Malachi Thompson / Ari Brown / Steve Berry / Gary Bartz / Billy Harper

February 9, 2004

Blues Jazz

Delmark DG-548

Proof, if any more is needed, that despite the doctrinaire ravings of the Neo-Cons, accomplished players can create advanced, freedom-tinged jazz while staying true to the genre’s roots is provided by this CD.

BLUE JAZZ is made up of two suites composed by trumpeter Malachi Thompson and performed by his 12-piece Africa Brass plus guests on reeds and vocals. An added bonus are three stand-alone tracks, one written by certified mainstream hero Wayne Shorter, and another which is the sort of down and dirty Southside Chicago blues that would probably frighten the Young Lions right out of their bespoke-tailored suits.

Consisting of four-interrelated tracks, the Black Metropolis Suite offers a kaleidoscopic view of Chicago’s Southside or Bronzeville, filtered through the experience of native son Thompson. Over the years as a pro, he evolved from blues and R&B gigs to playing in Operation Breadbasket’s big band to a long-time membership in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

With most of the rest of Africa Brass’s four other trumpets, four trombones, and the rhythm section AACM members as well, the ensemble is distinguished by its cohesiveness. As impeccable as they are subtle, Kirk Brown on keyboards, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. do their job so well you hardly notice their presence in fact.

You certainly do notice Thompson, especially on a number like “The Panther”, where his solo consists of Cat Anderson-like, sky-high trumpeting, bitten off grace notes and a quote from “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho”, probably honoring the Black Panther party’s pugnacious stance. Joining him in the front line, in this tune reminiscent of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”, is trombonist Bill McFarland, who showcases some modified gutbucket phrasing with a pleasant burr, and guest Billy Harper weighing in with some smooth, lopping tenor sax work. Joyce’s drum breaks hold together the different sections, as Brown’s boppish comping and turnarounds do the same on the suite’s title tune.

Proving that atonality can as easily fit in a groove as clichéd swing sections, Thompson builds his solo on “Genesis/Rebirth” — the CD’s longest track — with bent and curved buzzing trills. Harper contributes off-centre honking slurs, while trombonist Steve Berry adds blowsy expansions in his chromatic-toned solo. Meanwhile the accompaniment, which has been propelled by understated shimmering cymbal whaps and bowed bass, explodes, adding pedal point vamps from the other brass plus higher-pitched and more diffuse timbres.

More historically based, “Blues for a Saint Called Louis Suite” honors Mr. Armstrong, who arrived in Chicago in 1924, thereby promulgating the newly minted jazz style. Helped not a little bit by the moaning, unselfconscious scat singing and lyric reading of Dee Alexander, a performance of this suite earned the Brass a standing ovation at the Chicago Blues (!) Festival, something Neo-Cons could never hope to achieve. Included in the three linked compositions are the Brass’s brass using its plungers to replicate the wah-wah whistle of the locomotive taking Armstrong from New Orleans to Chi-Town, while Joyce creates the rhythm of the clacking train from bass drum and ride cymbal.

Throughout, Thompson adopts a Bubber Miley-like plunger mute stance, on the title tune Brown quotes liberally from “St. Louis Blues” as he tinkles bluesy piano slurs, and his brother, Ritual Trio members Ari Brown, appears to add some Classic Jazz style clarinet tones on the same tune.

Although the CD’s title track is a celebratory blues with a little too much brass emphasis, more locomotive-like vamps and somewhat naïve celebratory lyrics, the Brass and even more guests take the session out on a high note.

Down home as anything Armstrong would have heard when he first came to Chicago and referencing Thompson’s Southside roots, “Mud Hole”, the final track, is sung by gravelly-voiced The Big Doowopper. The 11 horns create an approximation of a Stax-Volt section, Brown switches his preaching to funky organ and the raw tenor sax solo and backing arpeggios come from R&B specialist Gene “Daddy G” Barge, who first worked with the trumpeter 30 years ago.

BLUE JAZZ shows that finger popping and thinking aren’t mutually exclusive.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Black Metropolis Suite: 1. Black Metropolis 2. The Panther 3. Jaaz Revelations 4. Genesis/Rebirth ^ Blues for a Saint Called Louis Suite: 5. Po’ Little Louie* 6. Get On The Train 7. Blues for a Saint Called Louis*~ 8. Blue Jazz* 9. Footprints 10. Mud Hole+

Personnel: Malachi Thompson (trumpet and flugelhorn); David Spencer, Kenny Anderson, Micah Frazier, Elmer Brown (trumpets); Bill McFarland, Tracy Kirk, Steve Berry Omar Jefferson (trombones); Gary Bartz (soprano and alto saxophone); Billy Harper (tenor saxophone); Gene “Daddy G” Barge (tenor saxophone)+; & Ari Brown (tenor saxophone^, clarinet~); Kirk Brown (piano, organ+); Harrison Bankhead (bass); Leon Joyce Jr. (drums); Dee Alexander*, The Big Doowopper+ (vocals)