Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen ‘Creative Music: The Complete Works’ 8xLP (Now-Again) 5/5

Egon’s exceptional Now-Again Records consolidates the release of four extremely rare albums by jazz drummer Bubbha Thomas from 1970 to 1975 into a comprehensive box set with a total of 61 tracks (I counted them). Hailing from Houston, Texas – not the bedrock of spiritual jazz and jazz fusion in the US, but nonetheless, this remarkable set showcases another missing link in the evolution of jazz during its extremely fertile early to mid-1970s epoch. As the vinyl box set for practical purposes is split into four pressings representing each of the four albums, I will also separate them individually to examine each album at a time chronologically.

‘Free As You Wanna Be’ (1970) the debut is definitely a development record. Not as ‘free’ as the title suggests but its influences range from accessible free jazz to fusion, but the title track is explicitly early 70s spiritual jazz, even with its loose guitar chords which are reminiscent of some of Pharoah Sanders’ Impulse material. ‘Talk Visit’ with its swirling horns and heavy shuffle rhythm is particularly memorable. This record and ‘Country Fried Chicken’ also includes a pre-Blue Note Ronnie Laws playing alto sax, soprano sax and flute.

The follow up album ‘Fancy Pants’ (1971), again contains spiritual elements as well as heavier fusion moments. ‘Sorrow, Bitterness And Revolution (Now He’s Gone)’ sees some excellent guitar work by Kenny Abair, who features heavily on the first two albums. ‘Ashie’ at 2’45” is a perfect DJ tool and was also originally pressed as a 7” circa 1971 (it fetches £500) and is a downbeat funky jazz number. As a bonus, an alternative version labelled ‘Synth Version’ is also presented which features an additional Mini Moog playing the main melody line (this track is on a different disc).

‘Energy Control Center’ (1972) is the most in demand of these albums and drifts between post-bop tendencies, fusion with some slightly free-ish elements to more resounding spiritual jazz moments with ‘Leo’ especially strong here. As memorable is the funky ‘The Phantom’ (nothing to do with the Duke Pearson piece). Also included is the non-LP track ‘All Praise Due To Allah’ which appeared on 7” in 1972, which one assumes to be both parts 1 and 2 combined with an extraordinary unreleased alternative 9-minute version – which could well be the track of the box set. A bold statement indeed.

The final album, ‘Country Fried Chicken’ (1975), jumps from post-Headhunters fusion including the breakbeat intro of ‘Country Fried Chicken’ to the 10-minute journey that is ‘Sweet Ray’. The Rhodes driven ‘Famous Last Words’ is the most jazz-based track of this album, but I would state that this album is probably my least favourite, but that’s like having a least favourite Leroy Hutson album.

Furthermore with each of the CD and vinyl versions, all albums are presented as double releases, with Fancy Pants and Free As You Wanna Be having both stereo and mono versions presented. Energy Control Center’s second disc includes additional or alternate tracks as well as four tracks by Thomas Meloncon, a one time member of The Lightmen who released two singles on Judnell, the original label for the first two albums. And finally, Country Fried Chicken also contains some bonus tracks including alternative versions and non-album releases.

In reality, many jazz groups on tiny labels in the 1970s only had very brief recording careers, maybe releasing one or two albums within their catalogue. Remarkably, Bubbha Thomas recorded four complete albums, a best of compilation and seven singles, including quite a nice boogie 45 in 1980, which is also included, which highlights his sheer single-mindedness and determination to release music that he believed in. And it’s here that Now-Again have to be acknowledged for bringing these rare pieces to a wider audiences especially considering how well they have been presented.

There are so many tracks included within the box set that it’s initially easy to miss many of its highlights and it demands a certain amount of time to fully absorb the large track count and its various nuances. But it’s worth noting that each of the four original albums have been issued separately on double vinyl and CD editions and with the bonus material included. You could argue that reissues of this nature are also investment pieces, with the four original albums alone fetching well over £1000 on the second hand market and even these reissues won’t be around forever and will increase in value. But that’s being very cynical as this is, first and foremost, just great music.

