Saturday, 8 August 2020

Mtume Umoja Ensemble ‎– Alkebu-Lan: Land Of The Blacks (Live At The East) (1972)

Genre: Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Strata-East

A1.   Invocation
A2.   Baba Hengates
B1   Utamu
B2.   Saud
C1.   Alkebu-Lan
C2.   No Words
D1.   Separate Not Equal
D2.   Sifa (The Prayer)

Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone – Gary Bartz
Bass – Buster Williams
Congas, Horns, Producer – Mtume
Drums – Billy Hart, Ndugu
Piano – Stanley Cowell
Tenor Saxophone, Flute – Carlos Garnett
Violin – Leroy Jenkins
Voice (Poetry) – Weusi Kuumba, Yusef Iman
Vocals – Andy Bey, Eddie Micheaux, Joe Lee Wilson, Weusi Kuumba, Yusef Iman

I can’t tell you how many years I spent hunting for this record, or how long it remained at the top of my want list before I tracked down a copy I could afford. Prices generally hover between $200 and $400, but I’ve seen it go for more. If you want it, don’t wait. This reissue is a long time coming. Alkebu-Lan – Land Of The Blacks (Live At The East) is one of my favorite Jazz records of all time (though it is carefully pointed out in the monologue that introduces the album, that is should not be heard as Jazz, but rather as a distillation of Black Music). It’s a mean motherfucker. Brutal, and filled with fire. One of the quintessential documents of musical Black Nationalism. I discovered it in a roundabout way –  picking at the outer reaches of Leroy Jenkins’ discography (he’s a member of this ensemble). I was overwhelmed with the desire to own every record he played on. Having exhausted his output as a band leader and as a member of the Revolutionary Ensemble, this record came into focus as one of the few I hadn’t heard. When it finally reached my ears, I was blown away, and so began a desperate hunt sprawling over the years. 
The album’s four sides were recorded at The East, a venue that once stood two blocks from my former home in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s most remembered for the Pharaoh Sanders LP Live at The East, but in its day it was one of the most important venues in NY. It also was noted for being Black only. There are stories of prominent members of the Jazz community showing up with White friends, and being turned away. Same went for White musicians with friends and colleagues inside. Though it’s a complicated subject, I have to say I respect the venue’s policy. Of course I would have wanted to go, and wouldn’t have gotten in. It might have been paramount to racism, but in a country where being of African descent bars you from nearly every sense of possibility afforded to others, the fact that one of the most remarkable venues in the city made a statement by reversing the institution is something I have to embrace (despite faults). These practices were connected to the movement of Black Nationalism, which attempted to build Black pride, and autonomy in a context which was more explicitly racist that our own. Though I personally don’t think racial equity in America has improved as much as we like to pretend (the way it is expressed, and its self-consciousness has simply evolved and become more duplicitous), the framework of The East was more accepted and balanced within the era that existed. It had a place in a larger body of discourse which had lost faith faith in the potential of equity, and was looking for new ways to protect the interests of the African American community. It’s an important context to remember when approaching the album. 
Alkebu-Lan – Land Of The Blacks is an Afro-Spiritual triumph which shifts between Free-Improvisation and explicit idiom and structure. It marks the debut of James Mtume as a band leader. Mtume was a percussionist who played regularly with Miles Davis, Buddy Terry, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and others. This is the first of two albums he offered the world of Jazz before moving into a fairly successful career as a Modern Soul and Disco artist. He’s probably most well know for the track Juicy Fruit – famously sampled by Notorious B.I.G. The Mtume Umoja Ensemble was fairly large – 15 players. This helps set the album apart from many of its peers. The sound is thick, rising with a power that has few equivalents. The “big band” is one of my favorite threads within Jazz of this period. The trend partially grew from of the movement’s loss of larger audiences. Where the late 40’s had seen the contraction of ensembles to meet the economic difficulties faced by Big Bands, the late 60’s and 70’s saw a massive exodus of fans to other genre’s (Soul, Funk, Rock & Roll). Rather than having a sustainable economy to adapt to, few Jazz musicians were able to make a living at all. These unfortunate circumstances helped spawn one of the most remarkable periods of creatively in the music’s history. There was nothing to loose. If no one was listening, why not do whatever the fuck you want? If no one was getting paid, why not let the band be the size it needs to be? Why not all work together? That’s what Alkebu-Lan – Land Of The Blacks is – a collective scream that its makers knew few people would hear. 
The album begins with an Afro-Spiritual/political monologue. It’s a window into another time. Even before the music starts, you know you’re onto a good thing. As the ensemble gathers, they unleash a howling storm. Nothing is held back. As a totality, the record is hard to describe. It’s constructed to never entirely allow generalization. This is a statement of cultural identity. It is the sound of Black America, and that sound is a complex series of intersecting streams. Within it we hear the poetic (literally and figuratively), and the politic. We hear the distillation of centuries of musical history operating as a single unit – Africa, Big Band Jazz, Bop, Soul, Spiritual and Free-Jazz (it both hybridizes and moves between distinct articulations of these forms). If I was to suggest an entry into Free-Jazz for the uninitiated listener, this might be it. Not because it’s easy to access, of even because it’s the best example to understand the movement through, but because of its complexity, and the character of that complexity. The elements of its construction, with the way it shifts between these distinct features, offers a deeper understanding of Jazz as a people’s music – one that came from one place and moved toward another. It can be incredibly inviting, before sneaking up and hitting you over the head.  It does what it sets out to. It is a realization of unity. Despite moments of apparent chaos, few records of its kind feature musicians working as such a considered whole – both in consciousness and musicality.  It’s an absolute gem. If I was to recommend as single Jazz reissue to buy this year, this would probably be it. The only shop I’m currently aware that is stocking it is Soundohm,  but if you’re not in Europe I’m sure it will find its way to you soon. Check it out bellow and pick it up as quickly as you can.
Bradford Bailey / The Hum

