Wednesday, August 24, 2011

BYOV - Meeting #3

On a rainy, rainy Sunday, August 14th, a handful of brave souls (geeks) gathered in the back of Barbés for the third meeting of BYOV. Though the group was small, the discussion, music selections and opinions were all strong. Personally, I really enjoyed the frank discussion we were able to have. Not to mention, we heard our most obscure record to date… Read on, read on…

Here were our working themes, BYOVites:

a) Favorite duo performances. Two musicians, one stage. No holds barred. Well, no genres barred.

b) Unusual instrumental combinations. Mouth harp and tuba? Orchestra and helicopter? Bring your fav bizarro combinations.

Left field pick...

c) Blast from the past! Fav old-timer coming out of retirement or mixing it up with youngsters.

As you’d probably expect, there were a bunch of duo selections. Many presenters pulled a double and provided a selection covering two themes, mostly duos and unusual instrument combos. Only one old timer showed up, but on two different selections. Every selection was presented as a blindfold test.

Here goes!

1. Anthony Braxton / Richard Teitelbaum – “Behemoth Dreams” from Time Zones (Arista Freedom AL1037, 1977)
Presented by David Adler (in absentia) – Theme: A & B – MP3

Our new friend Steve Futterman quickly buzzed in with Braxton followed by a Teitelbaum assist from Macnie.

Braxton had to show up. Had to. Couldn’t think of another musician that has performed in so many different configurations on such a wide array of instruments.

This composition from September 16, 1976, recorded at Bearsville Sound in Woodstock, NY, showcased Braxton on contrabass clarinet and Mr. Teitelbaum on Moog synth. “Behemoth Dreams” was dedicated to the composer/installation artist Maryanne Amacher.

An odd mixture of timbres and textures. The Moog provided sounds from low rumble to ringing high tones while Braxton’s clarinet resonated with a very gruff, woody tone. The ideas were plentiful on this long track.

This got us talking about a bunch of stuff, especially Braxton and the Arista Freedom label. The label was in a unique position as it was able to release very advanced, “difficult” music through a major label’s distribution chain. The 1970s were a time of musical glut that allowed daring individuals an opportunity to release music that wouldn’t otherwise get into the mainstream marketplace, even though financial success wouldn’t be realized. It definitely helped kick start the careers of some of the artists affiliated. Maybe Steve Backer or Michael Cuscuna would like to weigh in?

The effect on the music world was interesting. The availability of these distinctive musical streams had direct influence on new music of all types and music culture in general. Avant-garde music in Rolling Stone reviews and record store chains? Would Pere Ubu sound like Pere Ubu without these records having been available in cutout bins everywhere?

2. Vinny Golia – “Eye My” from A Gift for the Unusual: Music for the Contrabass Saxophone (NineWinds 0239, 2004)
Presented by Richard Gehr – Theme: A & B – CD

Another low horn player we had to guess. Too fleet of finger to be a tuba or sousaphone. Darker than a bass or bari sax.

Everyone started going through mental checklists of low woodwind players. Scott Robinson? J.D. Parran? Braxton?

No one got Vinny on Tubax (a type of contrabass sax). I was able to guess Wayne Peet on piano due to his association with Vinny and Los Angeles residency.

Golia has been playing a huge array of woodwinds for the majority of his career. This piece came from a record that featured him entirely on this big daddy sax.

Great, great track featuring a unique instrument. Off kilter piano work and obscenely low tones.

3. Django Reinhardt & Rex Stewart & His Feetwarmers – “Finesse”
Presented by Steve Futterman – Theme: B – MP3

A cornet theme was played over a quiet and fairly subdued set of guitar changes. Clarinet followed the cornet before the guitarist took his solo over what seemed to be a simple brush on snare.

Django was obvious on guitar. We heard Rex Stewart play a warm cornet. Billy Taylor played a loping bass. So what was the odd instrument? Barney Bigard was featured on clarinet and… suitcase? Yep. Brushes on suitcase.

Steve mentioned that this was recorded in April of 1939 while Duke Ellington was on tour in France. This performance was an impromptu session where the musicians had to utilize whatever they had lying around in a hotel room. Excellent under the circumstances, no?

Hear it here.

4. Anthony Braxton / Taylor Ho Bynum – “All Roads Lead to Middletown” from Duets (Wesleyen) 2002 (Innova 576, 2003)
Presented by Jeff Golick – Theme: A – CD

As Mark Jackson would say, “There goes that man!”

