20 November 2020: Black Jazz Records and more

This week Cosmic Jazz has a special feature on the Black Jazz Records label,  but there is also an opportunity for more music, including our celebration of the patron saint of music and musicians – St Cecilia – whose feast day is 22 November.

Keith Jarrett – Prayer from Death and the Flower

We began the show with the music of Keith Jarrett who announced recently that, as the result of two strokes in 2018, he has lost the motor skills in his left hand and is unlikely to record more music. Last week we celebrated his music through the famed Standards Trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack de Johnette on drums with a track from the awesome box set of recordings from the Blue Note Club in New York. This weeks we dip into the recordings of Jarrett’s American Quartet with a track from the 1974 album Death and the Flower on the Impulse! label. This record is one of Neil’s favourite from this period, and one he bought from the much loved Sunshine Records in Little Clarendon Street, Oxford – also regularly visited by Coldcut and Ninja Tune founder Jon More at around the same time. Bought in the original Impulse! gatefold for £3.99 (see the advertisement below), Death and the Flower includes the side-long title track with its extended percussion and wood flute intro. The band are Jarrett on piano, Dewey Redman on saxophones and more, Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums with the addition of Guilherme Franco on percussion. These records are well worth seeking out – the American Quartet is often overshadowed by the music of Jarrett’s European Quartet on ECM Records, but it is not to be underestimated. Look for this record and the equally good Treasure Island and Fort Yahwuh. Our choice from Death and the Flower – Prayer – is a moving, becalming and contemplative piece, played here on vinyl, a format we are now pleased to include in the show.

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack deJohnette – Moon and Sand from Standards Vol II

More of Jarrett’s music came in the form of our second choice, one of the many records produced by the Standards Trio and all on the ECM label. Standards I and II were recorded at the same session in New York in 1983 along with a third record – Changes –  which featured free improvisations. Our choice – Moon and Sand – is not often covered by jazz musicians, but this 1979 version by Kenny Burrell is a delight as are the versions of Blue Bossa and Stolen Moments on the same release. The Standards Trio went on to record and tour for more than 25 years, recording numerous live and studio albums, almost all of classics from the American songbook. Two live recordings – Inside Out and Always Let Me Go – are the exception as both contain wholly improvised tracks. The telepathic communication between Jarrett, Peacock and deJohnette brought new insights into many familiar tunes and whilst Jarrett has his detractors (his annoying whining can be very irritating), none of 25+ recordings are without often considerable merit. Neil’s personal favourites include Up For It (2003) and After the Fall (2018), both containing outstanding versions of the standard Autumn Leaves. The trio disbanded in 2014 after more than 30 years of playing together – an outstanding achievement. All recordings are on ECM and all are still available, many in all three formats.

Mary Lou Williams – Ode to St. Cecilie from Spiritual Jazz Vol. 11

Volume 11 is one of the latest in Jazzman’s ongoing spiritual jazz collections with a focus on music from the Danish SteepleChase label, the Copenhagen-based imprint that has recorded and released music from some of the greatest jazz musicians from the US and Europe, including many who were living in Europe at the time. These expat musicians were responsible for some classic free jazz recordings from the recently-closed Cafe Montmartre including Albert Ayler’s Ghosts and Abdullah Ibrahim’s Scenes from an African Village. Our choice was under-rated pianist Mary Lou Williams who on this track is accompanied by Buster Williams on bass and Mickey Roker on drums. Williams’ conversion to Catholicism in 1954 dramatically influenced many of her subsequent recordings, including this Ode to St. Cecile from the Free Spirits album of 1975. If you’re looking for something different try the extraordinary Black Christ of the Andes album. Here’s the backstory…

In 1962, the Catholic Church canonised a new saint: a Peruvian brother of the Dominican Order named Martin de Porres, the son of a freed slave and Spanish gentleman who refused to recognise him because he was born with his mother’s dark features. Today, St. Martin de Porres is the patron saint of those who seek racial harmony. His story and canonisation was inspiring to Williams and she began composing new material in that year, with the first performance of Black Christ of the Andes taking place in New York in November 1962. “Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary,” Duke Ellington once said. “She is like soul on soul.” The sound of this unique record – which draws on blues, gospel and jazz – can certainly be described as soulful – it truly is music that comes from enslaved black people and their descendants. Listen to an instrumental taste of the album with Miss D. D. right here.

Up next was Chicagoan percussionist Kahil El’Zabar who has been rather prolific with releases over the last year. We’ve featured two albums from him in recent months on Cosmic Jazz and now up comes a third, the (ironically) titled America the Beautiful. It’s a relatively large ensemble joining the percussionist this time with Corey Wilkes on trumpet and the late Hamiet Bluiett on baritone saxophone. There are two versions of the title tune, Charles Wright’s Express Yourself and a twist on Afro Blue called Sketches of an Afro Blue but we featured Jump and Shout (For Those Now Gone). There’s no doubt about the focus for this music – “Now’s the time for us to collectively invoke a confluence of trust and imagination that will enlighten a future path towards ethical humanity,” El’Zabar writes in the album’s statement of purpose.  The album is on the new UK Spiritmuse label and, as so often these days, you really should give yourself a treat and get it on vinyl – beautifully produced and a joy to look at too with great cover art from Nep Sidhu.

