Various Artists: Soul of a Nation - Afro-Centric Visions in the Age of Black Power
A thought-provoking collection of Afro-centric tracks from the '60s and '70s put together to accompany this summer's show at the Tate Modern in London.
This summer, the Tate Modern art museum in London opened an exhibition called Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power that displayed black American art between 1963 (the March on Washington) and 1983. I haven’t seen it, but a review in The Guardian suggests that the show is dynamic and powerful.
This collection on Soul Jazz Records puts together 13 pieces of American music from 1968-1979 intended to reflect that period and the “Afro-centric” ideas that were coursing through a different art form at that time.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I can think of several pieces of music that probably ought to be here but aren’t or couldn’t be for some reason. John Coltrane was probably the most essential (and essentially conscious of his African roots) musician playing in the mid-1960s, and one could imagine his “Alabama” being here. The anthem of desegregation, for me, is Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” (about school desegregation). Also surprising is nothing by The Last Poets. What is here, however, is deeply fascinatingly from its era.
What Soul Jazz has put together is not merely a “roots of rap” collection. The theme that unites most tracks is how a consciousness of African within the U.S. came out in music that was nipping at the edges of popularity. In some cases, the tracks are largely exercises in African rhythms. “Sounds from the Bush” finds jazz trumpeter Don Cherry playing muted admits the Mandingo Griot Society, blending African percussion and vocal call and response. Phil Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble build driving horn arrangement of a simple melody over hand percussion and overlapping rhythms, then vocals come to add a political message over hand claps and repeated bass line on “Malcolm X”. (Cohran is an interesting jazz trumpeter -- briefly a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra and joined in this band by future Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey and future members of the horn section for Earth Wind & Fire.)
There is an intriguing group of tunes here that set spoken-word material to music in a kind of proto-rap. The opening track is Gil Scott-Heron’s still-witty and pointed “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” from 1971, which originated as a poem but gets a funk underpinning in this, its second recorded version. Similar is a track from poet Sister Webster Fabio, who recorded her poems over music back in the ‘70s, but it’s an odd choice -- just a funky groove and lots of introducing the band. A track by David McKnight has the artist reading a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Sterling Brown over congas, and a guy named Duke Edwards performs an equally stirring song-recitation across almost ten minutes that asks whether society is making progress fast enough. The gospel harmony singing that lifts “Is It Too Late” is powerful, but the music is monotonous.
There is jazz, to be sure, in the collection, and the music here is strong. “Desert Fairy Princess” is a live recording from pianist Horace Tapscott’s Pan-African People’s Arkestra. “Princess” builds a hip bass line and a simple flute melody into a whole big band of dancing groove that hints at boogaloo and street rhythm but then suddenly shifts into a floating, mournful groove. That is Afro-centrism at its most oblique but most artful. Saxophonist Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” was the title track of a 1976 album and it also suggests certain dance rhythms while using hand percussion and intriguing synthesizer buzzes and whooshes to simulate a drum orchestra.
Most of the other tracks are both politically conscious and the source of grooves for the future. For example, Roy Ayers (who started as a jazz vibes player) and his band Ubiquity were early pioneers of a certain kind of jazz/funk, and he has been sampled as widely as any artist around. “Red, Black, and Green” (from 1973) is a percolating groover that layers a Stevie Wonder-ish bass line, a conga part, a Fender Rhodes lick, a string part that sounds like the hip part from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, punching horns, and soul vocals. “African Rhythms” by James “Plunky” Branch is a big groove celebrating how African percussion collided with jazz-funk in the early 1970s -- call and response vocals, a sax part, and a set of vocal harmonies that bring to mind Broadway (maybe Hair, but still . . .) and the Fifth Dimension more than anything else.
Pianist Doug Carn is another artist who used jazz chops to advance an original form of soul music during this period. “Suratal Ihklas” features lots of a great gospel-jazz piano and a marching kind of funk that carries an otherwise average vocal.
In many ways, the last track on Soul of a Nation is the most fascinating, as it brings together the soul-groove music that is so wonderfully celebrated here with both jazz and African drumming. Saxophonist Carlos Garnett recorded “Mother of the Future” in 1974 for his fascinating album Black Love. Garnett not only combines all the elements mentioned, but he does it with a manic joy. The rhythm section is an elite jazz trio, but Garnett adds percussionist Mtume and guitarist Reggie Lucas, with whom he was playing at the time in Miles Davis’s wild electric band. The singer is jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater in her first recording date. And the music is a superb exponent of a strain of boundary-less music that was being made at the time by Gary Bartz (for example his superb Harlem Bush Music from 1971 or I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies from 1974) or Pharaoh Sanders (check out his Journey to the One from 1980 and “You Gotta Have Freedom”).
Indeed, the biggest “jazz sensation” of the recent years was assuredly Kamasi Washington’s three-CD set The Epic from 2015, which was in many ways a contemporary channeling of the kind of music that Garnett is playing here. Which is to say only this: this kind of music is alive today, not only as the roots of something else but also as a viable but underdeveloped avenue of its own.