If you’re looking at the cover photo of Henry Franklin’s The Skipper at Home, and thinking “Damn, that’s a lot of people”, there’s a good reason for that. Apart from the bass-plucking band leader, 12 musicians are pulling together to make this music happen. Why you may ask, does Franklin need four vocalists and two pianists (one of whom doubles up on flute) when most double bassists can take care of business with a quintet at most?
Well, suppose you are familiar with Henry Franklin or any of the music released during Black Jazz Records’ brief six-year existence. In that case, you’ll know that this isn’t the kind of bop jazz where a simple melody is played, and solos are traded in orderly rounds, and everything’s wrapped up in a neat, symmetrical package. Press play on The Skipper at Home, and you are treated to a dazzling collage of styles, moods, textures, tempi, and dynamics. And while making such kaleidoscope sounds is possible with a smaller ensemble, what’s wrong with having a little extra help?
At the age of 32, Franklin struck out on his own to make The Skipper with the help of trumpeter Oscar Brashear and saxophonist Charles Owens. Two years later, in 1974, he brought both of them back to record The Skipper at Home along with Leon “Ndugu” Chancler on drums, Kenny Climas on guitar, David Durrah on piano, Al Hall, Jr. on trombone, Bill Henderson on saxophone, Penny Holt, Patricia Talbert, Shirley Thornton, and Shirley Reid on vocals, and Kirk Lightsey on both flute and piano. In the same way that the cover of The Skipper (showing only Franklin) contrasts heavily with the cover of The Skipper at Home (showing lots and lots of people hanging out in front of a house), the second album sounds like the first one was hit with a huge blast of technicolor. There’s a great deal going on inside the music, be it soulful, swinging, soft, or just plain funky.
The Skipper at Home kicks off with “Blue Lights”, a nimble demonstration of soul-jazz if there ever was one. Oddly enough, it’s the horn section that really makes the whole thing lock together instead of the rhythm section and the guitar. “The Magic Boy” swings just as hard as “Blue Lights” grooves, proving to be a brisk jaunt for any big band this side of Charles Mingus. Crazier still is “Venus Fly Trap”, which spends its first minute being the contemporary jazz answer to the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues”.
As contemporary as The Skipper at Home probably sounded in the mid-1970s, more than a few musical choices sound very much of their time. That isn’t a criticism, though. “Soft Spirit” is a sepia-toned photograph come to life, where a flower child is blowing a white dandelion into the breeze. Lightsey’s searching flute solo coupled with electric piano is abstract in form but evocative in nature, likely prompting listeners to remark that music just isn’t made this way anymore. Trumpets with generous amounts of reverb, Herbie Mann-inspired flute solos, tempos that sometimes barely exist — why did we let these things slip away?
Closing number “Waltz for Boobuss” is a waltz in a strict sense in that there are three beats per bar. But apart from that, this is not some lilting 1-2-3, 1-2-3 to get people swaying. Chancler lays the accents in various places as the band push through a series of thick and sunny chords. It’s just another example of how jazz remained an elastic thing through the ’70s, and Franklin’s entourage was there to reach out and take full advantage of it. Thanks to Real Gone Music’s efforts to reprint the music of the Black Jazz label, you can experience the whole thing yet again.