A piece of essential information for any serous jazz lovers (and certainly anyone who loves the music we play on Cosmic Jazz) is that from August 2020 the Real Gone Music record label from  announced a programme to reissue the catalogue  from the Black Jazz Record label on remastered vinyl with some select CD releases too. The label was started in 1969 in Oakland, California by pianist Gene Russell – one of whose tunes starts the sequence on this week’s show – along with percussionist Dick Schory. Black Jazz had an explicit intention – to promote the talents of young African American jazz musicians and singers – and released twenty albums between 1971 and 1975. Some of the more notable artists to record for Black Jazz Records were Cleveland Eaton, former bassist for Count Basie and Ramsey Lewis and organist/pianist Doug Carn, whose four albums were the most successful for the label.  Singer Kellee Patterson gained notoriety as the first black Miss Indiana in 1971, before recording her debut album, Maiden Voyage in 1973. With co-owner Dick Schory’s knowledge of state-of-the-art stereo recording techniques, Black Jazz strove for the kind of audiophile status that most 1970s indie labels could barely even dream of and, from 1972 to the label’s end in 1975, each album was issued with a surround-sound Quadraphonic version.

If you’re not aware of the music on Black Jazz, this is your opportunity to discover the many treasures on the label. Original pressings can be expensive and so this Real Gone initiative is a welcome development in this new vinyl era. We featured five tunes from the label, beginning with Gene Russell’s My Favorite Things.

Gene Russell – My Favorite Things from Talk to My Lady

Talk to My Lady is classic mid-period Black Jazz, with some original compositions and three covers – Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life, Gamble and Huff’s Me and Mrs Jones and the Rogers and Hammerstein classic My Favorite Things. The band included Ngudu (Leon Chancler) on drums who would go on to record with George Benson, Weather Report and Michael Jackson. Russell transforms My Favorite Things with his innovative Fender Rhodes and Henry Franklin is great on acoustic bass – CJ jazz fact: it’s Franklin who played on Hugh Masekela’s hit Grazing in the Grass! Russell’s death at just 48 in 1981 left the Black Jazz catalogue in limbo, but hip hop sampling and championing by DJs like Gilles Peterson and Theo Parrish ensured continued awareness of the label. Indeed, through the Japanese Snow Dog label, both Peterson and Parrish reissued their own Black Jazz compilations in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Doug Carn – Chant from Adam’s Apple 

The selection from keyboard player Doug Carn was released in 1975 and was his fourth and final record for the label. Sharing Carn’s approach was a group which included saxophonist Ronnie Laws, who had worked with Earth, Wind and Fire before that band’s big commercial breakthrough. Of the others, guitarists Nathan Page and Calvin Keys had both performed with organist Jimmy Smith. Carn frequently added lyrics to established jazz classics and on this album he gives this treatment to the Wayne Shorter tune Sanctuary. There is also a version of Earth, Wind and Fire’s Mighty Mighty (We are people of the sun), Carn – who had also  played with EWF for a short time, has done keyboard duties with the likes of Nat Adderley, Shirley Horn and Lou Donaldson, as well as his then wife Jean Carne [sic] with whom  the music took in elements of soul. In 2015 he released the album My Spirit, a live recording of tunes from his Black Jazz albums.

Calvin Keys – Aunt Lovey from Proceed with Caution 

Guitarist Calvin Keys is another Black Jazz artist who is still around. He was born in Nebraska in 1942  but moved to San Francisco and became part of the jazz community there. He was also an educator and has taught at the Oakland Public Conservatory, as well as giving private lessons and mentoring young musicians. Again, there is an impressive list of musicians that he has worked with – Joe Henderson, Ray Charles, Ahmad Jamal, Bobby Hutcherson and Pharaoh Sanders. On this album he’s joined by pianist Kirk Lightsey and trombonist Oscar Brashear.

Walter Bishop Jr.’s 4th Cycle – N’dugu’s Prayer from Keeper of my Soul 

Pianist Walter Bishop Jr. is probably best known for his Muse label records from the 1970s, particularly the excellent Soul Village – a record we have featured a number of times on Cosmic Jazz and which includes a longer take on Soul Turnaround, which had appeared on Coral Keys, his first recording for Black Jazz. In his teens growing up in New York Bishop knew Sonny Rollins and Art Taylor – good friends to have around! On this session from 1973 Ronnie Laws appears on both sax and flute (and, yes, Ronnie Laws is the younger brother of CTI flautist Hubert Laws).  Gene Russell produced and the album also includes a take on Kenny Dorham’s Blue Bossa.

The Awakening – The Ultimate Frontier from Mirage

The Awakening were a six piece Chicago-based ensemble that included AACM alumni Reggie Willis on bass and Ari Brown on flute and tenor sax. Perhaps uniquely for groups broadly described as playing spiritual jazz, The Awakening were able to deliver Art Ensemble frenzy (as on the superb Jupiter) alongside the mellow funk of Brand New Feeling. Led by pianist Ken Chaney, who was writing music for Chicago soul-jazz stars Young-Holt Unlimited in the 1960s (you can hear him on their million-selling 1968 hit Soulful Strut), The Awakening also included trumpet player Frank Gordon from Young-Holt Unlimited and guests on some tunes providing further instruments and vocals. This one has Anita Jeffries and Ben Wright on vocals. The album was released in 1973 with Gene Russell again as producer. This is an album not to miss: the music can be deeply intense and spiritual and contemplative and challenging – and like so much of the music on the Black Jazz Records label was imbued with Black consciousness and pride and very much in tune with the times and issues facing their communities. And that, of course, much makes it entirely relevant for these troubling times too…

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