Mr. Heberer got Braxton from his intonation and phrasing. Good ears. Mr. Etkin assured us it was an alto sax. Cornet guesses included Bobby Bradford. Golick saved us from further mining by giving Ho Bynum away.

Braxton has been a professor at Wesleyan (in Middletown, Connecticut) for some time. He has helped turn out a fine crop of young composers, improvisers and performers, including his featured duet partner, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum.

No strange instruments played here. The alto sax brandishing Braxton and Ho Bynum swung through as “jazzy” a selection as I’ve heard either perform.

It was interesting hearing Braxton in a more “jazzy” vein. It gave a better perspective on how far his experiments and developments have expanded the music. The jazz tradition may have been left behind but it has managed to stay in the rear view.

Our Braxton discussion continued. Earlier, I had asked what everyone’s favorite Braxton recording was. Seemed that most preferred Braxton’s earlier projects, his recent ones deemed a little difficult to relate to. There was also mention of the strength added while performing with his peers rather than students. Though many of his students have become highly esteemed peers at this point.

There was certainly an appreciation for what he had done, especially in his concepts. But most were attracted to his early leader recordings or as a sideman, reigning it in to “yield to friends.” The collective fav was Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1973), a solid classic.

Another question came up. As challenging and isolated as his music has been, would it be considered as significant if it had been performed/composed by someone other than Braxton? A cult of personality? Brought us back to the Arista Freedom’s influence and the benefits of the label's wide availability during the 1970s.

But really who would have been better? The mold was broken after Braxton. How could you hate his professorial image and wildly imaginative ideas? He was a perfect face for the new avant-garde. An intriguing dude whether you listen or not.

5. Archie Shepp / Horace Parlan – “Backwater Blues” from Trouble In Mind (SteepleChase SCS-1139, 1980)
Presented by Zak Shelby-Syszko – Theme: A – MP3

Shepp was a fire music man. Untempered. His unique voice was especially suited for going for gusto. A loose, gutbucket sound. Completely unique.

The lovely music that he made with pianist Horace Parlan on four records from the late 1970s and early 1980s (Goin’ Home, Duo Reunion, Trouble In Mind and Mama Rose) was unexpected. While Shepp always had a link to the blues, these duo sessions were the most revealing testaments to that heritage. Parlan came from more mainstream stock, having come up playing with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine and Charles Mingus.

Though his embouchure remained loose, Shepp’s sound was more focused here than on many other performances (immediately noticeable). Without much fanfare, Parlan’s spare accompaniment set Shepp up beautifully.

6. Misha Mengelberg – “Instant Composition 5/VI/’72” from Eric Dolphy, Misha Mengelberg, Jacques Schols, Han Bennink playing: Epistrophy, June 1, 1964 in Eindhoven, Holland (ICP 015, 1974)
Presented by Thomas Heberer – Theme: A & B - LP

Wow. Wow. The rarest record we’ve heard thus far. The only way to hear this has been on original vinyl or rips. The record has gotten to be a pretty costly. Hopes/plans for ICP reissues have surfaced and continue, though no immediate plans.

Very proud to say I had the correct guess: Mengelberg and a parrot. Unfair advantage as I had just read about it in Kevin Whitehead’s New Dutch Swing.

Little background. Mengelberg’s girlfriend at the time owned a gray red-tailed parrot named Eeko. The pianist and bird didn’t get along as they were both vying for a lady’s attention. Conversations would end up in duels of escalating volume.

Mengelberg being Mengelberg decided to utilize the bird. He began whistling jazz tunes/licks around Eeko. The bird picked up on these easily enough. This track was recorded on June 6, 1972. Mengelberg played a fairly straight jazz piano with Eeko as the soloist. Remarkable thing was that the bird was able to keep up. Eeko even seemed to hear the changes. A prime example of the Dutch Dada-esque esthetic, allowing the absurd to mingle with the commonplace.

Voted “the track of the day.” Worst joke of the day: “This one was recorded in Polly-phonic.” Yuck, yuck, yuck…

7. Aliou Fane / Daouda Sangare / Djuru Diallo – “Dougou té mogoké Nalamayé” from Kamale Ngoni: Kelea – Mali (Indigo/Label Bleu, 1987)
Presented by Oran Etkin – Theme: B – CD

Of course, any African recording using indigenous instruments would have sufficed for unusual instrument combinations. Our African music expert found a track with an unusual instrument within the realm of unusual instruments.