P.M. Dawn ‎– Of The Heart, Of The Soul And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience (1991)

Genre: Hip Hop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Gee Street, Island Records, Polystar Co.,Ltd.

01.   Intro
02.   Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine
03.   Paper Doll
04.   To Serenade A Rainbow
05.   Comatose
06.   A Watcher's Point Of View (Don't 'Cha Think)
07.   Even After I Die
08.   In The Presence Of Mirrors
09.   Set Adrift On Memory Bliss
10.   Shake
11.   If I Wuz U
12.   On A Clear Day
13.   The Beautiful

Producer – PM Dawn
Written-By – A. Cordes, C. Corea, D. Coffey, G. Kemp, H. Masakela, S. Stewart, T. Terry, T. Johnston

It may not have been embraced by the entire hip-hop community, but P.M. Dawn's ponderously titled debut Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience was a startling reimagination of the music's possibilities. In the post-De La Soul age, hip-hop seemed open to all sorts of eccentrics, but P.M. Dawn was still difficult for purists to accept: They were unabashed hippies whose sound and sensibility held very little street appeal, if any. Of the Heart... is soaked in new age spirituality and philosophical introspection, and a song title like "To Serenade a Rainbow" is likely to raise eyebrows among more than just skeptical b-boys. It's true that there's some occasional sappiness and navel-gazing, but it's also true that the group's outlook is an indispensable part of its musical aesthetic, and that's where Of the Heart... pushes into the realm of transcendence. It still sounds revolutionary today, although you'd have to call it a Velvet Revolution: It's soft and airy, with ethereal vocal harmonies layered over lush backing tracks and danceable beats. The shimmering ballads "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" (built on an unlikely sample of Spandau Ballet's "True") and "Paper Doll" were the hits, but they aren't quite representative of the album as a whole. Some tracks, like "Comatose" and "A Watcher's Point of View (Don't 'Cha Think)," are surprisingly funky and driving, and there's also an even more explicit nod to the dancefloor in the Todd Terry hip-house collaboration "Shake." The more reflective raps ("Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine," "Even After I Die," "In the Presence of Mirrors") strike a fascinating balance between those sensibilities, and there's still little else like them. In the end, Of the Heart... is enormously daring in its own way, proving that pop, R&B, and hip-hop could come together for creative, not necessarily commercial, reasons.
Steve Huey / AllMusic