Damian Wilkes

Various ‘Spiritual Jazz 9: Blue Notes Parts 1 & 2’ 2x2LP/2CD (Jazzman) 5/5

With this eagerly anticipated volume in the ongoing series, one immediate question needs to be posed: where does the legendary Blue Note label fit into the spiritual jazz paradigm? When one might have expected a possible decline in the content of the independent label with its mid-1960s sale to conglomerate Liberty, in actual fact some of the most challenging music it put out was coming to the fore and those Reid Miles cover designs were still outstanding and stand the test of time remarkably well. This compilation focuses attention more specifically on the period 1964-1966 from which the majority of tracks derive, though earlier and later examples can be found. Of the numerous highlights worth outlining here, the name of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson crops up frequently as does that of tenorist Joe Henderson. Both are featured on the magnificent opener, ‘Verse’, from a 1966 album by Hutcherson, ‘Stick Up’, that needs to be heard in its entirety and with a line-up that includes McCoy Tyner on piano and Billy Higgins on drums. This follows on from the similarly minded ‘Mode for Joe’ (1966) album, when the leadership duties were reversed into the hands of Joe Henderson. While that recording is not illustrated on this anthology, another from that era is in ‘Inner Urge’ (1965), and from that the energetic, Latin-themed ‘El Barrio’ is selected and the mighty powerful rhythm is propelled by Elvin Jones no less.

Indeed, as a sideman, the tenorist participated in one of the great mid-1960s albums by drummer Pete La Roca, namely ‘Basra’ (1965). From that stunning recording, which includes the piano of Steve Kuhn and bassist Steve Swallow come two supreme examples of spiritually-tinged jazz in the title track and the Spanish-flavoured ‘Malaguena’, formerly heard on a Latin Jazz percussion album by Jack Costanzo, but which here has been slowed down into a smoldering slice of post-bop. Searching out to distant lands in order to draw inspiration is a common theme elsewhere with Wayne Shorter’s lesser known offering, ‘Indian Song’, and a classy quartet comprising Herbie Hancock on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Joe Chambers on drums. That feeling is reinforced by a second and more familiar Shorter original, ‘Footprints’ from the ‘Adam’s Apple’ (1966) album, a piece which he recorded also as part of the Miles Davis Quintet.

Pianists feature prominently and the name of Duke Pearson is one of the most worthy contenders for inclusion. Of all the albums Person recorded for Blue Note, ‘The Phantom’ (1968), is one of the most unusual, beguiling, and the impressionistic of his entire career. The album cover alone hints at an exotic forest and the use of percussion blends in perfectly with the imagery and the combination of piano and vibes (courtesy once again of Bobby Hutcherson) makes the title track sound like nothing else you have heard previously. More in keeping with the interest in progressive big band jazz that Duke Pearson had, ‘Empathy’ from the album ‘Sweet Honey Bee’ (1966) features an extended brass section with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, James Spaulding on alto saxophone and yet again Joe Henderson on tenor. That larger ensemble setting works equally on a lovely mid-1960s Hank Mobley outing, ‘The Morning After’ from the memorable ‘Caddy for Daddy’ album (1966). In a different vein, Duke Pearson adopts electric piano for a Donald Byrd composition with a strong spiritual theme, ‘Cristo Redentor’ which was an early example of Brazilian ex-patriot, percussionist Airto Moreira, on a recording with American musicians. Andrew Hill gets a look in on the unreleased, ‘Poinsetta’ (1968), that is notable for the use of strings, and Bennie Maupin alternating between flute and tenor saxophone. Another piece by Hill, not included here, but worth investigating is ‘Fish ‘n’ Rice’ from a Liberty album, ‘Dance With Death’ (1968), or piano plus voices on ‘Lift Every Voice’ (1969). Indeed, so unique is the work of Andrew Hill that an anthology of his Blue Note work would be welcomed.

Elsewhere, we find an album that personifies the spiritual approach to music in Freddie Hubbard’s 1965 recording, ‘Blue Spirit’. Hubbard is quoted on the back cover as stating that “Recording the album was a spiritual experience”, and that is backed up by a hefty line-up of musicians including a four-pronged brass ensemble that features Hank Mobley, James Spaulding and Kiane Zawadi on euphonium, with Pete La Roca taking care of drumming duties. Altoist Jackie McLean was present on some of the more avant-garde albums that Blue Note put out in the second half of the decade, and thus choosing a single item was no easy task and, ‘It’s Time’ featuring Tolliver, Herbie Hancock and Roy Haynes is another fine example. From the ‘Action’ (1964) LP, ‘Flight’ impresses with a line-up that includes an early example of trumpeter Tolliver, with no piano, but the vibraphone of Hutcherson and Cecil McBee and Billy Higgins part of the rhythm section, For those in search of wider modal pleasures, be sure to check out the wonderful tweleve and a half minute, ‘On the Nile’ composed by and featuring Tolliver from the McLean album, ‘Jacknife’, that covers two sessions from 1965 and 1966, but went unreleased until 1975 and has since been re-issued.

