Stepping out on his own with the NTU Troop, saxophonist Gary Bartz delivered an empowering declarative opening statement of purpose with 1971’s Harlem Bush Music – Uhuru.
Originally released in 1971, Harlem Bush Music – Uhuru marked the first recorded studio appearance (the year before they’d released the live Home!) of saxophonist Gary Bartz’s newly christened NTU Troop. Here Bartz was able to parlay his newly-acquired, open-minded approach to the possibilities of jazz from having spent time in Miles Davis’ revolutionary fusion groups into his own unique take on the form. Moving away from straight-ahead jazz, Bartz and the NTU Troop borrowed elements from the mainstream -- and underground -- popular music to create a sound at once both jazz and socially-conscious R&B. The latter comes in the form of vocalist Andy Bey’s contributions to the album.
Having been previously paired with Harlem Bush Music – Taifa as simply Harlem Bush Music, this vinyl reissue returns the music to its original context, allowing for modern listeners to consume the music as it was originally intended. And while nearly anything from Bartz (with or without the NTU Troop) is well worth seeking out, it’s nice to have this early ‘70s gem back in its proper format and sequencing.
Opening with a stately, measured piano and drum figure, “Blue (A Folk Tale)” quickly sets the tone as Bey’s somewhat clipped vocal phrasing intones, “B-L-U-E / I’m blue as I can be / Can you get as blue, blue as me? / Won’t you join us and then you will see / What it means to be blue with me.” Taking the color analogy to the next, more socially aware level, he practically moans, “B-L-A-C-K / I’m black, and I’m blue / I’m not blue because I’m black / I’m blue ‘cause I’m me.” It’s a brief glimmer of the structurally recognizable before the track breaks down to little more than Bartz wailing alto interspersed with assorted yips and yelps. Open-ended and free, it allows Bartz to show off his full range unfettered and within the more than 18-minute track's first few minutes.
Just over five minutes in, “Blue (A Folk Tale)” breaks into a sauntering, Latin-tinged R&B groove, Bey returning and restating his original couplets and taking on the Leon Thomas role to Bartz’s Pharoah Sanders. It is here they establish the sound that will become their calling card throughout the remainder of the album: an ostensibly jazz-indebted approach steeped in funk rhythms and R&B vocalizing. A steady, head-nodding groove, “Blue (A Folk Tale)” is a fine example of righteous spiritual jazz with plenty of fiery playing from Bartz. The closing moments tighten up just that much more, settling into a taut funk groove.
“Uhuru Sasa” lives and dies on Harold White’s wickedly funky drumming, his approach shuffling between “Funky Drummer”-style grooving and straight ahead jazz fills. Bey again returns with a powerful vocal performance, this time with lyrics strongly opposing the then still raging war in Vietnam (sample lyric: “Hell no / I won’t fight your battles no more”). Not quite as powerful an anti-war anthem as may have been intended, the music underscoring Bey’s words is gloriously funky and spirited, each player giving it their all in a manner just this side of free. As momentum builds, Bartz’s horn skitters and skips atop White and Ron Carter’s rock solid rhythm section, threatening to go off the rails while remaining firmly in control.
Somewhat surprisingly given the preceding track’s approach to the similar subject matter, “Vietcong” is a straight-ahead hard-bop number propelled by Nat Bettis’ percolating percussion. This dichotomy makes the underlining message -- one that skews strongly pro-Vietcong -- all the more impactful as Bey’s lyrics stand in sharp contrast to the cool feel put forth by the instrumentalists. Where before it was Bartz whose playing pushed the music into free territory and functioned as an incendiary device, here it is Bey taking the reins and pushing the words out with a force that dominates the simmering accompaniment.
The rest of the album is made up of R&B-tinged soul jazz made all the more so with Bey’s emotionally-charged vocals cutting through the mix. In all, Harlem Bush Music – Uhuru is an early triumph for Bartz as he began making a name for himself on his terms, separate from some of his more well-known former employers. These recordings offer a crucial piece of the puzzle for the years immediately following the release of Bitches Brew and the slow crawl towards insipid jazz-rock that fusion would soon become. Harlem Bush Music – Uhuru offers an excellent musical fusion in the truest sense of the word and is a welcome reissue in the seemingly endless line of reissues cropping up in the wake of vinyl’s mainstream resurgence.