s works, this CD blends selected traditionalism with musical modernism and advanced political consciousness. When the band showcases the final “Back to Africa”, for instance, clichéd Dark Continent-like percussion displays aren’t upfront. Instead pianist Art Hirahara’s muscular key patterning helps Lacy’s undulating grace notes construct a broken-octave exposition completed by Count Basie band-like riffs and Latin music suggestions. As these narratives echo extended works such as Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”, and through that masterpiece Duke Ellington’s suites, Massey’s – and by extension Ho’s – affinity for the jazz tradition is cemented.

As much as Ho dislikes the word “jazz”, which he insists is a racial slur, ghettoizing the art form, these CDs show how he’s made important contributions to the genre.

Tracks: Snake-Eaters: Darker than Blue; Yellow Power, Yellow Soul Suite: Fishing Song of the East China Sea; Tanko Bushi; Baeng Nori; Hero Among Heroes; Jeet Kune Do: The Way of the Intercepting Fist (for Bruce Lee); Reflections (upon “Reflections”!); Misty-ification (aka Mystification); Beyond Columbus and Capitalism: My God, My Gold: The European Invasion; Civilization or Syphillisation?; The New World Odor (The Huge Farts of Red-meat Eating Imperialists Foul the Earth!); Ghost Dance on the Grave of Capitalism; Reflections (Redux-Prefigurative); Dear Reader*

Personnel: Snake-Eaters: Hafez Modirzadeh: soprano saxophone; Bobby Zankel: alto saxophone; Salim Washington: tenor saxophone; Fred Ho: baritone saxophone; Haleh Abghari: vocals*[tracks 9-12: Ho; Chris Jonas: soprano saxophone; Sam Furnace: alto saxophone; David Bindman: tenor saxophone]

Tracks: Cal Massey: The Black Liberation Movement Suite: Prayer; (Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change; Man at Peace in Algiers (for Eldridge Cleaver); The Black Saint (for Malcolm X); The Peaceful Warrior (for Martin Luther King, Jr.); The Damned Don’t Cry (for Huey P. Newton); Reminiscing About Dear John (for John Coltrane); Babylon; Back to Africa (for Marcus Garvey); Quiet Dawn; Goodbye Sweet Pops (for Louis Armstrong); The Cry of My People

Personnel: Cal Massey: Jackie Coleman, Nabate Isles, Jameson Chandler: trumpets; Frank Kuumba Lacy, Aaron Johnson: trombones; Bobby Zankel: alto saxophone; Salim Washington: tenor saxophone, other woodwinds; Ben Barson: baritone saxophone; Art Hirahara: piano; Melanie Dyer: viola; Dorothy Lawson: cello; Wes Brown: bass; royal hartigan: drums, African percussion; Whitney George: conductor

—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2013