One could quibble with some of the pieces not selected, such as ‘African Village’ or ‘Little Madimba’ from ‘Time For Tyner’ (1968), another stellar pairing of McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson. Then again, there is the alternative version to ‘My Favourite Things’ from a 1964 Grant Green quartet date ‘Matador’ (1964) that features both McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, both integral members of the John Coltrane interpretation. In fact, the Middle Eastern flavoured ‘Bedouin’ on the same album is almost as good, but listeners can readily find such examples on CD and increasingly on vinyl re-issues. Entries from Eric Gale and Solomon Ilori widen the repertoire to incorporate African-American musical innovations and an interest in African culture.

Interestingly, while John Coltrane the tenor saxophonist is not included here (his few recordings on Blue Note date from before his modal and exploratory work for the Impulse label), his towering influence on so many jazz musicians is alluded to on a piece that this writer had not heard before. ‘Searchin’ the ‘Trane’, which is the second of the Bobby Hutcherson recordings under his own name and dates from 1976. As in keeping with other volumes in the series, in-depth and exemplary sleeve notes, with album covers graphically illustrated. A most worthy successor to the preceding volumes.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also:
Various ‘Spiritual Jazz 8: Japan Pt 1+2’ 2x2LP/2CD (Jazzman) 5/5
Various ‘Spiritual Jazz vol. 6 – Vocals’ 2LP/CD (Jazzman) 5/5
Various ‘Spiritual Jazz Vol. 5’ LP/CD (Jazzman) 5/5
Various ‘Spiritual Jazz Vol. 4’ 3LP/2CD (Jazzman) 5/5
Various ‘Spiritual Jazz 3’ (Jazzman) 4/5

Joe Lovano ‘Trio Tapestry’ LP/CD (ECM) 3/5

Celebrating its fiftieth year in existence, ECM turns to tenorist Joe Lovano who records his first album for the label as a leader after spending a happy and lengthy tenure at Blue Note, with whom he remained for some twenty-five years or more. If the evocative front cover with Lovano underneath one of New York’s fine bridges and with the Manhattan skyline in the background, hints at a homage to Sonny Rollins in the 1960s, the trio sound is more contemporary, with word beats in the percussion of the youthful Carmen Castaldi who impresses throughout while Marilyn Crispell is an unusual piano partner.

This partnership does not have the melodic pizzazz of say Hank Jones and Lovano, either in a live setting, or in the studio, and, in truth, the all original Lovano pieces are not all that memorable. That said, the album is notable for the use of space between notes. That can be heard on ‘Sparkle Light’, which has something of an impressionistic quality to it. A spiritual quality permeates ‘One Time Is’, where Lovano’s tenor sounds as if it has been processed through a tunnel to create echo and more particularly on, ‘Mystic’, where the leader develops his continuing passion for the tarogato, a Hungarian reed instrument. The partnership between Crispell and Lovano works best when they are perform in tandem from the outset, as is the case on ‘Seeds Of Change’.

Mention must be made of the fine contribution of Carmen Castaldi, who deploys an array of ethnic percussive instruments including the Chinese gong on occasion. A future duo album beckons surely because there is a natural empathy between drummer and saxophonist, as evidenced on their duet from the outset on, ‘Rare beauty’, and even evoking the Coltrane/Elvin Jones partnership on ‘Spirit Lake’. In contrast, Crispell offers a relaxing classic style on a piece such as, ‘Terrassa’, where the tenor gradually weaves its way in and the number becomes ever more abstract in tone. Interestingly, this is one of the few compositions where all three instrumentalists operate together and that is something missing from the rest. In fact, typical of the album is, ‘Razzle Dazzle’, where the piano dominates and on a number that is just over three and a half minutes, the tenor does not enter before the two minute mark. The album ends on a lyrical note with ‘The Smiling Dog’. Not quite the fireworks one might have expected with this line-up, but in spite of that reservation, the presence of Joe Lovano on ECM, where in the past he has often figured as a guest sideman, is nonetheless a welcome addition to the portfolio.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also:
Joe Lovano Us Five ‘Cross Culture’ (Blue Note) 4/5
Joe Lovano US Five ‘Bird Songs’ (Blue Note) 5/5
Joe Lovano ‘Folk Art’ (Blue Note) 4/5

