What better way to begin your listening through American religio-musical communities than to follow this chapter’s opening ritual invocation, in Horace Tapscott’s magisterial “The Dark Tree”?
If you’re interested in the broad range of communities I note at the outset, by way of comparison, you might want to take a listen to their sonic expression.
(Sweet fuck, is this not the undistilled essence of rock and roll, by the way? What is wrong with this crowd that they are not losing their minds?)
But the story of this chapter begins with Bill Dixon and the JCG, and other ensembles flourishing around and following 1964’s seminal October Revolution. The sound of self-determination shaped Dixon’s later Intents and Purposes, the New York Art Quartet, and the growing range of jazz organizing through which musicians responded to shrinking opportunities into the 1970s.
From Studio Rivbea:
Of course, in the thick of all this, the AACM was taking shape in the mid-1960s. Early Muhal Richard Abrams is heard to great effect on his Delmark classics Young at Heart, Wise in Time and Levels and Degrees of Light. From this time period, there was so much creativity going on among the Chicagoans that one hardly knows where to begin. Listen to Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre’s Humility in the Light of the Creator; the Creative Construction Company; and Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble perform “El Hajj Malik Shabazz.”
The range of the organization’s dictum “Great Black Music” is heard in its members, across several generations and now geographically dispersed, on projects of great variety. Here are some, from musicians named in this section, I consider to be especially significant in light of themes discussed.
One of my very favorite musicians is George E. Lewis, a composer of vast range and one of the best trombonists ever. George, I should say, was very kind in sharing several hours of conversation with me in 2011. Unfailingly generous in his observations, he did not wish to have me use any of his words in the book because, even with my problematization of the term, Lewis did not want to be associated with “jazz.” But because his music is so outrageously good, I hope he will understand if I suggest that you listen to his Solo Trombone Record, Homage to Charles Parker, his epochal Voyager (where he first recorded with real-time interactive software), Changing with the Times, and Les Exercices Spirituels.
Multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart has released relatively few recordings under his own name, but is a key figure in AACM history. Recording not just with Lewis, Ewart has played key roles in Phil Colson’s Unity Troupe, Chico Freeman’s “Morning Prayer,” Threadgill’s X-75, in addition to his clarinet choir date Angles of Entrance and his didjeridu record, Songs of Sunlife.
The same is true for drummer Alvin Fielder, who’s on Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, a bunch of dates with Kidd Jordan and Dennis Gonzalez, and his own 2007date A Measure of Vision.
Henry Threadgill occupies a central place in my personal pantheon of musicians. His music is the outest of the out, but it can simultaneously make children dance with joy and sound just like the jubilant, raucous sound of your old neighborhood. He is an American composer of the first rank. Of course he plays righteous jazz, too. Just listen to him in the great trio Air, with the sorely lamented Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall.
As his compositional ambition increased, so too did the size of his bands, from the Sextett (dig the extra “t”), the incredible Very Very Circus (which my oldest friend in the world, Hans Indigo Spencer, hipped me to way back when), and the wide-ranging, truly strange bands he assembled for that oh-so-brief moment when he was signed to Columbia.
Sadly, there’s no commercial recording of his Situation Society Dance Band, though you can hear them as much you like.
Into his 70s now, Threadgill’s music is as rad as ever, as his recordings for Pi testify. And hey, since the blog first went live in 2015, Threadgill can now add a Pulitzer to his CV. Congratulations, sir!
Saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins is a committed Chicagoan, and has shared the stage with many of the folks written about in this section. His long membership in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has resulted in memorable records like The Continuum (one of this group’s best, Three Gentlemen from Chikago, preceded Dawkins’ membership). His 1994 Silkheart date South Side Street Songs is a minor classic. But I’m also quite partial to his recent, The Prairie Prophet, dedicated to the godfather of many Chicago improvisers, tenor sax giant Fred Anderson.
Speaking of Fred, though I don’t discuss him in conjunction with the AACM, do yourself a favor and check out the date previously noted in conjunction with Drake as well as Another Place, The Missing Link, Chicago Chamber Music, and Duets 2001, with the marvelous drummer Robert Barry.
Flautist Nicole Mitchell (another Oberlin grad, shout-out) did a lot of her early recording as leader of her Black Earth Ensemble. They put out some killers, like Black Unstoppable and the Octavia Butler project The Xenogenesis Suite. She’s recently been recording a lot of seriously advanced large ensemble compositions for RogueArt. Check out the stunning The Arc of O.
Finally, Ed Wilkerson is the leader of the buoyant Eight Bold Souls. Hear them on Side Show and Ant Farm.
Of course, the Art Ensemble of Chicago will be discussed in its own section in the next chapter’s listening guide.
Like many communitarian experiments in American religious history, BAG seemed to exist only for a hot moment in actuality, though its influence abides. What this means is that the collective itself focused far more on performance than on recording, even if individual members went on to great productivity elsewhere. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any video of the multimedia performances described in this section. If anyone knows of any, please forward them to me so I can post them.)
It can’t hurt to mention (as I did in earlier, far longer draft of the book) that St. Louisan Lester Bowie was for a time married to the singer Fontella Bass, whose voice you probably know from this smash:
(Lots of weirdly overlapping lines in the American underground . . . )
But here, take a listen to the key early document, after which Ben Looker’s fabulous book is named: Lake’s NTU Troupe’s The Point from Which Creation Begins:
Here is a similarly vivid clip from early Oliver Lake:
Julius Hemphill was one of the founding members (along with Lake) of the World Saxophone Quartet, whose records for Black Saint and Nonesuch in particular are consistently inventive and engaging. Hemphill’s own records until his death in 1995 were among the searching and meaningful of the period. Here are selections from the records I discuss:
Lake’s performances of Navajo tunes can be heard on his quartet’s live album on Passin Thru. Enjoy this intense performance with vocalist Mary Redhouse:
Lake can be heard accompanying the King speech here:
And here’s a soulful club performance of “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”:
Hamiet Bluiett (also of the WSQ) is in a similarly testifying mood on “Precious Lord”:
I’ll close out this section with a vintage slice from Luther Thomas’ Human Arts Ensemble.