The doso n’goni has been a sacred instrument in Malian culture. A hunter’s harp, 6-string kora, which contained power only to be used in sacred rites. The use of the doso n’goni in “secular” music has been strictly forbidden.

To combat this ban, the younger generation of musicians created a smaller version of the instrument called the Kamale N’goni (which means “young man’s harp”), featured on this track. The other instruments present were Karinyan (metal guiro played by scraping) and a wooden flute.

Oran mentioned that this development was akin to the “rock and roll revolution of Mali.” He also gave examples of how serious Malians have been in regard to their beliefs and rituals. While in Mali, Oran witnessed a summit of hunters from all over the region, the first of its kind, held in a soccer stadium. The summit was big news, generating concern over the dangerous accumulation of too much magic, which could have spelled disaster.

Talk of the doso n’goni led us to Don Cherry. His playing of the instrument would have been looked on as sacrilege. Definitely wasn’t a virtuoso, which didn’t help his cause. Heberer pointed out that though Cherry wasn’t a virtuoso on many of the instruments he tackled, he could make each work enough to communicate effectively to audiences, a rare musical talent.

8. Richard Davis / Jack DeJohnette – “Watergate” from Song For Wounded Knee (Flying Dutchman FD 10157, 1973)
Presented by Me – Theme: A – LP

“Beautiful so far…” Early guesses were: “South African?” Nope. “3D Family?” Uh uh… “Fred Hopkins?” Sorry…

Hints followed. Domestic release. Produced by Bob Thiele. On Flying Dutchman… Okay. Richard Davis.

Song For Wounded Knee was an eclectic recording led by Davis alongside a trio featuring guitarist Joe Beck and drummer Jack DeJohnette released in 1973. “Watergate” was a duo piece with the drummer. The entire album had explicit political overtones (check the song titles). It was the ‘70s, man.

Both Davis and DeJohnette played beautifully on the track. Extremely resonant and poignant.

Davis has been highly regarded in the worlds of jazz and popular music forever. He’s gotten props from Bruce Springsteen (invited on stage) and less props from Van Morrison (played on Astral Weeks but was never in the same room).

Oran mentioned he had had similar experience with Wyclef Jean, having played on gigs and recordings while never actually meeting Jean in person. Mr. Big Stuff…

9. Marshall Allen / Joe Morris – “Particle Physics” from Night Logic (RogueArt ROG-0028, 2010)
Presented by Jim Macnie – Theme: A & B – CD

Jim had to wrestle with the computer to get the CD going but it was well worth the trouble.

We initially heard strange low electronic drones and bowed bass. The gurgling, surging tones traversed from low hums to high squeals. The bass player really went for some testy harmonic ideas before finding a walking line as flute took a more balanced melodic approach.

No one was able to guess who these guys were.

The featured musicians were Sun Ra Arkestra leader/reedist Marshall Allen and bassist Joe Morris. “Particle Physics” featured Allen on flute and Electric Valve Instrument (EVI). The recording was part of a trio session at Roulette in NYC on July 26, 2009 that also featured pianist Matthew Shipp.

Allen has been performing with his EVI for years. The instrument was conceived like an electric trumpet with three valves and a twisting octave valve (range of 7 octaves). Naturally, he has typically used tones of the spacey variety.

EVI lesson from the master.

10. Michael Moore / Fred Hersch – “The Sad Bird” from This We Know (Palmetto, 2008)
Presented by Jim Macnie – Theme: A – CD

We had so much fun with the last one, we decided to let Jim go again.

The musicians on this selection were guessed pretty quickly. We did have one of Moore’s ICP band mates with us, although Hersch was uncovered first.

The moody piece began with a ruminative piano from Hersch with Moore’s languid clarinet floating over the top. Moore presented a little more outside the box style here. Heberer mentioned how both come from different traditions, though originating from the same place.

Moore and Hersch had studied together at New England Conservatory. Moore, originally from California, moved to Amsterdam and became involved in the Dutch improv music scene, a unique European musical flavor. Hersch has made quite a career for himself being at the helm of the US jazz piano tradition.

The two musicians together sounded like they were speaking the same language but with different dialects. Very nice blend.

11. Max Roach ft. Coleman Hawkins – “Driva’man” from We Insist: Max Roach’s – Freedom Now Suite (Candid CJM 8002, 1960)
Presented by Steve Futterman – Theme: C – MP3

“Too beautiful… Turn it off.” Abbey Lincoln, whew… Breathtaking.

