Considered by some as one of the holy grails of 1970s jazz, this album, originally on the Buddah label, is most definitely one of the lesser known and harder to find albums by drummer Norman Connors, whose jazz output is better known with recordings such as the debut as a leader, ‘Dance of Magic’ (Cobblestone, 1973) and in the same year, ‘Dark of Light’ (Buddah, 1973). While recent anthologies have focused more attention on his work with soul singers, Connors was at heart a jazz musician, albeit one with the open-minded attitude and commercial nous to realise that collaborating with soul musicians would do his career no harm at all. In the early 1970s, Connors was gaining invaluable experience working with one of the spiritual prince of the jazz scene in Pharoah Sanders. Indeed, the drummer is to be found on both of the Impulse albums that Sanders recorded in 1973, the wonderful ‘Live at the East Village’, and in the studio, ‘Village of the Pharoahs’. On this outstanding re-issue album in pristine 180g vinyl and with the original cover sleeve, that also dates from 1973, Norman Connors displayed for the very first time his ability to showcase a new vocal talent in a jazz milieu, in this case, the immensely talented voice of Dee Dee Bridgewater. It was a skill that he would repeat on his later 1970s albums with the likes of Jean Carne, Phyllis Hyman as well as soulful singers of the calibre of Michael Henderson, Glenn Jones and not forgetting the Jones Girls. On this occasion, however, Connors was surrounded by the who’s who of jazz musicians at a time when the more experimental and spiritual side of independent jazz labels was being promoted at grass roots level (i.e. other than on the majors) and his considerable sidemen duties meant that he had an impressive roster of musical friends from which to select. Keyboardist and leader in his own right, Herbie Hancock, thus shares multi-layered keyboard duties with Onaje Allan Gumbs, while bassist Buster Williams and percussionists Kenneth Nash and Bill Summers complete the extended the rhythm section. Williams and Summers were in fact regular contributors to the recordings of Hancock, the former in his more straight ahead jazz albums, while Summers was an integral member of the seminal Headhunters jazz-funk band. Eddie Henderson was one of the key figures of 1970s jazz and operates here on cornet, flugelhorn and trumpet, while Carlos Garnett was omnipresent as a leader for the Muse label (and his own albums as a leader have rightly been re-issued) and here he performs on both soprano and tenor saxophones. For a touch of subtlety in the use of layered textures, flautist Hubert Laws and violinist and cellist Nathan Rubin and Terry Adams were called upon to help create a more orchestral sound, and this is a technique that McCoy Tyner deployed at the time on his groundbreaking Milestone albums and was truly pioneering at the time. It is equally, and revealingly, a sound that now in 2018 is being revisited once more by Kamasi Washington. Rounding off the extended band formation was the then young and debutant vocalist, Dee Dee Bridgewater, with soul musician Skip Drinkwater producing the album. The music is uncompromising and, since several of the musicians were themselves leaders making their way, Connors wisely facilitated their own compositions to be aired, though he did offer up a slice of pan-Afro-Latin grooves on, ‘Drums Around the World’. in the 1950s jazz drummers such as Art Blakey and Max Roach became interested in exploring how the communicative sound of the drum was translated in both African and Latin rhythms, and Connors as a creative and curious musician, was no different in seeking answers to some fundamental musical questions.
This writer had not previously heard the Hancock piece that opens up the album in, ‘Revelation’, which is an impressive number with wordless vocals from Bridgewater who excels throughout and regularly takes centre stage. A real highlight is the title track sung by Dee Dee Bridgewater, and it is no coincidence that she was just about to unleash her own debut as a leader the following year in Japan which would include her stunning take on, ‘Afro Blue’. That is richly deserving of a re-issue on vinyl since, originally, it only came out in Asia and is now highly prized, and even the Japanese CD re-issue is hard to find. If uptempo virtuosity is your nirvana, then satisfaction is likely to be guaranteed on ‘Kumakucha ‘(the sun has risen’) with a rapid piano solo from Hancock, propelled by a dazzling collective of rhythm section and percussion. Another element of the album to savour is the participation of Carlos Garnett who delivers some stunning solos, as illustrated on his own ‘Carlos II’ and on the final opus, ‘Holy Waters’, when he enjoys a fruitful duet with Bridgewater.
Norman Connors would branch out into more soulful territory as the 1970s unfolded and become better known as a producer of others and even as soloist he would veer away from harder edged jazz to distinctly smoother tones, but before he did, he made one last attempt at a more spiritual shade of jazz on the 1978 Arista album, ‘Love Will Find a Way’, where his former Impulse leader, Pharoah Sanders, was now featured as guest saxophonist.