Babatunde and Phenomena ‘Levels Of Consciousness’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 5/5

The now 73-year-old American percussionist, Michael ‘Babatunde’ Lea, whose inclusion to the Oneness Of Juju hall of fame, is joined on this late-1979 release by famed trombonist Julian Priester (Sun Ra, Max Roach, Buddy Rich), trumpeter Eddie Henderson (Norman Connors, Herbie Hancock, Charles Earland), trumpeter Forrest Buchtel (Malo, Coke Escovedo, Woody Herman) and trumpeter/synthesist Mark Isham (Charles Lloyd, Taj Mahal, Dave Liebman) together with newcomers of the time, Hiroyuki Shido on electric bass, Marvin Boxley on electric guitar, Cedric DéonBi on lead vocals, Duane Roberson on keys, William Murphy on tenor saxophone and flute, Russell Baba and Martin Fiero on alto saxophones and Jose Najera with congas and additional percussion. A San Francisco-based band of outstanding musicianship and the only gathering under the ‘Phenomena’ umbrella recorded in the Sausalito, California studios for Theresa Records.

Independent label, Theresa, founded in 1976, had been making waves with Joe Bonner, Rufus Read and Idris Muhammed when they held a talent festival gathered for four nights in December of 1979 with Pharaoh Sanders and band (Pharaoh jumping over from Impulse due to musical differences with Norman Connors), David Hardiman, Ed Kelly Ensemble, Bishop Norman Williams and the One Mind Experience plus Babatunde and Phenomena at the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach. As was very much a corporate decision of the times, the pre-Christmas release would serve to hinder sales as it couldn’t break through the ‘crossover’ jazz and disco atmosphere – remember, 1979 was the year disco peaked! Critics and radio stations weren’t picking up on the release and thus the album didn’t break the top 40 jazz charts where the likes of Bob James, Pat Metheny Group and Angela Bofill resided. Record sales, in general, were slowing down and many retailers were unwilling to order stock from new acts and less willing to choose styles other than crossover jazz. This release must have been the first for Theresa’s newly appointed national promotion director, Michael Handler, who had jumped ship as musical director for KLCC-FM in August of 1979. A bad start for a new job? Or did it have more to do with the ears of the public latching on to Herb Alpert, who could do no wrong…

Lea, inspired by drummer Babatunde Olatunji at a young age, adopted the ‘Babatunde’ name and used his weapons of choice; drums, timbales and congas to deliver his self-penned, jazz-funk title track and ‘Plea From The Soul’, with band member Duane “Muziki” Roberson writing ‘Thailand Stick’ and ‘Merely A Suggestion’, Marvin Boxley penned ‘Thang (And I Love It)’ and ‘It’s That Simple’ and Russell Baba’s composition ‘Use Your Hands (A Message To The Children)’. Theresa owner, Allen Pittman, joins members of the band and Phil Crescenzo for the necessary production duties throughout. For the uninitiated, take yourselves to ‘Thailand Stick’ first, before the saxophone delight ‘Merely A Suggestion’ and on to ‘It’s That Simple’, where William Murphy’s flute solo shines brightest, and then go pick up this 180g reissue at half the price of an original. There are no fillers here folks – just killers!

This release highlights the Bay Area music growth as the new turbulent ’80s decade opened and although its reception may have been more disillusionment than praise, it has gone on to be a classic. The ’90s, when the thirst for such soul, funk and jazz mixtures was high, gave the album’s opportunity a new lease of life. Collectors, pirate radio, clubs and record fairs were the norm and ‘Levels Of Consciousness’ was on many a wants list. A larger than life release and one of the collectors’ go-to albums on the Theresa label. Having only seen a CD release back in 2003, this timely reissue comes as a relief to the exhausted availability for the original.

In recent years Lea has taught at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania and performed alongside Dwight Trible, Ernie Watts and Patrice Rushen. Let’s hope then that Lea, and his students, feel the warmth of the record-buying world as we find solace in this crisp remastered vinyl reissue.

Steve Williams