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.
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.