You can almost still hear Tapscott’s “The Dark Tree,” can you not? Aside from a few early sideman gigs, and some key arrangements for Sonny Criss, Tapscott came out of the blocks strong with 1969’s The Giant Is Awakened (later collected on the valuable compilation West Coast Hot). Listen to that record’s title track to get a sense of how distinctive Tapscott’s voice was from early on.
For much of the UGMAA’s most active years, recordings were few. Under Tapscott’s own name, Songs of the Unsung, At the Crossroads, and Dial “B” for Barbara are all sterling examples of his musicianship, and all date from the late 1970s or early 1980s. Perhaps even stronger is 1984’s Dissent or Descent.
And in the years just before his death, Tapscott enjoyed some well-earned attention owing to his association with Arabesque, for whom he recorded Aiee! The Phantom and Thoughts of Dar es Salaam.
With the Ark, the three essential recordings are The Call, Live at the I.U.C.C., and Flight 17. But do also check out their reading of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” “The Meeting” (which became the Panthers’ anthem) and Seize the Time.
Those interested in a little extra homework might check out UGMAA alums Sabir Mateen and Arthur Blythe in particular. Mateen is far less known of the two, but he’s made some raging albums with the collective Test, killer duos with drummers (Sunny Murray on We Are Not at the Opera and Hamid Drake on Brothers Together), and under his own name (Divine Made Love in particular). Blythe recorded a string of good ones for Columbia beginning in the late 1970s. To my ears, his Lenox Avenue Breakdown is simply one of the best records ever (seriously, if we’re ever in the market for a new national anthem, I’m thinking “Down San Diego Way” is a sleeper pick), although followup Illusions is nearly as good (“Bush Baby,” with tuba and Blood Ulmer on guitar, is a number-one hit in my alternate universe).
If there’s anyone in this book most people have heard of, it’s John Coltrane. He’s on the cover and everything. Most folks already have their own story (usually woven with some quasi-religious language, at that) of the shock, the emotional bolt of first connecting with his music. And it is legitimately undeniable in its power, depth, and conviction (aside from the fact that it’s among the most intense, technically demanding, and uncompromising music I know of). Not everyone will spring for the Complete Prestige Recordings, featuring all of Coltrane’s early sidework as well as early dates like Soultrane, Dakar, Settin’ the Pace, and Black Pearls. There’s some good stuff there.
The well-known music with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk recalibrated Coltrane’s sense of improvisational possibility, and you can begin to hear his expansion (beyond his already considerable talents) on Blue Train and, especially, on his sequence of albums for Atlantic, including the popular My Favorite Things, Giant Steps (with its whirling title track that raised the bar for generations of saxophonists), Coltrane’s Sound, and others.
Once on Impulse in 1961 (and note that Coltrane did basically all of this in the space of a single decade – holy shit!), he announced his conceptual intentions with the large ensemble triumph Africa/Brass. The Village Vanguard recordings from that year featured the quartet joined by Eric Dolphy and others, in explorations of drone, instrumental timbre and technique, and long-form freedom that notably scandalized a certain sector of the critical and listening publics.
Coltrane’s last few years saw his most rigorous exploration of both religiosity and music. Beginning with Crescent’s “dark night of the soul” and fully flowering on A Love Supreme.
Conventional tonality, harmony, and technique were subsequently demoted in favor of a kind of pure improvisation, led by motivic writing and spontaneous collective interaction. Post-ALS Coltrane is filled with triumphs in this area, mostly but not exclusively in the quartet format. Some of the best small group work is heard on Meditations, Sun Ship, Transition, and the haunting Stellar Regions, recorded very shortly before Coltrane’s 1967 death.
Listeners remain deeply divided as to the merits of Coltrane’s large ensemble pieces from his late period, but Kulu Se Mama, Ascension, and especially Om are valuable reflections (sometimes audibly so, as with the chanting on the latter) of Coltrane’s thinking during this period. (NB: the Om link works; it just looks empty.)
And, too late to make it into the book for proper discussion, Impulse recently released a renowned (and, to some, infamous) November 1966 concert recording from Temple University. Offering is distinctive in multiple ways: for its shifting of the base personnel of the Coltrane group at the time, because Coltrane invited onstage local musicians with whom he’d been jamming at a church near his mother’s house (on successive weekend visits that autumn), and most of all for his jaw-dropping chanting and ululations during his solos. Hearing this for the first time completely floored me, and I mean completely.
Over the last few years, recordings of services of the Coltrane Church have been uploaded to Youtube. This is an excellent opportunity not only to hear the committed improvising of members and visitors, but also to get a sense of the ritual context.
You can hear Alice Coltrane’s distinctive style on late recordings with her husband, those 1966 and 1967 platters featuring such epic improvisations. Live in Japan in particular has a nearly hour-long “My Favorite Things.” The von Trapps’ heads would surely have exploded. The albums discussed in this section see her extending this sometimes brooding, sometimes rhapsodic, always harmonically dense approach in conjunction with bhajans, gospel tunes, and more. Here are several clips from the key documents.