We Insist was Roach’s moving suite written for the Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and was easily the most politically volatile jazz recording of its time. It was also a collection of all stars, young and old. Booker Little, Julian Priester, Olatunji and our old timer, Coleman Hawkins.

Steve was amazed that Hawk recorded this album with a bunch of musicians half his age and managed to fit in so well. He didn’t do any more than was required, an embellished melody and a brief solo. He was another part of the arrangement, as if Abbey had passed the baton.

Hawk’s presence was important. He gave an air of authenticity and authority on a relatively young label’s most alienating recording. He helped to create a masterpiece.

A tremendous result.

12. Sonny Rollins ft. Coleman Hawkins – “Yesterdays” from Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA Victor LSP-2712, 1963)
Presented by Thomas Heberer – Theme: C – CD

“Driva’man” set this one up well.

Tenor colossus Rollins was a tremendous fan of Hawk. This recording came out a year after Rollins’s return to performing. He had taken a break to regroup from the arrival of Ornette Coleman. After woodshedding for two years, he was playing at his peak.

Rollins apparently was a neurotic mess around Hawk. His playing was a little jittery, but this kept the energy up. Hawk was on his toes and managed to maintain the energy that Rollins instigated. Each played off the other fantastically; e.g., Rollins solo concluding trill led seamlessly into a Hawk solo. It got to be that telling the two players apart became difficult.

Another stone classic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Records AMG Forgot - Phillip Wilson Trio - Fruits

Phillip Wilson Trio – Fruits – Circle Records – RK 14778/10 – 1978

I’ll keep this tread of late ‘70s percussionist led sessions going for a minute. I originally read about this recording in a very complete book about South African ex-pat bassist Johnny Dyani, Mbizo by Lars Rasmussen. The book is a great collection of interviews, testimonials and remembrances of this tremendous musician. Anyhow… A number of interviewees mention Dyani’s incredible playing on Fruits, so the record was in the crosshairs. I managed to track Fruits down on a random browse at A1 Records in NYC. Not typically the best spot to find specific items but it happened to be in the Ws for $15. Home it went.


Wilson (best pic on another record's cover)

Percussionist Phillip Wilson was born in St. Louis, Missouri on September 8, 1941. His first foray into the world of professional music was alongside St. Louis based organist Sam Lazar on his album Playback from 1962. Upon moving to Chicago in the mid ‘60s, Wilson helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and was enlisted in the initial lineup of the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet (which would soon become the Art Ensemble of Chicago).

In 1967, Wilson joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and went on to record three albums with the band for Elektra (The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw, In My Own Dream and Keep On Moving). He was involved in the band’s performance at Woodstock where his and saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie’s “Love March” got its first performance. Shortly thereafter, Wilson and Dinwiddie started the group Full Moon alongside former Butterfield member Buzz Felton. The group released a self-titled recording on Douglas in 1972.

Meanwhile, Wilson’s involvement with the AACM and the related St. Louis based Black Artists’ Group (BAG) scenes continued. He was featured on saxophonists Julius Hemphill’s classic Dogon A.D. (Mbari, 1972), Anthony Braxton’s Town Hall 1972 (Trio Records, 1972) and Hamiet Bluiett’s Endangered Species (India Navigation, 1976). Wilson’s collaborations with Lester Bowie began in Roscoe Mitchell’s group and continued throughout the rest of Wilson’s career.

It was Wilson’s involvement with Braxton and saxophonists David Murray and Frank Lowe that helped generate the trio featured on Fruits.


Wilson had known trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith since the inception of the AACM in 1967. The two began playing together regularly as members of the Anthony Braxton Quartet (the group also featured Dave Holland on bass) in 1976. Their first recording together was a major work by the composer/reed master, Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (Arista – AL 4080). Wilson and Smith would record the following year on a session led by Frank Lowe, Doctor Too Much (Kharma - PK-2).

David Murray had enlisted Wilson to play with his ensemble in June 1976. The two records that followed that year were recorded performances at two different loft spaces and in studio, Flowers for Albert (India Navigation – IN 1026) at Joe Lee Wilson’s Ladies’ Fort on the June 26th and Low Class Conspiracy (Adelphi – AD 5002) at Sam River’s Studio Rivbea on May 14 then June 29 at Blue Rock Studio.


