Born in New York in 1934, Brother Ah (or Robert Northern) originally played trumpet before studying classical French horn at Austria’s prestigious Vienna State Academy. On his return to the US, he became a working musician for many decades, which included membership to Sun Ra’s Arkestra and sideman to many luminaries such as Miles, Monk, Gillespie and Coltrane.
Brother Ah also sporadically released his own material, and although he was never prolific, he crafted some now very collectible titles that are now being repressed and released on Brooklyn-based reissue label, Manufactured Recordings. And it’s here we have ‘Key to Nowhere’, a spiritual jazz/folk album that infuses African and Asian sounds, themes and ideas, but still within a jazz framework.
Originally released in 1983 with a cover that looks like a new age album sleeve designed for yoga enthusiasts, and at a time when we were all listening to Dayton, Mtume and Sharon Redd, this must have seemed like a very strange record when it came out in the mid 1980s. But the set is full of absorbing passages and excellent musicianship from Brother Ah on flute, French horn and harmonica and other musicians playing harp, guitar and other string and percussion instruments.
Three vocal tracks are also offered on ‘Motherless Child’, ‘Key to Nowhere’ and ‘Nature’s Blues’, performed exquisitely by Nataska Hasan Yousssef, a total mystery to myself. The widely recorded traditional spiritual, ‘Motherless Child’, is captivating with its contemplative lyrics and lush phrasing. Nature’s Blues’ with its blues shuffle feel and heartfelt lyrics calls for a better understanding of the natural world and includes a few animal noises from Natasha! And the harp heavy ‘Key to Nowhere’ does invoke thoughts of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby – which is not a bad thing. And jazz dancer ‘Celebration’ could have been a jazz room classic or a Dingwalls favourite – if anyone would have known the album at the time.
The album does have a slightly new age quality, with its cosmic poetry, jazzy harp and Asian percussion, but it is somewhat of a lost masterpiece and is very accessible and can be enjoyed by many, and not just collectors like myself searching for more obscure or unknown pieces. The yoga community will also appreciate the album!
Brother Ah went on to a long career of teaching and to host a long running radio show on WPFW 89.3 FM, a Washington D.C. based jazz radio station. But here we can experience a long forgotten album by a prolific jazz musician, but this time on his own terms. Manufactured Recordings are also releasing his other albums, so it will be interesting to hear the rest of Brother Ah’s catalogue.