Leroy Jenkins / Jimmy Garrison / Clifford Thornton / Bobby Few / Dave Burrell / Albert Ayler / Cal Massey / Marion Brown / Beaver Harris / Billy Higgins / Joe Lee Wilson / Muhammad Ali

June 30, 2003

Attica Blues
Impulse! AS-9222 024 654 414-2

Albert Ayler
Music Is The Healing Force of the Universe
Impulse! AS-9191 440 065 383-2

What you’re hearing on these two LP-length CD reissues, recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is the metaphoric death throes of the New Thing as a popular music.

But wait, you say, didn’t the angry unmelodic, experimental New Thing itself murder jazz’s popularity when it hijacked the music and drove large audiences away? Not really. Like other pieces of revisionist history perpetuated by the neo-cons this tale has been blown out of proportion to make more miraculous the trad revival of the 1990s.

For a start, plenty of other jazz existed even at the height of the New Thing’s influence. Plus the genre wasn’t all that unpopular. Musicians who recorded for Impulse!, for one, which was a large company with wide distribution, weren’t out to alienate anyone but poseurs, and some New Thingers even created good selling discs.

All of John Coltrane’s LPs were wildly popular and Pharoah Sanders had hit records as well. Even people like Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler represented here, at least sold to the jazz audience, as did LPs by Sam Rivers, Sun Ra and a more experimental-than-today Keith Jarrett.

However when MUSIC IS THE HEALING FORCE and ATTICA BLUES were recorded, no one in the music business appeared to be satisfied with jazz audience sales. Million sellers were the norm for top rock and R&B bands, so why couldn’t jazzers do the same? Thus electric guitars, simple songs and other pop paraphernalia entered the jazz word and it hasn’t recovered yet. Trouble was that these neither fish nor fowl jazz-rock discs didn’t sell very well either and as the pressure mounted to become more pop oriented many musicians either watered down their ideas or gave up recording in the U.S.

That was in the future, however, and, despite their faults, both these CDs have much to recommend them. People aim for popularity in different ways and for different reasons and that’s what happened with tenor saxophonists Ayler and Shepp.

Ayler, despite his revolutionary creations, was still poverty-stricken by the end of the 1960s. He likely felt that by making his music even simpler he might finally make a decent living. Still, the point is moot. He continued playing outside sounds in live performances and by the end of 1970, he was dead, probably a suicide. Of course, why Ayler and his producer thought that this disc featuring him singing (sic) on one track and playing overdubbed bagpipe parts on another would propel him to Easy Street is another question.

Shepp’s motives were different. As sociologically sophisticated as Ayler was naïve, the leftist Black Nationalist was bothered by the fact that his politics and music were treated with equal indifference by the non-jazz part of the Black population. Shepp had tried to reach them as early as 1966 with tunes like the James Brown-influenced “Mama Too Tight”. Now this session adapted the funky beats and vocal exhortations of Soul music to try to create genuine popular songs about such subjects as the police riot at Attica prison.

Parts of this strategy worked quite well. The title tune and “Ballad for a Child” utilize the instrumental talent of top studio cats like guitarist Cornell Dupree to lay down the funk, while the words were expressed by Henry Hull in vocal cadenzas that sound midway between Little Jimmy Scott’s and Al Green’s delivery, backed by female harmony singers who could have worked for Stax-Volt. Strings — including proto-avant-gardist Leroy Jenkins on violin — don’t sweeten, but advance the tune’s soulfulness, just as they would for James Brown and later Philly International sessions. Shepp, playing soprano on “Child” and tenor saxophone on other numbers creates smooth and well-modulated solos that still have the characteristic sharp bite of his earlier work. These may be his last truly great sax solos.

Sadly, though, the background overwhelms the message. We can hear the exceptional solos and razor-sharp arrangements now, but whether any members of the Black underclass was moved to check out the work of activist George Jackson — another Shepp dedicatee — is another matter. Weak too are the mini-narrations provided by radical lawyer William Kunstler. Politically they may have meant something to Shepp and his political cohorts like flugelhornist Cal Massey, but the point is lost on the listeners then and now.

Massey, whose compositions were also recorded by Coltrane and Lee Morgan, is responsible for “Good Bye Sweet Pops”, a vamping, big band number, obviously meant to honor the recently deceased Louis Armstrong. Here, as Shepp erupts from the band like a younger Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington, Massey’s vamp even gets the strings to swing. Another of the disc’s missteps can be attributed to Massey as well though. “Quiet Dawn” with its message of self-reliance features strong instrumental outings by Massey, trumpeter Charles McGhee and Shepp. But the lyrics are sung — actually more descriptively mumbled — into the mike by the untrained voice of Massey’s then seven-year-old daughter. Nearly masked by the instruments, she’s no young Gladys Knight. That’s the CD’s low point.