In January of 1978, Murray toured Europe with an ensemble that included cornet player Butch Morris, drummer George Brown and the South African ex-pat bassist Johnny Dyani. Dyani had been living in Europe since the mid-1960s when he and the rest of the Blue Notes jazz quintet went into self-exile. Since that time, Dyani had had many fruitful collaborations with former Blue Notes (drummer Louis Moholo, trumpeter Mongezi Feza and Chris McGregor and his Brotherhood of Breath), Turkish percussionist Okey Temiz and pianist Dollar Brand. Three different LPs were made of the Murray group while on tour. Last of the Hipman (Red Records – VPA 129) and Let the Music Take You (Marge – 04) were both recorded on the same night of Jan. 30th in Rouen, France. Interboogieology (Black Saint – BSR 0018) was recorded in early February in Milan, Italy with the addition of Marta Contreras on vocals.

Mr. Murray would have to weigh in on whether he recommended Dyani to Wilson. I haven’t been able to find out. I decided to let the degrees of separation do the talkin’.

Regardless… Wilson assembled the trio featuring Smith and Dyani for a performance at the Northsea Jazz Festival in Den Haag. The performance was on July 14, 1978. The record was produced by Rudolf Kreis for Circle Records, a small German label that recorded mostly progressive jazz from 1977 to the mid 1980s.

Fun fact – Dyani had just recorded with Louis Moholo on his Spirits Rejoice album for Ogun only a week previous. A track from that session was played at BYOV #2.

The album:

“Electricity” starts the set off at a clip, the drummer setting the pace. Dyani’s fast pizzicato plucks go up and down the fret board as Wilson’s light hi-hats keep the momentum. Smith’s strong vibrato-less tone fills the melodic role as the piece pushes on. The bass is high in the mix and Dyani takes advantage as he really wrestles tones out. The dialog between Smith and Dyani is intriguing. The call and response sections are of interest as the two develop an interesting dialog.

This is pure energy music with a free pulse allowing the musicians to really invest in their own sound. Smith keeps the energy up and texture dense with thick swathes of sound. The communication is good. Wilson plays the accompanist role until the middle where he commands a solo that starts at mid intensity and builds, rollicking along. Dyani returns with a solo letting the harmonics ring from his instrument with runs through the registers. It isn’t about intonation and melodicism as much as it is about sound creation, rhythm and texture.

Smith joins back with a blustery tone. The last couple minutes are interesting for the gear shifts, each soloist gets a chance to drive. The bass begins to walk, steering toward the conclusion, then slows with loud twangs as Smith ends with a long tone and Wilson’s cymbal splash.

“Leo’s Tune” is a melody written by Smith. It has a more restrained and thoughtful nature. Smith’s long tones and haunting altissimo are contrasted with a minimal drum part and off beat low strums from the bass. The meditative quality and restraint create a nice balance to the firey “Electricity”.

The group begins to diverge as Smith takes the solo lead. Wilson is in his own world with very subtle hits, mild hints of swing on the hi-hats. Dyani throws in some of his fleet fingered tricks from time to time before he takes his solo. He remains focused on the various sounds that he can emit with his strumming before slowing into a blues-ish strolling line. Wilson begins his solo with rolling snare into an off kilter bounce. The high-pitched bass introduces the ostinato plucking and Smith’s return to the melody. This is a really lovely piece.

The b-side starts off with what is perhaps Dyani’s most intense performance on wax, Wilson’s “F & L”. He starts off with some incredibly nimble finger work and bent notes. Dyani is really the engine here as Smith plays a long tone melody and Wilson stays in the background until the main dancing melody comes in. Dyani’s muscles are flexing as he hints at a bass line but continues to deviate favoring his own fireworks.

Smith begins his solo over Dyani’s funky, distorted (?) bass line. The form keeps switching from quick jam to free space. Definitely a head nodder. Smith sounds strong with his unbroken but arresting tone. Wilson’s drumming keeps with a funky snare hit with off beat ride cymbal work. Dyani finds all sorts of wild, yet minimalist, percussive ideas to mess with. Some pretty left field.

Hip-hop heads should definitely look to this for some pretty nutty bass tones. Dyani’s unique sense of groove and physicality on the instrument are on full display. Wilson shows his command of time by bringing his solo down to bare essentials, quick resonant hits on this drum or that, slow builds, a cymbal hit… Dyani brings us back (who else?). Very, very cool piece.

