The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) that sprung from Chicago in the ’60s created quite the ripple effect through the pond of modern jazz. The most prominent of these movement members were Henry Threadgill and his band Air, Roscoe Mitchell and his band Art Ensemble of Chicago, and AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams. Of course, there were smaller ripples that, through no lack of effort on their part, didn’t draw as much attention. Trumpeter Frank Gordon, who teamed up with keyboardist Ken Chaney to co-lead the band known as The Awakening, was just one among the overlooked but highly talented musicians.
Other AACM alumni that jumped on that particular wagon were saxophonist Ari Brown and bassist Reggie Willis. Rounding out the picture were drummer Arlington Davis and trombonist Steve Galloway. The Awakening signed to politically bold Black Jazz Records in the ’70s and were the only band on the label’s roster (all other releases were solo billings). In the blink of an eye, the sextet would release just two albums for Black Jazz before disbanding, the second being their 1973 masterstroke Mirage.
The Awakening’s first album, Hear, Sense and Feel, was heavy on jazz’s spiritual and political aspects. After all, this was the early ’70s, and Black Jazz didn’t mince the message by stating that they wanted to release music made exclusively by African Americans and spoke to the African-American experience. Mirage turned out to be Hear, Sense and Feel‘s more carefree little brother. Song titles like “When Will It Ever End” and “Convulsions” are swapped for the likes of “Slinky”, “Just a Little Peace”, and “March On”.
There are no somber spoken-word passages this time around, no ominous horn passages that sound like a gathering storm. Mirage is funky and fun. Even the more plaintive moments come with a bright glare, more likely to pin an “aw shucks” grin on your face instead of thoughtfully positioning your fist to your chin. That isn’t to say that the album is frivolous or devoid of any depth; it’s just not as concerned with the dire subjects facing young African Americans during the Vietnam era.
The Real Gone Music label has gone about the task of rescuing various Black Jazz releases from obscurity. In their hands, Mirage almost comes out sounding just as modern as it did in 1973. Opener “Mode for D.D.” may tread ground already broken by Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, but the hyper-focused groove between Chaney’s electric piano and his rhythm section more than makes up for any lack of hard innovation. He even manages to solo alongside Gordon without making it sound like a jumbled mess.
The title track draws on many influences, combining a Latin rhythm with a Middle Eastern melody before swinging into one of those toe-tapping interludes straight out of the Cotton Club. “Glory to the Sun” falls like a fine mist of psychedelic powder over something too sunny and cheerful for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions. If “Slinky” sounds like the sound man pushed a button marked “chill” on the soundboard, then closer “March On” is the closest a jazz band can get to maximum funk this side of the Headhunters.
Mirage has its impressively expansive moments, too, as when Chaney channels his inner-Wynton Kelly for a solid minute to introduce “Just a Little Peace”. More abstract still is “The Ultimate Frontier”, a piece that features vocalists Anita Jeffries and Ben Wright and percussionist Drasheer Khalid. Horns, electric piano, malleted percussion, and two operatic voices swirl in a sandstorm of gathering sounds before settling into something loosely resembling a beat so that Galloway and Brown may solo. It’s probably a safe bet to say that you’ve never heard anything quite like this before.
If a band like the Art Ensemble of Chicago can soak up so much acclaim, then so can the Awakening — albeit in a retroactive fashion. Their bold mixture of modern jazz and sounds from outside the North American continent were on par with anything else Mitchell and his crew accomplished. The only differences are a shortened lifespan and a lack of exposure. And while we can’t do anything about the former, Real Gone Music has already taken steps to rectify the latter. This is where we all do our part by procuring copies of Mirage so that we may spread the word far and wide, a trajectory worthy of the music’s scope.