BY DAN BUSKIRK “I hope I never like this stuff,” I remember thinking as a 15-year-old, tuning past Philly’s jazz station, WRTI. Jazz was too unmelodic, too cerebral and too unsexy to my revved-up, hormone-addled mind, sentiments similar to what I still hear from many adult music lovers.
For me, it was only a few years later that I finally found myself deep into jazz, after making my way up the time line from the big bands (the AM radio in my first car was set to the old timers’ station, WPEN), to Sinatra, to Chet Baker to Miles and Mingus and Monk and finally Coltrane, who died making the furthest-out music of his career.
Coltrane has come to be remembered as a quasi-religious figure but the music from Coltrane’s spiritual period has never been absorbed in the mainstream. Such high profile jazz programs as Ken Burns’ “Jazz” and Wynton Marsalis’ “Jazz at Lincoln Center” concert series, and even your basic Starbucks’ Blue Note sampler have all helped to refigure jazz as a pretty and jaunty soundtrack along which to cook dinner.
It’s not that Satchmo and the Duke don’t have something to say to today’s audiences, but by cutting off its musical evolution at the death of Coltrane, the guardians of jazz culture have allowed their generational prejudices to separate the music from much of what makes it relevant to younger, modern ears. Talking to younger jazz buyers, I’ve often found that they came to the music through its rock and soul analogies — hardcore kids who buy Ornette Coleman’s anarchic “Free Jazz,” world music fans who drift into Don Cherry’s international fusion, listeners of Free Folk sounds getting into the AACM collective’s boundaryless sounds, and hip-hoppers digging the still-derided sound of Miles’ funky electric bands of the 70’s.
So here’s a mix for Phawker Radio: jazz whose influence underpins modern culture while never being absorbed by it. Most of what was considered outr? in the record business sooner or later finds its way into our mainstream culture, but one of free jazz’s virtues is that we’ve never had to listen to a commercial pitch with Sun Ra’s music egging us on to buybuybuy…Track Listing And Liner Notes After Jump…
Playing free, where musicians are liberated from chord changes and encouraged to explore the limits of their instrument’s noise-making abilities, carries a certain political undercurrent as well, inviting the player and listener to transcend convention and to live and listen in the Zen-like, ever-shifting present. And if there was a time in history where we needed to rethink convention, it’s now, and jazz’s freer landscapes make for a potent soundtrack.
1) Philip Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensemble ? “The Minstrel” from On The Beach (Aestuarium/Hefty, 1968)
A onetime member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and member of the Chicago jazz collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, Philip Cohran created a one-off record with his 15-piece band. Featuring Miles Davis’ bass man, Pete Cosey, and led by Cohran’s electric kalimba playing, “The Minstrel” is a tight arrangement sporting some funky improvisation and an African groove that won’t stop.
2) Art Ensemble of Chicago ? “Theme De Yoyo” from Les Stances A Sophie (Nessa/Universal Sound, 1970)
Fontella “Rescue Me” Bass (wife of the Art Ensemble’s irrepressible trumpeter Lester Bowie) uncorks a searing vocal on the classic mixture of soul shouting and free improvisation.
3) Miles Davis ? “Black Satin” from On The Corner (Columbia, 1972)
Among Miles’ most fervent fans Miles isn’t just acknowledged as a jazz giant but a man who made the greatest rock record of all time (the unrelenting A Tribute to Jack Johnson) and On The Corner , the greatest funk record as well. With its cartoonish caricatures and tripped-out production flourishes, the album led much of his audience to think that Miles had finally lost his mind. And he had, in the wildest way yet.
4) Khan Jamal’s Creative Arts Ensemble ? “Breath of Life” from Drumdance to the Motherland (Dogtown/Eremite, 1972)
The Philly vibraphonist uncorked this one-of-a-kind release on the tiny Dogtown label, and only this autumn was it plucked from obscurity and reissued. At times sounding as much like a krautrock record as a jazz combo, Drumdance is a tour de force of wigged-out stoner rhythms soaked in thick delay and atmosphere. Probably the greatest moment in the history of 36th and Locust, where this live set is believed to have been recorded.
5) Albert Ayler ? “Drudgery” from Music Is The Healing Force of the Universe (Impulse, 1969)
Ayler’s over-emphatic, shrieking sax won him more enemies than friends during his brief career, which ended (according to popular legend) with the down-and-out genius being chained to a jukebox and dropped into the East River, which is awfully fitting if not exactly true. On one of his final sessions, he’s joined by Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine, who jams on a basic blues riff whose predictable changes only underline Ayler’s mad and spastically emotive playing.
6) Sun Ra Arkestra ? “Nuclear War” from Nuclear War (Y Records/Unheard Music Series, 1982)
With roots that stretch from southern tent shows to the stratosphere, Sun Ra’s Arkestra (Germantown residents since the early ’70s) chant repeatedly about what a “motherfucker” nuclear war would be. In a perfect world, this song would have run over the end credits of 1983’s apocalyptic TV event, “The Day After.” Weird, even for the band that set the standard.
7) Pat Martino ? “Baiyina” from Baiyina (The Clear Evidence) (Prestige/OJC, 1968)
A couple of years after the Beatles started working in Indian musical ideas, the influence spread everywhere, including to Philly’s own young guitar wiz, Pat Martino. Soaked in tabla and tambura and played in 7/4 time, Martino hits a groove that shows that he’s doing more than slumming Calcutta-style.
8) Alice Coltrane ? “Prema” from Transfiguration (Warner Brothers, Sepia Tone, 1978)
As the wife who took over the piano stool from McCoy Tyner when Coltrane broke up his classic quartet, you might be tempted to call Alice Coltrane the Yoko Ono of jazz. But the 11 albums she made between 1968 and ’78 convincingly expand on the tenor giant’s musical legacy of spiritually-inspired music. Here she’s playing piano live with two of her dead husband’s sidemen (bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Roy Haynes) and a prerecorded string section that radiates other-worldly beauty. She wouldn’t make another proper record for 26 years.
9) Pete LaRoca Sims ? “Bliss” from Turkish Women at the Bath (Muse, 1967)
That’s future Scientology nut Chick Corea playing that haunting descending piano part here, at the beginning of his long and often uninspiring musical journey. Digging through old records frequently means discovering that artists you’ve written off as commercial hacks were much more exciting at the dawn of their careers. Drummer Pete LaRoca Sims is the bandleader on this date, and despite extensive credits as a sideman, he has recorded almost nothing since this record’s release in 1967.
10) Pharoah Sanders ? “Spiritual Blessing” from Elevation (Impulse, 1973)
Like Alice Coltrane, John’s one-time sax sideman Pharoah Sanders’ career seems like an extension of his musical mentors’. This tambura-driven prayer is one of his many compositions meant to take jazz from its earthy roots to a place of meditative reflection.