Griot Galaxy “Kins” LP-RSD (Third Man) 5/5

Gotta love Record Store Day when it enables the sort of joy that is, say, getting your avant-garde aural mitts on a copy of the rare, essential, Detroit art explorer’s, Griot Galaxy’s 1981 release, “Kins”.

For the unacquainted, let me introduce Griot Galaxy. They were founded in 1972, led by saxophonist and poet Faruq Z. Bey, with drummer Tariq Samad (Tani Tabbal on this recording), bassist Jaribu Shahid, and further saxophonists Anthony Holland and David McMurray. Their first recorded appearance is often cited as being part of Phil Ranelin’s “Vibes from the Tribe”. As well as Tribe(!), the group had various music-family links with the powers of political, philosophical, spiritual free jazz: Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell-founded Creative Arts Collective (Detroit’s answer to the AACM). They even painted their faces griot-style as did the Art Ensemble. So, we know what to expect, then. Well, kinda.

“Xy-Moch” kicks things off with some unlikely, uplifting, frolicsome, whimsy; it drops its cod-military shuffle as soon as Shahid’s popping, synth-like, space bass arrives, morphing it into a driving fuzz as the saxes (and McMurray’s flute) mischievously dart around them. Something of a better-behaved, less overtly funky, Eddie Harris about it, somehow.

The Tabbal-penned “Zychron” (shout out to Saturday Night Live’s “Coneheads”) offers many things; a playful, pivoting, layered motif from the east; a short funeral march wail; some bow-led energy from Shahid; finger-clicking cool from Shahid and Tammal; post-bop sax meanderings; and a lengthy, spiritual free jazz atmospheric expedition. It could be several different bands from different times.

“Zenelog Aintro” is the main reason I said “well, kinda” earlier; it’s not the polyrhythmic, smart arse timings and free expression we expected. It’s tight, angular dancing, wah-bass, art funk. More underground jazz Pigbag or art school Fishbone than oozing Camembert. It’s rollicking fun though. And I do love a six-handed sax attack.

Shahid’s “Androgeny” is an absolute gem. Get on YouTube and see their 1984 Metro Times Music Awards’ performance to understand Griot at their forceful best; maaaan, I would love to have seen them live. It starts as “Zychron” ended but then chooses to kick-off some well-loved Sun Ra riffing in a well-loved musical mantra space. Cosmos theatre erupts with the rhythm section going off on one while the saxes explore and probe. Afrofutristic drama.

Title track, “Kins”, gradually morphs into a bluesy, plodding, sighing, maladroit thing. Lumbering bass and lazy, layered, moaning sax drag it along with an extraordinary apathy. Over 6 minutes of beautiful melancholia still isn’t enough beautiful melancholia sometimes.

“Xy-Moch theme” borrows the motif from the opening track. A quick reminder, before bye-byes, of Griot’s harmonic, wah-bass jazz art funk; joyously getting free-er as it gradually departs into the deep Detroit underground cosmos.

OK, I’m bound to be a wee bit partisan here. The connections at play (Tribe, Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman (oh, yes), Johnny Hallyday(!) etc) would typically ensure a happy listening experience for me. Plus there’s that 3 sax attack. And I think that’s when I’m most in love with this album; when the sax build a harmonically layered motif, the rhythm section push it and then various voices go off on one for a bit before returning back to base. However, what makes this album unique is that Griot do that perfectly but then have a titillating urge to get all tight and art spacefunk on us. It’s Unique. It’s Special. And, maaan, I would have loved to have seen that live; griot and all.

Ian Ward