The Group

Live
No Business Records NBCD 50

Melodic Art-Tet

Eponymous

NoBusiness Records NBCD 56

By Ken Waxman

Although according to detractors, all free-jazz sessions sound alike, these high-quality dates from 1974 and 1986 put a lie to that supposition. Both also suggest why the music was never popular. Each CD shares trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and features all stars. 1974’s Melodic Art-Tet included reedist Charles Brackeen, drummer Roger Blank, bassist William Parker and percussionist Tony Waters (Ramadan Mumeen). 1986’s The Group was saxophonist Marion Brown, violinist Billy Bang, bassists Sirone or Fred Hopkins plus drummer Andrew Cyrille.

Brackeen, who composed all but one of the Art-Tet’s pieces, enlivened many ‘70s sessions. A gritty soloist on tenor, with a tone reminiscent of Dewey Redman’s, his flute and soprano work is surprisingly refined. Meanwhile the trumpeter manages to stay passionate while blasting away. Former Arkestra member Blank and future Downtown fixture Parker maintain a shifting beat tinted by Waters’ hand patterning. Triumphant throughout, the quartet forges an imaginative fusion. It mixes nimble heads with frenetic soloing and Africanized polyrhythmic drumming without neglecting tune structure. “Time and Money; YAMACA; Open; Pit Chena; In the Chapel; With Cheer” is particularly illustrative. A marvel of shading and synthesis, violent screeds alternate with tempo-changing sequences that pulsate with near-hummable themes to moderate confrontational avant-garde impulses. Unfortunately the fusion preferred in the mid-‘70s was jazz-rock, propelled by amplified instruments. Too arty for the mainstream and not electric enough for the groove crowd, the band passed into history,

The Group suffered a similar fate 12 years later. Neo-bop had replaced fusion as the popular jazz genre, but this quintet was too outside. This was despite Live’s track list, which included Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” plus Bang’s arrangement of a Miriam Makeba [!] composition. Clearly The Group aimed to excite a live audience. Take the Mingus tune. Before the familiar melody appears, Brown interpolates quotes from “Wade in the Water” and “Honky Tonk”; subsequent theme variations are shaded by Abdullah’s muted plunger tones plus Bang’s bottleneck guitar-like slashes. Likewise on Makeba’s “Amanpondo”, Bang’s torque builds up the tension while Cyrille provides the tune’s climax with a solo that defines a steady swing beat.

Luck and circumstances determine which bands become famous. Despite overall excellence, destiny was on neither band’s side here. Both were too far behind or too far ahead for contemporary popularity.

Tracks: Group: Joann’s Green Dress; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; La Placita; Shift Below; Amanpondo

Personnel: Group: Ahmed Abdullah: trumpet, flugelhorn; Marion Brown: alto saxophone; Billy Bang: violin; Sirone and Fred Hopkins: bass; Andrew Cyrille: drums

Tracks: Melodic: Before Heaven and Earth and the World; Face of the Deep; Above the Cross; My Divine; Time and Money; YAMACA; Open; Pit Chena; In the Chapel; With Cheer; Redemption; Consecration

Personnel: Melodic: Ahmed Abdullah: trumpet; Charles Brackeen: flute, soprano and tenor saxophones; William Parker: bass; Roger Blank: drums; Tony Waters (Ramadan Mumeen): percussion

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2013