An experimental musician I know used to brand himself as a “Christian noise artist”. Whenever we would tell noise dudes about upcoming shows in the era, they’d always sit kind of po-faced until the mention of a “Christian noise artist”, which would perk their ears right up.
You see, noise is not a very religious scene. In fact, much of it is assumedly nihilist, or perhaps purely tactile-ist, sensation-alist, if you will. It grinds theory and introspection through the meat cleaver of pure sound and generally eschews holy-mindedness for functionality. Yet, there was a time when such freeform and improvisational seemed like the metaphysical evisceration of the ego, an attempt to shred all cultural baggage and set the naked mind’s course toward transcendence.
Of course, free jazz, noise’s granddaddy, was also a bohemian movement inculcated with a revolutionary zest for social and political change. When Pharaoh Sanders and the Coltranes looked east, they were looking for liberation frequencies. Religiosity in this sense was non-doctrinal. It saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream and raised it one, pushing its scope internationally, intergalactically, and inwardly. Noise, largely a music by and for white middle-class males (though the aforementioned Christian noise artist was half-black), may lack this urgency and imperative, but many of its listeners seemed to recognize this absence. For as much as noise to them is a transformative force, what exactly it transforms oneself into is far less clear.
This is still in contrast to contemporary Christian music, which absorbs all traditions as a missionary assimilation project. Contemporary Christian music fails, though, as a spiritual conversion mechanism because it acts mostly as a means of confirmation of the word, rather than exploration of the unknown. Spiritual jazz, like Tolstoy, seeks to find the kingdom of heaven within and, on its journey there, finds the face of God to be highly irresolute.
“Reform of the soul, reform of the spirit, reform of society” is what history Francis Gooding describes as the objective of “spiritual jazz”, which is also the name of a fantastic newly reissued compilation on Jazzman/Now Again Records for which Gooding wrote the liner notes. The spiritual jazz movement was mostly glanced over until quite recently. It had been rejected at the time by the diverging halves of the jazz community. On one side, the fervor of purists, lead by Wynton Marsalis’s reactionary critique of free jazz, flouted a protectionist’s disdain toward spiritual’s incorporation of rock/funk/R&B fusion elements. At the other end of the spectrum, the freeform milieu, whose radical pioneers like Sun Ra fueled much of the engine of spiritual jazz, rejected the music as soft and lacking in political edge. As Gooding points out, it was seen as a step backward for jazz.
What critics at the time had not realized was that there was no step forward for music so dangerously close to the margins. As we have seen, the absolute freedom of free jazz reached its inevitable nihilist end in a white leisure-class embrace of pure void, with the jazz remains in a state of perpetual crisis since the 1970s. The only available steps after complete liberation from the restraints of jazz proper were either back toward the light or further into oblivion and disembodied from the genre and traditional notions of music altogether.
Spiritual jazz was perhaps the ideological opposite of the self-destructive motions of free jazz. Rather than obliterate the self, it sought to link in body and spirit with others. Spiritual Jazz, which holds the surname Esoteric, Modal, and Deep Jazz From the Underground 1968-1977, stresses this globalism and represents it not only through Westerners looking outward, but outsiders looking in. Artists like Sengalese percussionist Mor Thiam, Egyptian military bandleader Salah Ragab, and South African Ndikho Xaba (whose group the Natives refers to the Americans in the band, flipping the Orientalist perspective on its head) found themselves more than willing to bridge cultural barriers by adapting a shared sonic language. In this regard, the spiritual jazz artists were less the sellouts they were often painted than the full embodiment of what Alice Coltrane dubbed “Universal Consciousness”.
The nature of the spiritualism itself also seems to have little bearing on the music. All religions were welcome to the table. James Tatum Trio Plus’s opener, the aptly titled “Introduction”, is the lead-off to his long-form Detroit Contemporary Jazz Mass for non-congregational Christian ceremony, which opens with burgeoning vibraphones like a Stephen Sondheim musical and eventually evolves into a beatific piece whose whole notes linger upward as if they’re raising their hands toward heaven. If your local church played music this sublime, there’d be hordes of atheists lining the pews.
The Lightmen Plus One’s “All Praises be to Allah (part 1 and 2)”, on the other hand, resembles religious music in name only. The gigantic brass, super-sly flute, hep bass, and acrobatic percussion are like a Lalo Schiffrin action score that makes one wonder the Lightmen Plus One found this same rush through Islam. Even more amazing, the seamless mix was actually edited together from two sides of a seven-inch 45 rpm single.
Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band was the unlikely pairing of an Egyptian military major who enlisted German avant-garde musicians to establish a new tradition of jazz in Egypt. If that’s not an odd enough combination, the music they made together in the form of “Neveen” is neither Arabic nor European, but a Latin-flavored groove. It’s a rare example of Easterners looking across the Atlantic Ocean for spiritual fulfillment. Imagine that! Perhaps Ragab’s military background had something to do with it, but since when could military men cut loose like this?
Other tracks have no overt spirituality, but possess the motivational drive of meditative religious music. Lloyd Miller’s passion for Iranian music lead him to record “Gol-E Gandum” for his Oriental Jazz album while still in college at Brigham Young. Primarily driven by the santur, a 72-string Middle Eastern instrument, the lead’s natural psychedelic reverb and timbre, in tandem with piano, provide a brilliant contrast to the grandfather clock-esque bass, and the result is a piece that’s staggering, stately, and loose. Hastings Street Jazz Experience have no specific religious affiliation, but were created with the intention of rebuilding communities destroyed by predatory and racist public policy, like the I-75 highway project, which tore up the largely African American Paradise Valley community of Detroit and the stretch of music clubs which used to adorn the street of the band’s namesake.
Yet, as expansive as spiritual jazz’s scope was, this music is also marked by a localism, perhaps by necessity as much as desire. Fired up by the Arkestra’s self-sustaining collective, the recordings here were often produced in tiny pressings by self-run microindie record labels. And given their statistically expedited expiration dates, the recordings have survived remarkably well, especially given that the well-studied Sun Ra’s catalogue still sounds like much of it was recorded in a tin can.
As a result of this DIY aesthetic, the musicians who made this incredible music seem nearly as interesting as the tunes themselves. The folkloric liner notes themselves are worth the price of the CD to learn about which artists met after one of them escaped from prison or which one played for Richard Nixon. With the odds against them, it’s frankly inspirational that we’re still listening to them today. It’s like they had some force, beyond archival and excavational ones, ushering them into the modern world. You could call it God or simply the power of some seriously groovy music. Perhaps they’re even the same thing. Either way, it’s us who are blessed for this music’s continued presence.