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Index of SEMJA reviews



Recent Recordings by Area Musicians


Readers of Bjorn and Gallert's magnificent book Before Motown might well wonder if anyone is contemplating a sequel that would trace subsequent musical developments in Detroit. As we wait for such a book, two recent releases document musical creativity in the Motor City, one that affirms the bebop roots of generations of musicians and another that documents the rich history of the avant-garde.

Tenor saxophonist Donald Walden is one of those rare jazz musicians who have been able to combine a professional performing career with a full-time teaching schedule. The undisputed tenor king of Detroit is now a professor in the School of Music at the University of Michigan and has served as a mentor for generations of Motor City musicians. Last year he assembled and rehearsed an all-star, multi-generational ensemble for two evenings of recording before a packed house at Bert's On Broadway in downtown Detroit and the highlights are now available on Focus: The Music of Tadd Dameron (Emanon Records ENON 1001) by Donald Walden and the Detroit Jazz Orchestra. In this octet Walden is joined by Cassius Richmond on alto sax, Ernie Rodgers on baritone, Dwight Adams on trumpet, Vincent Chandler on trombone, Kenny Cox on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, and Bert Myrick on drums playing arrangements by Walden, Richmond, Teddy Harris, Jr., and Willie Smith.

Tadd Dameron was a composer and arranger who began working for swing orchestras and then became one of the first, and undoubtedly the most prolific writers of the bebop era, authoring more than 190 compositions, many of them unrecorded. For this project, which includes compositions written by Dameron associates, Walden selected ten songs, mixing better-known ones with those that are rarely played today, but clearly deserve to be resurrected. The recital begins with "Boperation," written by Fats Navarro for a 1948 date that also produced the eighth track, "Double Talk," sometimes credited to Dameron, but apparently written by Navarro and fellow trumpeter Howard McGhee. Although the instrumentation used here is different, the arrangements by Richmond capture the essence of the originals. On "Boperation" his energetic alto solo captures something of the feeling of Ernie Henry's 1948 outing; Walden follows with a relaxed, perfectly idiomatic set of choruses that sets a high standard for the whole group. Everyone is listening, and Cox picks up where the tenor bowed off, continuing with beautifully structured solo, some of it accompanied by horn backgrounds. Whitaker takes a turn with a soulful chorus, and the band takes it out. Walden is clearly the main soloist and he shows his mastery of the language of bop on every track, from the up-tempo opening tracks to the one ballad of the recording, "If You Could See Me Now." This is a feature for the leader, who veritably sings the theme and then launches into a wistfully robust solo that is a perfect showcase of Walden's highly individualistic approach to the tenor saxophone, as he demonstrates how one can play originally within the tradition without mimicry or imitation. Cox, the only other soloist on this tune, is equally magnificent. The next tune, "Mating Call," originally written for quartet date with John Coltrane, finds Walden in a fiery mood, as he plays all over his horn, offering a bow to the great tenor man while maintaining his own voice. He also takes the lead on "A Bebop Carroll," originally introduced on a 1947 date with Navarro. The tune, often thought of as a Christmas song, the title may actually refer to the singer Joe "Bebop" Carroll, begins with a spirited bass solo from Whitaker, followed by another lovely Cox solo, and the by the saxophonists, who all romp with confidence through the familiar changes ("Mean to Me"). The recording ends with two of the more familiar Dameron compositions: "The Scene is Clean," and "Our Delight."

All the members of the octet distinguish themselves here. Walden is clearly in control, but is generous to his colleagues and the seven and eight minute tracks give everyone plenty of room for blowing. The sound engineer, Jim Gibeau, has captured the tenor man's signature sound, which has been sometimes distorted on recent recordings, in its full glory.

For two decades Griot Galaxy was a powerful and spiritual force on the Detroit new music scene, paralleling the efforts of the musicians of the AACM in Chicago and of BAG in St. Louis. Their long collaboration was not well documented on recordings, and the few that they did are hard to find, but now Entropy Stereo has released a true find, a two-cd album entitled Griot Galaxy—"Live at the D.I.A." (ESR 001). The tapes come from the archives of Ron DeCorte, who recorded a complete concert at the Detroit Institute of Arts in January of 1983. At the time the group consisted of saxophonists Faruq Z. Bey, Anthony Holland and David McMurray, bassist Tani Tabbal, and drummer/percussionist Jaribu Shahid. Events staged by Griot Galaxy were more than simple musical concerts, they were ritual in nature; following in the footsteps of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra they offered stunning visual aspects, as the musicians wore African clothes and face paint that added to the mystique and message of the performances. While obviously this aspect cannot be replicated on a cd, it was wise of Entropy to release the whole concert, even though it spans two disks, since the concert was obviously conceived of as a musical whole.

A smashing cymbal sound introduces us into the Griot mysteries of Bey's "Zinj Labarb," with Shahid bowing behind the saxophones and a flute. The piece moves seamlessly into collective improvisation, and the arco bass comes to the fore and drops back into the woodwind ensemble. Tabbal enters, playing out of tempo, as the group moves on into the next composition. Suddenly, the bass and drums establish a driving tempo and one of the saxophonists starts to blow, eventually handing it over to the bassist for a long solo that leads back to ensemble playing, followed by Tabbal's fiery drums on "Find It." This was the kind of collective work that was so characteristic of this group, which over the years developed an uncanny sense of ensemble, shifting tempos and ensemble concepts at will. The five musicians were all first rate soloists, but this was by no means a jam band, and the written parts were integral elements in the overall concept as each composition or group of pieces built an array of moods and tempos, evoking shouts and mysteries, utilizing the various saxophones to provide a broad timbral palate. Most of the writing was done by Faruz Z. Bey, but the concert ends with Sun Ra's "Spectrum" and "The Shadow World." There are also some marvelous solos on these tracks, driven by the amazing rhythm duo of Shahid and Tabbal, whose backing has such dramatic buoyancy that the saxophonists seem to virtually dance on top of them. Indeed, short of Hamid Drake and William Parker, I can think of few drum/bass combinations that can compare with them in this kind of music.

This is a great historical document that catches one of the supreme groups of the last quarter of the last century in full flight and excellent sound, but it is above all a very good musical performance that sounds as magnificent today as it did twenty years ago. Entropy has also just released two recent recordings, Faruq Z. Bey with the Northwoods Improvisers, Ashirai Pattern, and Kalaparush and the Light, The Moment, which will be reviewed in the next UPDATE.

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