Jazzman Records got its start as a mail-order business founded by London, UK-based “Jazzman Gerald” Short, who as a young jazz aficionado scoured the UK and the US on a shoestring budget collecting old, forgotten jazz records which at the time were widely available for low prices. With the late ‘90s came the Internet and a heightened interest in these rare and forgotten classics. As copies of the originals became scarce, Gerald transitioned his business into a label so he could obtain rights to reissue many of these dwindling and increasingly valuable originals. More importantly, his work has helped an entire musical genre flourish and stay in touch with its heritage.
One of the many compilations Jazzman has released in recent years is the Spiritual Jazz series. Spiritual jazz is a style of avant-garde jazz that developed in the ‘60s, incorporating elements of free jazz and other “ethnic” musical styles (broadly speaking African, Asian, Indian) and deeply inspired by the ongoing and experimental spiritual and political developments taking place in African-American culture at the time. Jazzman’s Spiritual Jazz series provides an excellent curated sampling of the genre from a wide range of artists, both those at the heart of the movement as well as lesser-known, more obscure artists who dabbled to enigmatic yet beautiful effect. The compilations in this series focus on specific themes: spiritual jazz in Europe, for instance, or spiritual jazz by transplanted Americans.
The newest release takes a sharp turn in the direction of vocal jazz. Demonstrating that jazz music is more than just the sum of its instruments, Spiritual Jazz Volume 6: Modal, Esoteric & Progressive Jazz Vocals from around the World 1960 – 1986 showcases 14 previously released tracks from a diverse range of artists demonstrating how jazz can also convey its message through the power and range of the human voice.
The tracks aren’t exclusively vocal — they contain plenty of beautiful musical stylings as well — but it’s the human voice that takes center stage here. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff, in describing the music of John Coltrane (one of the genre’s pioneers), once described this musical genre as “cleaning the mirror into the self… Making music as naked as the self can be brought to be.” It’s an appropriate description: here the tracks rely for their strength on the naked human voice.
The album kicks off with one of the most powerful vocal recordings in musical history: Abbey Lincoln’s opening to “Tears for Johannesburg”, which is part of Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now suite (the excerpt alone ought to convince you to experience the suite in its entirety). Inspired by the struggle of black South Africans under apartheid, Lincoln once said of her vocals that “I had never screamed before in my life.” You wouldn’t guess it; her powerful performance on that album opened new doors to her artistic career and the piece still resounds with her soul-chilling cries of rage, despair and hope.
The album features other well-known artists too: Charles Mingus, and Pharaoh Sanders’ exceptional track “Prince of Peace” featuring Leon Thomas (a remarkable vocal artist who was famous for drawing on a range of techniques from yodeling to scat). Sadaka’s Umlah Sadau-Holt’s gorgeous piece “African Violet” was inspired by a photo of the vividly tenacious flower a friend shared with him following a trip to West Africa. Much like the imaginative fictions that complement operas, the extensive liner notes and background stories included in the album allow a fuller appreciation of the inspirations given shape by these vibrant voices.
There’s spoken word, of course: poet, scholar and Black Arts Movement pioneer Haki Madhubati’s “Rain Forest” features his calm, measured yet evocative spoken poetry with swelling female vocalizations merging in tune with the flutes and piano in the background, while lesser known poet and spoken word artist Norman Riley’s piece “Colours” features powerfully harmonized poetry sung by two female vocalists put to a gentle, swirling musical backdrop. Like many of the tracks on this album, they offer visions of hope — the upbeat spirit of the human voice reflects the underlying message of their lyrics. Several of the tracks, as is to be expected of the genre, are highly political, embracing the themes of the era: civil rights, African culture and nationalism, resistance and struggle and rebirth. But as Will Friedwald observes in the liner notes (which offer useful and extensive background context for each of the tracks, and for the spiritual jazz movement as a whole), “the inner spirituality of the music is still a defining factor — particularly in the way that these composers employ the human voice as a way of putting forward a message, one that’s fundamentally different in meaning from the more traditionally romantic preoccupation of the vast majority of popular songs up to that time, songs that concern themselves with the universal condition of this world, as well as the next.”
There’s an undeniable beauty and power to these pieces. In addition to demonstrating the remarkable complexity and range of the human voice — and the emotional and creative heights to which it can be raised — the tracks also demonstrate the powerful ways in which the human voice and musical instruments can be combined, twining together in pursuit of the uniquely spiritual and intellectual expressions of the spiritual jazz genre. From Abbey Lincoln’s powerful South African inspired protest to the preaching of Professor Madhubati, the human voice operates on two powerful levels here. There is, first, the lyrical expression, in all its poetic and narrative grandeur. But the voice operates on an expressive and emotional register too, demonstrating its power to signify not only through words but as an instrument — at times blunt, at times sensuously nuanced — tapping into the musical range with a visceral immediacy. As with genres like opera, the language doesn’t matter — the spiritual expression is conveyed through the power of vocalizations that chill the flesh and swell the heart all at once.
If you haven’t experienced the Spiritual Jazz series yet, this is as good a place as any to start. After exposure to the vocalized power and beauty given form and expression on this album, you won’t want to stop.
Let’s hope Jazzman won’t, either.