This February I'm looking at milestone recordings by African-American elder statesmen of the "new jazz" movement that blossomed in the mid 1960s and continued to hold influence through the 70s and, to a lesser extent, up to the present. I write "lesser extent" because much jazz performance these days is derivative of the 1950s and early 60s. As fun as it is to hear straight-ahead or cool jazz in a live club setting, it can be argued that the art of improvisation is regressing rather than progressing.
The "new thing," as it was called, encouraged a generation to radically break with the old forms (of swing, bop, and cool) and restructure both compositional and improvisational elements according to the inclinations and talents of a given musician. Although the results of these experiments varied wildly, I think it's safe to say the hostile critical reaction lobbed at the movement by much of the mainstream jazz press of the day, was at best, short-sighted, and at worst, rigidly provincial.
The great majority of these avant-garde practitioners are African-American. Collectively, the vast creative ground they covered needs to be firmly placed in the history of the American arts. And, while there certainly is a connection to be drawn between the volatile political and racial struggles of the mid-60s and the urgency and passion inherent in the music, to simply call it "Black rage music" is to simplify and dismiss a revolution in sound far more complex and lyrically alive than is generally acknowledged.
A case in point is this week's album, Tauhid, by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Just his second recording, the range of colors and instrumentation is astonishing for a small combo. Perhaps the popularity of his subsequent Karma LP, with the anthemic "The Creator Has a Master Plan," resulted in Tauhid's relative obscurity. This is a shame. Not only Sanders, but his marvelous collaborators on Tauhid, are all deserving of wider recognition: Sonny Sharrock on electric guitar, Dave Burrell on piano, Henry Grimes on bass, Roger Blank on drums, and Nat Bettis on percussion.
A personal aside: When, as kids, we played table tennis with our dad in the rec room, this was our favorite background music. The percussive nature of certain passages enhanced the ping pong ball hitting the table. This is also the one album that my fiancé and I owned in common when we met. Because she had just spent many years living in Nagoya, she had the Japanese pressing (shown above), and found the album's tune "Japan" to be a hoot. Pharoah tried to encompass in the song several different Japanese vocal styles simultaneously, based upon his trip there with John Coltrane's group.
Pharoah Sanders has recorded many fine albums throughout the years, from the hair-raising work with John Coltrane (Ascension, Live at the Village Vanguard Again) to spiritually charged meditations (Karma, Jewels of Thought) to tenderly elucidated ballads (Crescent with Love). Many of his collaborators have passed on, but, thankfully, the Pharoah is still with us. Thanks for the love through music, Pharoah Sanders.