At the risk of over-simplification, I think it is possible to detect two distinct trajectories within the Free Jazz movement from its beginnings at the turn of the 1960s. One involved the journey of the solo instrument—exploratory, cerebral and often introspective. The other was a more collective project, expressive, energetic and concerned with the dynamics of group sound. The critics tended to prefer the former, the general public was not much interested in either. In recent times interest in the collective sounds—best exemplified by Sun Ra or the Art Ensemble of Chicago—has risen, so this release, which falls firmly in the latter camp, might gain an audience that it undoubtedly did not have at the time of its initial release.
The late sixties saw a number of musicians, writers and artists respond both to the political climate and the various cultural nationalist manifestoes of the period by setting up collaborative projects. A Black Arts Group was established, in emulation of the better known Chicago based AACM, in St.Louis and featured the likes of Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill. Within that body the Human Arts Ensemble developed, built around drummer Charles Bobo Shaw, saxophonist Luther Thomas and teenage trumpeter Joseph Bowie—younger brother of Lester. This grouping toured Europe and recorded (for Black Lion) under the leadership of Shaw but this 1973 session was led by Thomas and a vinyl copy will set you back $125 or so. For this CD is a re-issue of a rare recording of a concert held in the Berea Presbyterian Church in St. Louis before a small and subdued (cowed into submission?) audience.
Funky Donkey is not smooth jazz. In fact the easiest way to describe it is to think of all the adjectives that stand as polar opposites to that term. Noisy, brash, angry, discordant, uninhibited, imaginative, unhinged, rough, raw. Got the picture? Energy is the keyword and easy listening it is not. However, it is not rarefied in the way a lot of free jazz can be and its gutbucket blowing over rocky beats should not sound so strange to today’s less genre-bound listeners. Should rather than will, I stress.
The two Bowies (trumpet and trombone), Lester already famous for his Chicago connections, Shaw (trap drums) and Thomas (alto) are joined by J.D. Parran (various reeds) and a backing group of two trumpets, two percussionists, guitar and bass. The horns fire about all over the place while the rhythm section lays down a solid funk-rock foundation. This will lead to a lot of nonsense being written about the JBs meet Ornette but it is not like that at all. The funk here is bar-room rhythm and blues rather than the tightness of Fred Wesley’s men. The solos are also less individuated than you would get with Coleman, Shepp or Cherry. It is the whole band sound that is the essence—like one multi-voiced brass instrument that roars and shrieks across the whole album. There is a fierce muscularity about the endeavour and the effect can be somewhat exhausting. Most of the time though, it is invigorating and repeated listening brings out a variety of textures not apparent on confronting the first onslaught. An onslaught it is, be in no doubt, and those of a nervous disposition might well wish to leave the room fairly early on.
There are just three (lengthy) pieces—“Funky Donkey”, “Una New York” and “Intensity”. The first, by Thomas, is the rockiest. The third, an Oliver Lake composition, is the most conventionally avant-garde (if that makes sense). Track two bears Shaw’s name and is a mixture of both. It has a strong melodic sense (in a suitably loose sense of the term) and has a freshness that just about makes it the pick of the three. The guitars and backing horns have a greater fluidity than on the other tracks and a swirling three way conversation develops between rhythm, brass backing and solo ventures. With some strong repeated choruses, it is almost catchy at times.
“Funky Donkey” itself is hard and heavy. Atonal squawking leads into a chugging guitar riff that does not let up for the entire 20 minutes of the piece. Over that trumpets, trombones and saxes fight it out with gusto and an unmelodious glee. If one wanted to cite an example of the much-discussed relationship between free jazz and black militant anger then this would do very well. A left-field rock audience might appreciate this more than many jazz ones as there is a certain common ground here with the work of Zappa or even Sonic Youth. Joseph Bowie, of course, went on to form Defunkt, whose jazz-rock experimental funk found some favour with both audiences in the 1980s. This is where he started.
The Oliver Lake piece is for jazz progressives only, I would guess. It was not part of the initial release and is a long extended improvisation—slightly more meditative than the earlier tracks but still pretty robust. The various reeds and horns range far and wide, making this a very representative example of free form blowing. The electric rhythm is less to the fore here which removes some of the distinctive quality of this particular line-up but may make it more amenable to purists. Purity is however not a word that really suits this type of music, it suggests a formal coherence that was not being attempted.
There is a coherence at the level of mood and emotional register and in its political aesthetics. The historical context is important to understanding that. Yet this is no museum piece. For all its uncompromising “difficulty” and its less than perfect sound quality, it remains a vibrant and oddly joyful experience. If you like exuberance in your music, if you are prepared to give something a little different a second listen and if the words free and jazz don’t give you nightmares then you might find this forgotten concert quite satisfying. There is much to be said for music that avoids the obvious. When it comes in such determinedly visceral guise as this, it literally demands that we take notice.
Some of the musicians here achieved fame elsewhere. Some of them were never heard of again. Both facts are beside the point here, which was to produce an African-American sound that stressed Freedom and a distinct cultural identity. Valuable, therefore, as a little snapshot of some heady times, it is more valuable in that it still sounds daring and dynamic. The unremitting power of the playing is curiously cathartic, if you give it a chance. It deserves that chance.