Wilson’s “Death Ain’t Supposed To Be Negative” closes out the disc. Wilson’s unaccompanied drums start off a mid pace groove. Dyani and Smith are quick to start up with minimal plucks and thoughtful bluesy blasts. Smith’s raw tone is especially nice here as he begins to pick up intensity into a gallop. The waltzy tempo set by Wilson dances along nicely as Dyani frames the piece with a descending line, his most harmonic playing on the disc. He also tries different rhythmic phrases on the line.

Smith and Dyani remain in the front of the mix. Smith’s poignant solo breaks off as Dyani comes in with his thrummed tones following the basic form, descending and descending. His bass hums. A very simple yet resonant (in more ways than one) statement. Wilson’s solo finds him a little busier as his snare and cymbals start to sing. He remains within the jazz lexicon throughout with flourishes of out stuff. Smith comes in plaintively. Very controlled end to this one.

Fruits is an interesting live recording that serves the sidemen more than the leader, mostly because of the recording volume. Maybe I’m just listening for him but I think that Dyani sounds the most involved. Overly busy? I wouldn’t say so. Perhaps a drummer with an opinion can tell me otherwise. Smith sounds great as usual. So maybe not an essential recording but a great one for fans of Dyani and Smith.


Both Wilson and Dyani’s stories are sad.

After another eight years of recording and touring, Dyani passed away on October 24, 1986 after a performance due to a throat hemorrhage. He was already in poor health with a diagnosis of Hepatitis B. He continued playing with his full intensity until the end.

Wilson continued to record and perform with a number of artists, including Bill Laswell, Elliott Sharp and Fab 5 Freddy (!). His regular gig was being the drummer in the various ensembles of Lester Bowie. On March 25, 1992, the drummer was murdered by Marvin Slater near his home in the East Village, New York City. Slater was arrested but never gave a reason for the murder.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Records AMG Forgot - Pheeroan ak Laff - House Of Spirit: "Mirth"

Pheeroan ak Laff – House Of Spirit: “Mirth” – Passin’ Thru – PT 4238 – 1979

I was extremely happy to find this record at the Domino Record Shack in NOLA last month. I hadn’t heard it before but was familiar with ak Laff’s work with Henry Threadgill, Sonny Sharrock and Oliver Lake (who produced this record on his own label). I’m a big collector of the loft jazz guys. This was the first record to get thrown on the turntable when I got back.


Percussionist Pheeroan ak Laff (Jan. 27, 1955) got his start performing in and around his hometown Detroit at a young age. He performed in a variety of musical settings including jazz, funk, gospel and R&B. In 1975, ak Laff moved to New Haven, Connecticut where he was introduced to the music of Wadada Leo Smith by reed player (now minister and Emory University professor) Dwight Andrews. He became a member of Smith’s New Dalta Ahkri and can be heard on the ensemble’s record Song Of Humanity (Kabell 3, 1976).

Through his work with Smith, ak Laff was introduced to Oliver Lake. Lake had already established himself as a mover in the world of progressive jazz as a founding member of the St. Louis based Black Artists Group and then relocating to New York City in the ‘70s to become fully immersed in the burgeoning loft/spiritual/Afro/avant-garde (take your pick) jazz scene. In 1977, Lake became a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet alongside Hamiet Bluiett, David Murray and Julius Hemphill.

Ak Laff followed Lake back to New York where he became a member of Lake’s ensemble that included guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson. He appeared on recordings by both Lake and Jackson, along with one apiece from pianists Anthony Davis (another New Haven connection) and Amina Claudine Myers. He also appeared regularly at loft gigs, most notably at Ali’s Alley (his mentor Rashied Ali’s performance space) where he also lived when times were a little rough.

Lake released his first recording on his Passin’ Thru label in 1974. The record called, incidentally, Passin’ Thru (PT 4237), recorded on May 18, 1974 in Paris, featured a Lake solo saxophone concert with added prerecorded synth by Ivan Pequeno.

Ak Laff’s association with Lake proved fruitful as it allowed him to make his first recording under his own name, the solo percussion record House Of Spirit: “Mirth”. The record was recorded by Randy Alder at Blank Tapes Studio in NYC on February 6 and 13, 1979, with touch ups at S&S Studio by David Baker.

The album:

Though Mirth is a solo percussion record, ak Laff’s melodic sense shows up immediately. “Ayin Of Love” opens with a solemn whistled theme that sounds more Morricone than Moye. The overdubbed percussion follows with a catchy, sing-song chant.

