Monday, August 9, 2010

The BYG/Actuel Series Part Four: Frank Wright- ONE FOR JOHN (Actuel 36)

For a guy that sort of hovers in a purgatory between obscure and “bubbling under”, the late tenor sax man Rev. Frank Wright has a fairly large number of recordings in his discography, both as a leader and sideman. His inclusion in the annals of the ESP Disk and the Actuel rosters sort of insures he’ll never suffer the lack of recognition that afflicts such names as Smiley Winters or Marc Levin, but a boost in the guy’s general notoriety would be a welcome turn of events. In the grand scheme of Wright’s recorded work, ONE FOR JOHN lands almost two years after a criminally unreleased Sunny Murray session for Columbia (SPIRITUAL INFINITY, with Clifford Thornton, Arthur Jones, Dave Burrell and possibly others) and shortly before UHURU NA UMOJA, his contribution to the French label America’s spate of avant jazz releases. JOHN is noteworthy as presenting the recording debut of a slightly shifting unit of ferocious free invention that flourished under Wright’s leadership, a crew that included alto giant Noah Howard, sublime pianist Bobby Few, incendiary drummer Muhammad Ali and bassist extraordinaire Alan Silva (post-bop drum vet Art Taylor also connected with Wright during this period, a fact that when bookended with Philly Joe Jones’ contemporaneous run-in with Archie Shepp [and the long, fascinating careers of Max Roach and Kenny “Klook” Clarke] lends credence to the theory that the most vital and longstanding element of bebop wasn’t reeds but rhythm). This one and done bomb drop for Actuel features Howard, Few and Ali along with Wright, so it’s more about heavy lung abstraction than rhythmic pummel.

French print ad for Selmer saxophones featuring Wright
(who probably didn't get paid)

Not that Wright’s overall artistic thrust varied all that much. He was clearly, at least as a leader, always expanding upon the core advancements of Coltrane and Ayler, and this has led some to dismiss him as a second tier player. Bullshit to that. The sensibility that denigrates Wright is essentially no different than that which disparages or belittles Sonny Stitt as eternally in the shadow of Charlie Parker. Much ado is often made, and deservedly so, over the innovators, but far less hoopla is given to what I’ll describe as the “extenders”, those players who grasp innovation often before critics and the general public and work with it to mold those new ideas into an established and accepted progression. Wright’s commentary upon Coltrane’s genius was more distanced than that of his wife Alice or Pharaoh Sanders, both key contributors to ‘Trane’s later exploratory period, and ONE FOR JOHN quickly reveals a sonic atmosphere that’s more concerned with euphoria of pure force. Where Wright’s first two ESP records can be viewed as direct responses to Ayler, SPIRITUAL UNITY inspiring THE FRANK WRIGHT TRIO and the larger bands of Ayler’s Impulse! period begetting YOUR PRAYER, they share with ONE FOR JOHN’s exploratory ‘Trane-ism’s a bold density and urgency that helps to place their leader’s sound in historical context: Wright, along with his cohort Howard, Charles Tyler, Arthur Doyle, late bloomer Charles Gayle and Test’s Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen are all offspring of J.C./Ayler at their most energetically searching, a collective bubbling cauldron of distinct personalities, “extenders” all, dedicated to applying varying levels of toughness and abstraction to this shared approach. The commercial possibilities of this sound was something significantly less than great, so it’s no surprise that the vast majority of those names never got close to a major label recording studio. The main fallout from this circumstance is the faulty perception that the work of Ayler and late Coltrane is very specific and mainly relevant to the rocky social landscape of the 1960s instead of being recognized as the beginning of a wide-open style that still throbs forcefully in the here and now like a vein in the bicep of a greased-up weightlifter.The last few decades have seen a nice increase in acceptance for the overall thrust of free/avant/ecstatic jazz, with recent developments including a deep reevaluation of that most reviled of all jazz decades, the 1970s. And in my opinion the ‘70s were Frank Wright’s best period, for it found him engaged in the beautifully rewarding extended dialogue with the above mentioned core band, a relationship that proved so fertile it necessitated the forming of the artist run label Center of the World to document the development of their activities.
ONE FOR JOHN, recorded on 12/5/69, finds that core group already in an advanced state of mind. Side A’s title piece opens with a particularly inspired passage of well controlled simmering beauty that quickly and naturally erupts into full on furiousness of breath. Wright’s stamina, along with his unwavering dedication to this sonic ideal, remains impressive, as does his ability to get into a sympathetic zone with alto-ist Howard. It’s risky when two players this powerful lend their lungs to the same session, for exuberant intentions can often unfortunately lead to non-communicative overstepping and the drowning-out of the creative spark. Instead, here, the mind meld is fertile and extends to their dialogue with the piano and drums.

