The city of Chicago was an important theatre in which independent jazz musicians were able to establish a base and flourish, yet these same musicians and their own labels were largely ignored by the mainstream American jazz press, and it is only through the praiseworthy efforts of connoisseur crate diggers that the music has finally come to a wider audience, and BBE have played their own part in unearthing hitherto undiscovered gems. In the Windy City, the music of Phil Cohran and off-shoots has been well documented – as have the wonderful spiritual sounds emanating from Detroit. Think Harold McKinney and others – in recent years and indeed his spiritual approach to jazz was influential on other musicians including multi-reedist, Ralph Thomas. Never previously re-issued, the album before you is a rare example of Thomas’ work and includes musicians from two separate locations: French musicians comprising electric guitarist Thierry Sharfe, flautist Joann Leauvanthal and drummer, Joël Vierset; musicians from the Horace Tapscott band in Los Angeles including percussionist Warren Thomas, a member of the group, Afro Roots of Jazz.
Of note is the very title of the album, taken from a well known Jamaican jazz piece by the Skatalites. Thomas grew up in a largely African-American neighbourhood of Los Angeles, but one in which a substantial Latino community was in close proximity and these included Mexican and Puerto Ricans as well as nationals from the Dominican Republic. As a result, Thomas was strongly influenced by Latin rhythms and made connections between these and the Afro-American tradition. In fact, Thomas even worked with Joe Colon at one stage.
What of the music then? Blues inflections on piano dominate the intro to ‘Doloroso’, which then morphs into a heavy bass line and piano vamp, before Thomas takes over with an impassioned soprano saxophone solo, while the jazz-fusion guitar soloing is straight out of the Al Di Meola school. A real favourite is the big band feel to another piece inspired by the Skatalites, ‘Big Spliff’, in which Thomas this time operates on flute with partner Leauvanthal making that a duet and together the driving pace is matched by the gorgeous electric piano that owes a large degree of gratitude to Jorge Dalto, the Argentine groove pianist who worked with both George Benson (‘Breezin’) and a key member of the crack pared down Tito Puente outfit, the Latin Jazz Ensemble. Here Ralph Thomas demonstrates what a versatile musician he is by reverting to baritone saxophone in the second half. Flute and electric piano combine on a beautiful, but all too brief duet on the cinematic sounding ‘Venice’, whilst film imagery continues with the lengthy, repetitive bass soloing on ‘Spellbound’ (a nod to the famous Hitchcock thriller perhaps?), where the fierce tenor solo is accompanied by in parts dissonant, and elsewhere modal, piano. Of any of the pieces showcased on the album, ‘Muscavado’, is by far the one that has the strongest Latin music influence and that is evident from the outset with the pronounced Latin vamp on piano, with clipped rhythm guitar and tenor saxophone centre stage. Arguably, the most compelling piece on the entire album.
Exemplary notes on individual musician trajectories, Thomas’ background, influences and post-album activities up until the present are provided by former Straight No Chaser editor and writer, Paul Bradshaw. They are supplemented by the lovely black and white graphics of the original album replicated with an imposing silhouette of the inner city district skyline. A lot of love and dedication has gone into this re-issue project and listeners should approach the album with confidence and discover a fine example of the spiritual jazz underground movement. How many other marvellous recordings of this ilk and genre are out there? More reason to tap into the BBE current and back catalogue of jazz sounds.