This humanizing element is missing from many solo percussion recordings and makes this a particularly listenable record. With the Arabic title, tribal drumming, chanting, et al, there is an obvious tie to the Afro/spiritual jazz music scene that had established itself during the 1960s and was still prominent in the loft scene.

“Ayin” (Arabic and Hebrew for eye) features an off-kilter, quick duple meter backbeat as ak Laff layers percussion over the top. Using his kit, congas, bongos, tambourine and shakers, ak Laff’s wafting textures constantly phase in and out, much like the polyrhythmic drum music of Western Africa. There’s use of some phasing to get kind of a spacey effect, especially on the tambourine. The piece also seems to be in sections focusing on different percussion, beginning with hand drums then shakers/tambourine and finally the drum kit. The repetitive vocal chant is extremely effective in keeping the music tuneful.

There are two short percussion improvisations on the a-side, “Tzaddi Vau” and “Michelle Del ‘America De Sud’”. The track listing on the record jacket and the label are out of order, as long as the track lengths (which are also way off) are supposed to identify the tunes. At least I think this is the case. I’m going with my gut rather than the liners. Oh, indie jazz labels…

“Tzaddi Vau” is a spirited kit exploration with a lot of snare, floor tom and cymbal work. It sticks to a dancing 4/4 beat that allows ak Laff a lot of freedom to sound off with some of his most aggressive playing on the record. “Michelle” is a little more offbeat as ak Laff develops a slinky groove playing mostly on the rims of his drums before trying the different timbres he can create with his toms and snare while manipulating with his drum sticks against the skins. This is the last track on the a-side. Both of these are over far too soon.

The other “longer” track on the a-side is “Jarawa”. It starts with quiet focus on tom and floor tom rolls as ak Laff creates a simple melody between tuning of the drums. A single live track, his Eastern influenced chants accompany his drumming simultaneously. His melodicism is well displayed as the lower drums sing as much as his voice. Jarawa refers to a native black tribe that inhabited the Andamanese Islands in the Bay of Bengal, thus the Asian flavor. (I believe ak Laff’s chanting “jarawa” somewhere in there, which makes me think that is the “Jarawa” rather than “Michelle” as shown on the label.)

“Freedom” begins the b-side with a full out, traditional, gospel chorus. Ak Laff’s multi-tracked vocals are great. Shows his connection with the gospel and R&B traditions. Funky to boot. A gong smash breaks up the congregation for another kit based improvisation. Here he sticks to his toms and hi-hat for the most part, quietly at first but building momentum. Was that some swing I heard in there on the hi-hat? Think so. The volume and intensity mount as the full kit begins to be utilized. Towards the end comes the more clave inspired off beat.

Ak Laff writes about “Freedom” and its meaning in the album notes. He wants the listener to remember the “bravery of people who have come through many a trial by fire and tribulation by earth.” Here he refers to the descendants of the African diaspora and, more specifically, in dedication to his cousin Douglas Jackson who had died in Vietnam. The record was meant as a celebration of the spirit of these people. Bringing us to the album title, which is explained thus: “the drum is a house of spirit” and mirth comes from “this understanding and product of such an influence.”

The final track is called “3 In 1” and is a funky, samba-esque march. The wood block accents are cool additions along with the offbeat bottle taps. This is a busy piece as he expands the trap kit with these small percussion elements and his vocal outbursts. There is an obvious 4/4 framework established by the loose hi-hat and kick drum. Ak Laff covers the full range of his instrument on “3 In 1,” playing all over the kit. The percussion quiets down with the hi-hat fading. Then ak Laff’s soulful vocals break over an overdubbed vocal harmony ostinato of “I’m just passing through…” There’s some very soulful vocal stuff in there. What a cool way to end the record, connecting with the listener with some vocals and a quiet nod to the label.

I like that ak Laff remains grounded during recording. He doesn’t try to flummox the listener with a bunch of crazy time signatures. The polyrhythmic build up is enough to keep attention and asses shaking. He does use some studio tricks but in order to add a human element to music rather than taking it over the top. His overdubbed vocals and percussion lend to more listenable recording for folks that would be familiar with more popular types of music like soul, gospel and blues. He really tries to tie in his African heritage with the African American musical tradition, which he pulls off without it seeming insincere.


I’ve heard that House Of Spirit: “Mirth” will be reissued in late September on the great Soul Jazz / Universal Sound reissue label. I would recommend picking it up.