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V/A - Spiritual Jazz: Esoteric, Modal and Deep Jazz from the Underground 1968-77

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Artist: V/A

Album: Spiritual Jazz: Esoteric, Modal and Deep Jazz from the Underground 1968-77

Label: Now-Again

Review date: Jun. 3, 2009


James Tatum Trio Plus - "Introduction" (Spiritual Jazz)


Reaching toward the spiritual and transcendent has always been a part of jazz. Deep African roots and structures, sanctified Christian gospel, a strong sense of community, and the sublime song form of the spiritual itself have been constant streams feeding the confluence and continuity of the music. Among the more visible examples of jazz versed in spirit have been Duke Ellington’s soaring sacred concerts, John and Alice Coltrane’s expressive pan-cultural truth seeking, and the Sun Ra Arkestra’s musical theatre of cosmic time and space.

The world -shattering of the 1960s and the melting of borders that followed in the 1970s brought forth an obscure but potent flowering of jazz visionaries and intentional socio-musical communities, quite often aimed in spiritual directions. Many of these artists created their own small labels, receiving little, if any, distribution beyond what they could do for themselves. Spiritual Jazz offers the listener tantalizing tastes of some of this amazing, almost forgotten music.

As might be expected from jazz of this era, some of this music is steeped in the forms and instrumentations of various African cultures. Senegalese percussionist and composer Mor Thiam brings arching West African melody to ride over a rolling, multi-layered groove on “Ayo Ayo Nene (Blessing for the New Baby).” South African multi-instrumentalist Ndhiko Xaba’s “Nomusa” combines the timbres of traditional South African horns with a swaying, steady gospel-ish piano and rhythm section. Eastern moods and themes are present, too, of course: Lloyd Miller’s Iranian santur shimmers over an intense Trane-like rhythm section trance on “Gol-e Gandum.”

Other artists explore territories less easy to describe. Youthful California composer/vibraphonist P.E. Hewitt offers a spacious and delightfully enigmatic take on modal jazz in “Bada Que Bash,” his eponymous ensemble wedding a celebratory big band sound to sleek glossalia from female singers. The result sounds at times like a swinging Brasil ‘66 speaking in Pentecostal tongues. Sun Ra bass master Ronnie Boykins’ “The Will Come, Is Now” is intense and imaginative chamber jazz, layered with conversational improvisation and oblique, Eastern-influenced melody lines, leading to a quietly virtuosic and meditative exploration of extended technique on upright bass.

Indeed, much of this music is utterly miraculous. The fierce and fiery roiling groove of the Houston-based Lightmen Plus One’s “All Praises to Allah,” originally released spread over two sides of a 45 circa 1972, might well have spawned its own genre of power jazz-funk – if a few more people could have heard it. Egypt’s Cairo Jazz Band – best-known for a recorded meeting with Sun Ra – travel with leader-composer Salah Ragab to a space that is simply like no other: big band power, constantly-shifting textures, dense percussion, and Arabic-tinged melodic lines, all flowing together into true magnificence.

Uplift and positive energy rule the day on most of these tracks. Even the gritty reality message of the Positive Force’s “The African in Winter,” with its spoken poem by Ade Olatunji, ultimately celebrates the triumph of African color and sunshine over gray American urban squalor within the soul. With detailed liner notes and photos documenting and chronicling the music and musicians here, Spiritual Jazz is an important collection.



By Kevin Macneil Brown

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