The Staple Singers ‘The First Family of Gospel 1953-1961’ (Jasmine) 5/5

If the wonderful SoulMusic records’ box set of the complete Epic recordings of the Staples Singers whetted your appetite, then this single CD compilation takes a step backwards in time and covers the period between 1953 and 1961 when the group were gaining a national reputation for the excellence of their singles. Pared down blues and gospel is what the Staples offer up and even with sometimes just piano and/or guitar to accompany, those distinctive vocal harmonies are already in place. That is the case of ‘Won’t You Sit Down’, which opens out into a piano-led number. With twenty-six songs in total, a variety of labels come to the fore, with Gospel, Sharp, United and Veejay all prominent and discerning promoters of 1950s gospel music at that, frequently labels created from the Chicago stable. What impresses with this pre-Riverside and Epic era of Staples Singers songs, is the extent to which the lyrics are embellished by the sound of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples’ blues guitar, often beefed up by period produced echo. That makes the overall sound on songs such as ‘If I Could Hear My Mother’ and ‘Uncloudy Day’, all the more appealing.

While the espousal of Civil Rights issues was still around the corner, the message behind many of the songs is all-encompassing such as the welcoming hues of ‘It Rained Children’. Of the standards revisited, ‘Swing Low’ is heard in two separate renditions, with the Gospel label take adopting a slower tempo that enables the blues to have a far great input. That said, on the 1958 Vee-Jay interpretation, the guitar playing of Roebuck is more prominent, and in some ways more impassioned. Both versions, then, have their individual merits. Elsewhere, it is the throaty female vocals of Clovis and Mavis that lend an exceptional hand to ‘Love Is The Way’. This is a priceless set of sings and great value at just under eighty minutes. A fine way to complete your Staple Singers essentials of the later years.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also:
The Staple Singers ‘For What It’s Worth: The Complete Epic Recordings 1964-1968’ 3CD (SoulMusic) 5/5

Infinite Spirit Music ‘Live Without Fear’ 2LP/CD (Jazzman) 4/5

“Creative musicians should not consider themselves entertainers. Their purpose is to enlighten – themselves first and then the audience.” That’s how Muhal Richard Abrams stated the essential truth in the AACM manifesto. This ethos has been clearly articulated by its many awe-inspiring members; from the Art Ensemble to Anthony Braxton to Phil Cohran to Henry Threadgill to etc.

As AACM members themselves, I had an expectation of this 1979 recording by Chicago’s Infinite Spirit Music to be proudly uncommercial, seriously uncompromising, with an out there, spiritual, African influence. So, I planned to give it a quick blast to prove I was right and then wait until I was more ‘in the mood’ (and until my free-jazz-fearing family were out of the house!) to give it a focused full play.

As it turns out, the out there onslaught I was expecting never came; “Live Without Fear” is a gentle, soulful, peaceful flow of feel good and optimism.

In “Children’s Song” a Soji Adebayo rhodes twinkles and massages, Light Henry Huffs ascendant sax soothes and strokes while Ka l’ella Alou’s (?) smoky, celestial voice seeks ascendance. Divine, fluid, relaxed and respectful it feels like a coasting Lonnie Liston trustfully taking his foot off the gas.

“Ritual” and “Father Spirit, Mother Love” are African voice and percussion prayers; calling for love, wisdom and strength to proceed and grow. They’re both led in the devotional by Kahil El Zabar, creating a voice of strength, tension and uplift.

If you want some percussionfest rhythm fire then “Bright Tune” is your spin. Following a deep Huffs walkabout the layers of conga, whistles, ticks n tocks n shaky stuff deliver an extensive, revitalising, hypnotic space that eventually gets rudely interrupted by some gleeful, expressive Rhodes runs and glides. It’s fusion-time in Evanston!

“Rasta” has many parts and wears its Caribbean influence interestingly. The first 2 minutes are metronomic and electronic music-aware; then Soji stabs us into dub-lite while Huff lyrically floats and soothes again. Always sparse, it breaks down into a conversational bass solo before Soji takes us on a soulful, peaceful ramble.

Title track, “Live Without Fear”, kicks off in the vein I expected from this album. Huff’s wasp sax excites, lifts & stings, but only briefly, before the soulful spirituality takes over again; this time in the elevating vocal/sax/piano spoken mantra of “Live Without Fear”. We are then blessed with Soji’s explosion of warmth before the Infinite Spirit Music percussive troupe dances away into the distance finally, and sincerely, wishing upon us a life without fear.

Soji Adebayo remembers of the album “I recorded Live Without Fear on May 31, 1979 with some of my friends. We drove up into Evanston from Chicago in three cars on a day that smelled good and spoke all day sunshine…to Live Without Fear means to live in material reality with faith… Peace on you!”

That pretty much sums it up; warm, soulful, spiritual sunshine that smells real good, wishes Peace upon you and, true to the AACM manifesto; it enlightens.

Ian Ward