Noah Howard

Muhammad Ali is the brother of the late Rashied Ali, who is probably best known as Coltrane’s last drummer. Where Rashied’s long legacy gets a small but sustained boost due to that formative early relationship, his bro is unfortunately far less known. Which is a bit of a raw deal, for in addition to basically developing into Wright’s go-to sticksman he not only contributed in a very key fashion to Alan Shorter’s enigmatic Verve recording session that resulted in the ORGASM LP but also beat the skins on Noah Howard’s essential blast THE BLACK ARK and played on a handful of hot early ‘70s Archie Shepp blowouts. He’s correctly categorized as an “energy” player, though closer in style to his brother than to Sunny Murray or Milford Graves. If there is a tangible difference in delivery, I’d say that Rashied is a heavier hitter and Muhammad’s more occupied with a wider path of urgent finesse. At least on this recording.

Muhammad Ali

Wright’s long association with Bobby Few is notable in a period where many free players were following Ornette’s example and eschewing keyboards. Not to flog one idea at the expense of the whole, but this further emphasizes the depth of influence of Coltrane on Wright’s music. McCoy Tyner, followed by Alice, filled the piano seat on ‘Trane’s most outside work, and some listeners consider the inclusion of this instrument to be a grounding factor on those recordings, keeping most of them from truly exploding into orbit. I wonder if those ears would say the same (if ears could talk what tales they’d tell) about Few’s playing here, which is at times quite explicit in its connection to Tyner’s rising and cascading block chords. Hailing from Cleveland where he grew up (and played) with Ayler, Few is a versatile improviser similar in style to Dave Burrell and Don Pullen, all three sharing a sensibility rooted in tradition yet always actively searching. A distinct personal signature is prevalent in everything I’ve heard from Few however, and his hooks to jazz history just might be the deepest; his long association with the late Steve Lacy lends credence to this idea. The Tyner-esque style on display here is indicative of the tribute nature of the recording (this is the one BYG/Actuel release that really feels descended from the Bob Thiele/Impulse! tendency toward albums as statements of “props”) and while surely referential is still a fine example of this pianist’s complex and warmly rewarding style.

Bobby Few

Possibly the most impressive aspect of “One For John” is the sonic distance it covers. That short opening passage feels almost like an homage to the intro to MEDITATIONS, there’s a collective purge that’s not all that far from the white-hot ouch of THE OLATUNJI CONCERT, group vocal chants erupt like a more druggily wigged-out OM outtake and with around a minute left the group winds down into a gorgeous bit of edgy tranquility that harkens all the way back to “Alabama”. Geez. You’d be quite right in thinking that’s a hard act to follow, but side two pulls a mean feat with “China”, another side long piece that combines a traditional Asian motif with slowly building levels of improvisational oomph, Ali in particular getting seriously busy all over his kit. Both Wright and Howard attain high degrees of expression, albeit in a more subdued manner. It becomes apparent that this track is essentially about curiosity and the value of cultural exchange. Few’s recurring flurries of the Chinese theme, still a bit Tyner-like, do a fine job of elevating the overall discourse to a level that’s legitimate (sincere) as a fusion of musical styles and time-tested for pure non-scholarly listening. It’s really not far from the plateaus of cultural investigation and integration achieved by the great Don Cherry (much more on him later). And there’s more chanting, even more bent and loose than on side A. Yes, it’s the sort of sound that’ll make purists scowl, and if Richard Nixon had heard it back then, he might’ve reconsidered that trip to the PRC.

History can be a harsh mistress. While the tide of acceptance for post-Coltrane free jazz has thankfully started to turn more toward the positive, there’s still a long way to go, at least in this writer’s opinion, before players like Frank Wright (and the members of his band) get the credit they deserve. ONE FOR JOHN is exemplary documentation of a group of prime underdogs. Hear it and howl.

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