Various ‘Spiritual Jazz 11: SteepleChase’ 2LP/CD (Jazzman) 5/5

What better way to kick off a spiritual jazz album than with an ode to the patroness of musicians, Saint Cecilia. First heard on the CD reissue of her 1975 album, Free Spirits, the Mary Lou Williams Trio, consisting of on bass Buster Williams, who celebrates his 78th birthday this month, and Mickey Roker on drums, was her only release for the Danish SteepleChase label, operating out of Copenhagen under the watchful eye of founder, producer, photographer Nils Winther, who began recording performances at Jazzhus Montmartre as far back as 1972 (the club had been recording artists like Dexter Gordon from 1962, a physical release on the SteepleChase label in 1978), with his first release that of Jackie McLean, who subsequently recorded a little over ten albums for the label. Here on ‘Ode To Saint Cecilia’, the bass line from Buster Williams – at a time when Buster was with the New York label, Muse – draws the listener into the funkiest of riffs, and one capitalised by FARS on their track ‘Flying Minds’. A delightful piece of music clearing the way for ten more worthy selections.

There are two distinct points to be made as we savour this eleventh release in this series from London’s Jazzman label; firstly the relative ease at which the original albums could be obtained. This is a wonderfully curated collection that has focused on the quality of the music, and apart from perhaps the Johnny Dyani and Billy Gault releases hovering around the £40 mark these days, everything here could be picked up cheaply. That says far more about the passion behind this, the latest in the series, than some of its predecessors. The second note of importance here is the focus on drummer Michael Carvin, who features on four of the tracks. In 1975 Carvin had already been working with Black Jazz records and went on to work for MPS, Flying Dutchman (notably Expansions with Lonnie Liston Smith), RCA Victor, Impulse! and Strata-East through the mid-late ‘70s, and of course his work with SteepleChase. There was also a stint as a session drummer for (Berry) Gordy/Motown. Michael, quoted as having a “crisp, pressing cymbal, which animates the beat” more recently has worked alongside Marcus Strickland and Dezron Douglas.

Billy Gault’s ‘The Time Of This World Is At Hand’, René McLean Sextet’s ‘Aida’, Jackie McLean and Michael Carvin’s ‘De I Comahlee Ah’, Michael Carvin’s ‘Naima’ and Jackie McLean and The Cosmic Brotherhood’s ‘Camel Driver’ all hit the shelves in 1975, a time when Elaine Brown chaired the Black Panther Party. Gault’s charming vocal provides a platform for singer Ellen DeLeston, who had been working with Norman Connors, to shine. A firm favourite by this writer that will surely now reach new ears. René McLean (son of Jackie McLean and member of Woody Shaw, Doug Carn, Yusef Lateef and Walter Bishop Jr. groups) had but three releases under his own name, with Watch Out being his first. Here he delivers ‘Aida’, with assistance from Buster Williams on bass that overwhelms with the latter use of the bow. Jackie McLean is perhaps the star name on this gatefold double vinyl release. His various groups over time led to a huge volume of releases, but one has to ask if his 1956 version or Charlie Parker’s original ‘Steeplechase’ had any influence on Nils Winther? His pairing with Michael Carvin on the Antiquity album where ‘De I Comahlee Ah’ has been drawn from joins the party with chanting and dynamic drumming – something more akin to Strata-East than SteepleChase. Incredible.

Ron Mathews’ modal composition, ‘Jean Marie’, from the 1978 Visitation album by the Sam Jones Quintet, features Terumasa Hino on cornet, Ronnie Matthews on piano and Al Foster on drums – names alone would bring on a state of elation for most before the needle even touches the vinyl. Of the selections here, this is one of very few that have lived with me for some years, and one that just about ticks every box. Chicagoan, Jim McNeely and his Quintet’s ‘Tipe Tizwe’ from the Rain’s Dance album had a familiarity about it, but not a song that was instantly recognised. Previously working alongside Billy Hart and John Scofiled, McNeely brings in percussionist Sam Jacobs on African Mbira, giving the audience a taste of Zimbabwe, before it opens further with piano and conga – this piece of music is all about Jacobs. The 1978 version of Witchdoctor’s Son, by Johnny Dyani, John Tchicai and Dudu Pukwana delivers ‘Magwaza’ here, which must shine as a huge selling point on the compilation, supplies us with a traditional piece reinterpreted by Johnny Dyani in all its 13min glory. But it’s not the openness of Tchicai’s blowing that lights up this number for me, it is Dyani’s effective use of bass, Afredo Do Nascimento guitar and the various uses of percussion and African overtones that raise this composition to quite possibly his magnum opus. This was at a time when E.W. Wainwright had put together the African Roots of jazz, a Horace Tapscott/UGMAA talent pool celebrating the bringing together of jazz and African influences.

Terumasa Hino returns with the Ken McIntyre Sextet on ‘Miss Priss’, from Introducing the Vibrations album, with percussionist/drummer Andrei Strobert, Andy Vega on congas, and pianist Richard Harper. Multi-instrumentalist, McIntyre, for his fourth outing on SteepleChase, had emerged from The New York Loft Jazz Sessions, a series of performing spaces as an alternative to the commercially driven venues, with his Sextet and brought in Alonzo Gardner for this recording. Bassist newcomer Gardner would go on to work with Dollar Brand alongside Vibrations man Andrei Strobert but who here holds his own behind the more established group members. Another face on the Loft scene was vibraphonist Khan Jamal, whose ‘Dark Warrior’ from the 1984 album of the same name is a far more modern affair with a bass reminiscent of Tony Dumas’ style. In fact, it is the unison between Rickey Kelly on Vibraphone and Dumas on bass on ‘Danakil Warrior (1979)’ that first sprung to mind when initiating the first spin ‘ever’ of ‘Dark Warrior’ – I will be pursuing that theory further during the lockdown. Hearing this SteepleChase piece for the first time is an incredible feeling indeed.

And so to the final two selections. Michael Carvin’s ‘Naima’ with Sonny Fortune and Cecil Bridgewater rounds off the CD release, while Jazzman’s double vinyl option inserts the Billy Gault composition ‘Camel Driver’ by Jackie McLean and The Cosmic Brotherhood from the New York Calling album, an illuminating set which features Billy Skinner on trumpet over the just short of 9min composition. One would need not to own a turntable to bypass this attractive choice, which truly embellishes the whole project. One which has been curated with adventure, knowledge, passion and understanding.

What is most remarkable here is, after revisiting the previous Spiritual Jazz catalogue, I have enjoyed this new release far more as a whole. It has flowed through each song with respect for the music therein and for the SteepleChase label, a label I must admit before now has been more about the last twenty years for me than anything during the ‘70s – although I am staring at a Frank Strozier Quintet album as I type! – and in respecting the label would encourage more to delve into their huge catalogue and investigate names like Ronnie Cuber, Billy Harper Quintet and Coronarias Dans, to name but three.

Steve Williams

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