Joe Lee Wilson, the other singer featured on two of the tunes is one of the highpoints, though. With a delivery reminiscent of Johnny Hartman’s with Trane, his rendition of Shepp’s “Steam”, a tune that would later become a tenor tour-de-force, is treated as a real pop ballad, emphasizing the sibilant properties of the title. Meanwhile Shepp’s pinched soprano tone floats over string cadenzas, saxophone section obbligatos and a ringing electric piano backing played by Dave Burrell.

“Invocation to Mr. Parker”, written by Shepp, even manages to integrate bassist Jimmy Garrison’s avant-flamenco solo with Marion Brown’s log drums, an ancient-to-modern fusion that few others then attempted and fewer still pulled off.

Using the hardest possible reed, Ayler had the tone and vibrato that made Shepp sound as if he was Kenny G. From the very first — and title tune — the disconnect in his session is evident though. Vocalist Mary Maria is harmonizing on simplistic lyrics hymning universal love, while the saxman, the two bassists — Bill Folwell and Stafford James –and drummer Muhammad Ali produce a tough, street-smart tone. Maybe at three minutes though, instead of 8½, the piece could have been a hit. Stranger things have happened.

There was no chance of that happening with “Masonic Inborn (Part 1)”, where Ayler squeezes wild tones from two keening bagpipes for more than 12 minutes, having overdubbed one line on top of the other. Using the same sort of repetitive rhymes he always played, complete with mini-honklets and sliding tones, the saxman sounds perfectly at home spewing out neo-Celtic sounds. He even manages to get a piccolo tone from the chanter. In between his nasal and (no-doubt purposely) off-key echoes and reverberations you can hear a tinny snatch of Bobby Few whaling the piano keys.

“Drudgery” — a strange, if perhaps symbolic title for a tune here — is the other noteworthy track. A mid tempo shuffle featuring Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine playing a pseudo B.B. King-style guitar lead, all exaggerated sharps and runs, it also highlights Folwell’s electric bass playing and Ayler’s screaming vibrato-heavy notes. Clucking out notes as if he was rock saxist King Curtis, the simple tune probably reminded Ayler of his stint backing up bluesman Little Walter early in his career.

That Ayler’s career had made many twists and turns since then, is made clear on “Island Harvest”, where his distinctive marching band rhythm is straightjacketed into following a calypso beat. Sung in a lilting patois by Maria, this child-like tune was recorded too late for Harry Belefonte fans and too early for the film “A Mighty Wind”. Finally, “Oh! Love of Life”, is a rare example of Ayler singing, praising universal love and the sound of angels singing while he wrenches grating below ground tones from his horn.

Fascinating as a reflection of jazz in those particular times, both CDs are a lot better than their notoriety would have you believe. Neither is a master work, but each deserves exposure to anyone interested in either of these musicians.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Attica: Blues 2. Invocation: Attica Blues 3. Steam (Part 1) 4. Invocation to Mr. Parker 5. Steam (Part 2) 6. Blues for Brother George Jackson 7. Invocation: Ballad for a Child 8. Ballad for a Child 9. Good Bye Sweet Pops 10. Quiet Dawn

Personnel: Attica: Roy Burrows, Michael Ridley, Charles McGhee (trumpets); Cal Massey (flugelhorn); Clifford Thornton (cornet); Charles Stephens, Kiane Zawadi, Charles Greenlee (trombones); Hakim Jami (euphonium); Marion Brown (alto saxophone, flute, percussion); Clarence White (alto saxophone); Billy Robinson, Roland Alexander (tenor saxophones) Archie Shepp (tenor and soprano saxophones); James Ware (baritone saxophone); Leroy Jenkins, John Blake, Lakshminarayana Shankar (violins); Roland Lipscomb, Calo Scott (cellos); Walter Davis Jr. (piano, electric piano); Dave Burrell (electric piano); Cornell Dupree (guitar); Jimmy Garrison (bass); Roland Wilson and Gerald Jemmott (electric basses); Beaver Harris or Billy Higgins (drums); Ollie Anderson, Juma Sutan, Nene DeFense (percussion); Romulus Franceschini (conductor); Henry Hull or Joe Lee Wilson or Waheeda Massey (lead vocals); Joshie Armstead, Albertine Robinson (background vocals); William Kunstler, Bartholomew Gray (naration)

Track Listing: Music: 1. Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe 2. Masonic Inborn (Part 1) 3. A Man Is Like a Tree 4. Oh! Love of Life 5. Island Harvest 6. Drudgery

Personnel: Music: Albert Ayler (tenor saxophone, bagpipes, vocal); Bobby Few (piano); Henry Vestine (guitar); Bill Folwell (bass, bass guitar); Stafford James (bass); Muhammad Ali (drums); Mary Maria (vocal)