Quincy Saul/Fred Ho

March 21, 2012

The Music of Cal Massey: A Tribute
Mutable/Big Red Media 004

With his profound disdain for the word “Jazz” – insisting that it’s a racial slur which ghettoizes the art form – bandleader/baritone saxophonist Fred Ho would probably be nonplussed to hear The Music of Cal Massey described as a great Jazz record. But (Hey God-damn-it) – to quote from one of the tune titles – it is. As a Marxist revolutionary Ho may want to designate this tribute in another fashion; it won’t diminish the quality of this performance.

Massey (1928-1972) was a Philadelphia-based trumpeter, who recorded sparingly and is best-known for his association with saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Coltrane, both of whom recorded his compositions. Massey was also a committed Black Nationalist and Ho has long insisted that the trumpeter’s affiliation with the Black Panthers is and was responsible for the neglect of this important Jazz composer’s works. Having been impressed with the complexity and political implications of Massey music when he performed it with Shepp in his teens, Ho has long championed the repertoire. This project is the result. The baritone saxophonist who has fought colon cancer for years doesn’t perform on the disc. However Quincy Saul, a clarinettist and political organizer who is one of Ho’s students, helped oversee and produce the disc.

Using a 12-piece ensemble conducted by Whitney George, the CD conveyed the strength, intensity and color of Massey’s compositions. Impressive solos are turned in by most of the players on the CD’s three ancillary tunes – arranged by Ho – but the session centrepiece is Massey’s nine-part “Black Liberation Suite”. Composed in 1970s and with arrangements updated in 1986 by Romulus Franceschini, Massey’s closest collaborator, the suite includes sequences honoring such heroes of Black Liberation as Coltrane, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton and Marcus Garvey.

While in 2012 the advisability of honoring Cleaver may be questionable, what can’t be questioned is the breath and integrity of the sounds themselves. Make no mistake these compositions aren’t a series of musical thoughts haphazardly strung together, but a legitimate suite with an introduction, an exposition, theme variations and a finale. True to Massey’s Afro-centric vision, the strings – Melanie Dyer’s viola and Dorothy Lawson’s cello – are used for more than Europeanized prettiness. As early as “(Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change”, the second track, Dyer’s prickly, pinched, double-stopped angling is as responsible for describing the agitated narrative as Bobby Zankel’s irregularly bisected reed trills. Here, and throughout, Royal Hartigan’s African percussion color the proceedings. When the finale involves not only big-band styled riffs from the horns, but the musicians vocalizing the title in a style that’s half-agitprop and half-ring-shout, originality is assured.

A track such as “The Damned Don’t Cry” organized as a showcase for Jackie Coleman’s muted trumpet work, contrasts his plunger tones with rubato brays from the other brass players and swaying sheets of sound from the reed players, The bluesy andante line echoes Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”, and through it expresses an affinity to some of Duke Ellington’s early tone poems. Wes Brown’s thumping double bass serves as counterweight to the trumpeter’s spits and wails which complete the section.

With the sequences seamlessly blending into one another, other stand-out soloists include Frank Kuumba Lacy, whose kinetic lines possess both the grit of gutbucket stylists and the melodic stirring of moderato timbres, plus tenor saxophonist Bhinda Keidel’s mid-range swallows and split tones. All along pianist Art Hirahara comps, clanks and clips, with his accompaniment as chromatic as it is challenging. Keidel, Lacy, Coleman and vamping baritone saxophonist Ben Barson also express themselves in the climatic finale, “Back to Africa”. True to Massey’s – and likely Ho’s universalist revolutionary creed – however, the track doesn’t accentuate any clichéd Dark Continent percussion. Instead with Hirahara bearing down muscularly and percussively on the keys, the broken-octave movement is spurred by Count Basie-like riffs with a faint Latin tinge. Meanwhile saxophonists soar to the top of their range and Lacy’s plunger trombone runs lead the undulating sounds to a contrapuntal crescendo.

Overall the CD is an essential disc of profound sounds. It’s an appropriate tribute to Massey, Franceschini, Ho, Saul, George and – sorry Fred –American Jazz.

–Ken Waxman

Tracks: 1. Paryer 2. (Hey God-damn-it) Things Have Got to Change 3. Man at Peace in Algiers (for Eldridge Cleaver) 4. The Black Saint (for Malcolm X) 5. The Peaceful Warrior (for Martin Luther King Jr.) 6. The Damned Don’t Cry (for Huey P. Newton) 7. Reminiscing About Dear John (for John Coltrane) 8. Babylon 9. Back to Africa (for Marcus Garvey) 10. Quiet Down 11. Goodbye Sweet Pops (for Louis Armstrong) 12. The Cry of My People

Personnel: Jackie Coleman, Nabatae Isles and Jameson Chandler (trumpets); Frank Kuumba Lacy and Aaron John (trombones); Bobby Zankel (alto saxophone); Salim Washington and Bhinda Keidel (tenor saxophones and woodwinds); Ben Barson (baritone saxophone); Art Hirahara (piano); Melanie Dyer (viola); Dorothy Lawson (cello); Wes Brown (bass); Royal Hartigan (drums and African percussion) and Whitney George (conductor)