Various ‘Nicola Conte presents Cosmic Forest: The Spiritual Sounds of MPS’ 2LP/CD/DIG (MPS) 4/5

Whoever is in charge of the reissue programme at MPS has made some pretty odd decisions recently. Not sure many people are after Oscar Peterson and Singers Unlimited represses at £25.00 a throw. However, one thing they do get right is the compilations. The latest curated by DJ and producer Nicola Conte is pretty much spot on with plenty of hard to find tunes alongside a few that you will probably have heard before from the SABA and MPS vaults.

The Spiritual Jazz connection is a bit over-played at times, particularly on a record that includes the Fender led fusion funk of Michael Naura’s ‘Soledad De Murcia’ and Smoke’s ‘Shelda’. Peter Herbolzheimer’s ‘Timbales Calientes’ is a Latin Big Band Monster and The Third Wave’s cover of ‘Maiden Voyage’, lovely though it is, is much more Manhattan Transfer than The Arkestra.

A minor issue, as this record really shows off what exciting, risk taking, innovative labels SABA and MPS were. The album covers the period from 1965-1975, when many American musicians were struggling to get gigs back home and had to move to Europe to make a living. Many came to Germany and to Villingen-Schwenningen, a village deep in the Black Forest, and recorded for SABA, the label that preceded MPS. Saxophonist Nathan Davis made two beautiful records there in the mid-sixties. ‘Evolution’, from his SABA debut ‘Happy Girl’, is deep, very deep, post-bop. A wonderful Trane like introduction evolves into a meditative blues waltz with perfectly pitched solos from a very young Woody Shaw and Larry Young on Piano. The Dexter Gordon and Slide Hampton ‘A Day in Vienna’, is a real swinger, a hard bopper with a Latin pulse with an all-star band including Kenny Drew, Dizzy Reece and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Dave Pike’s psychedelic, sitar heavy ‘Raga Jeeva Swara’, is a dance floor favourite and one of the many tracks featured here that shows that SABA/MPS were way ahead of the curve on the outer national, world music tip and this is where the record gets Spiritual.

Dewan Motihar’s ‘Yaad’ is a wonderful, peaceful work of modal simplicity very similar to the Indo-Jazz Fusion records that were recorded around the same time. Another American, Billy Brooks, arrived in Europe in 1964. In 1971 he recorded the mighty percussion heavy, ‘El Babaku’, the title track features here, a mournful, drone like, call and response to the ancient gods of West Africa and Cuba. Swiss pianist, George Gruntz, takes thing a little further North. ‘Djerbi’, from the 1967 record ‘Noon in Tunisia’ features Sahib Shihab and Jean-Luc Ponty, but it’s the lesser known African Bendir and Dabuka drum ensemble and Salah El Mahdi’s Ney Flute that make this special, as much rooted in Sufi tradition as it is to jazz.

Trumpet player Marvin Hannibal Peterson recorded one MPS LP, ‘Hannibal’, with the Sunrise Orchestra in 1975 and ‘Revelation’ a joyful up-tempo instrumental is included here. It’s good but not the best or most spiritual tune on the record. Maybe Nicola ran out of space or is saving the epic ‘Soul Brother’, Hannibal’s tribute to Malcolm X for volume two?

Then finally the two tracks that raise this compilation way into the stratosphere; ‘Burungkaka Tua’ is from Tony Scott’s 1967 masterpiece ‘Djanger Bali’. Clarinettist Scott had travelled to the near and far east throughout the early sixties. His Zen and Yoga meditation records for Verve were early examples of ambient and new age music. By 1964 he had travelled all over Indonesia and arrived in Germany full of praise for the native jazz musicians Jack Lesmana, Bubi Chen, Jopie Chen, Marjono and Benny Mustapha. Three years later the ‘Indonesian All-Stars’ were invited to play at the JazzFest Berlin and recorded this epic record with Scott. ‘Burungkaka Tua’ is perfect. It is beautiful, moving, spiritual and modal and based on a traditional Indonesian Folk Tune. Bubi Chen’s piano and Marjono’s flute create a gentle, other-worldly intensity that will leave you spellbound.

‘Never Let It End’ is an intense ten-minute improvisation driven by Gunter Lenz’s bass and Ralf Hubner’s drums. It’s the freest, but by no means out-there, tune on the compilation. Leader Albert Mangelsdorff’s trombone and Heinz Sauer’s saxes keep it simmering, but just as it’s about to boil over it stops dead, leaving you wanting much more – just like this record.

A fantastic compilation, but please, MPS be brave and reissue these amazing and little heard records in their entirety.

Nick Schlittner