[26 September 2007]
The classy drummer and bassist who co-lead this set on Detroit’s Mack Avenue label went for inspiration to sounds and rhythms they grew up with: so-called Soul Music; and the actual mainline soul music of the church whose music got secularized into the pop genre. They get away from this in the neat little riff blues “Now Silence” which concludes the set, and in an exotic number with Steve Wilson on soprano sax, doing something Eastern-sounding and evoking darker registers than on his nominally lower-pitched alto. After a very impressive opener with a distinctive rhythm, “Shea’s Walk,” which Cyrus Chestnut’s piano opens with a walking left hand figure, the music does very much settle into the Soul and Gospel mould. Soul may also be referred to as R&B, but for all its rhythm it often doesn’t connect with the Devil’s Music in any direct way.
Motown is the home of the label and of much of the music here; “Get Ready” is based on a song by Smokey Robinson, whose music the boss of the Tamla-Motown label thought worthy of elevation to the sort of treatment it gets here. Actually, though without the strongly rhythmic character of the opener, it does sound something of a reprise of it. “Inner City Blues” —which refers to a state of mind not a genre of music—comes from Marvin Gaye, and is different, but also less satisfactory. Jazz closely related to gospel music in mood, expressive range and rhythm really didn’t burgeon until the 1950s, no doubt for some strictly social reasons, but also certainly because there had previously been a gap between the marriage of blues with Italian and Great American Songbook Slav and Jewish harmonic inspirations, and the varieties of African-American church music represented on record.
Then came Charlie Parker, and indeed George Russell (whose rhythmic innovations some uncomprehending critics have likened to just plain boogaloo) and what has been called Afro-Cuban. Dizzy Gillespie always stressed the ‘Afro-’ prefix, as a revelation of rhythmic complexities suppressed and thus only implied in, for instance, the Protestant East Coast regions around his birthplace (Carolina, rather than Georgia, a state from which many people emigrated to Detroit). The problem with the Gaye number is that in overcoming its limitations as an improvising vehicle by modal means the band goes just a little bit too cerebral.
Elsewhere, judging the music by the highest jazz standards, there’s also some skirting of sentimentality, which one does find in African church music on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed in the music of the former Protestant former Dollar Brand, decades after he became Abdullah Ibrahim. It’s interesting what has come out in the mix here, or in the development of a specifically focussed attention to the music around the boys who grew up to be Maestri Allen and Whitaker and to respond to wider influences. There is the question of the nostalgia they could hardly but feel in relation to their overt programming, but there’s probably a lot of Africa here.
When after a few listens through I started wondering how close various of the musical ideas were to being hymn tunes, of how many performances were hymns without words—besides such titles as “Heart Enflamed, a Soul Enchanted” and “Desperate Desire” the printed words of the leaders on the inlay make plain their religious commitment—it did strike me that the opener is nothing less than (adapting William Booth’s ‘why should the Devil have all the good tunes!’) a Devil-proof melody ready to serve ecclesiastical purposes.
Everybody here plays very well, needless to say, Chestnut shifting from piano to organ, and an organist sitting in for some minutes. Still, something needs to be added about Rodney Jones, whose guitar I have heard in a variety of contexts over the past few years. He does perform here quite exceptionally, with real freshness of invention, and also astonishing sensitivity of touch. I don’t think he switches between electric and acoustic, but if that’s the case he does so seamlessly. Assuming he plays the same guitar all through he gets ten points for subtlety and variety.
And, of course, this is also one of those nice recordings with an appeal outside jazz, and some potential for musical conversion (rather than the sort which is dependent on sheerly Divine Grace).