All About Jazz review of the 2010 reissue: “Certainly, composition in jazz has gone well beyond head arrangements that bracket solos and group playing—sometimes approaching areas that sound so open as to seem free-form. Multi-instrumentalist, trumpeter and composer Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is one of a number of figures in this music whose work has long sought to explore and expand the blurred lines between composition and improvisation; one of the structural/notational strategies he has used (formulated in works of the 1970s and 1980s) is called Akhreanvention.
In 1978, Smith wrote that this concept is predicated on “creating and inventing musical ideas simultaneously, utilizing the fundamental laws of improvisation and composition. Within this system, all of the elements of the scored music are controlled through symbols designating duration, improvisation, and moving sounds of different velocities. These symbols are depicted on two types of staffs; sound staffs divided into low, medium and high, and sound staffs of adjustable sound partials.”
In their audible essence, the motion between areas of notated and improvised components operate on a similar axis, held in a fairly constant range of orbit with one another. Smith recorded Spirit Catcher in 1979 while he was living in New Haven, Connecticut and co-directing the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum. His group, New Dalta Akhri, featured a coterie of musicians located in Connecticut and New York, such as drummer Pheeroan AkLaff, vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, bassist/flutist Wes Brown and reedman Dwight Andrews. In addition to Nessa, Smith and New Dalta Akhri recorded for ECM and his own Kabell Records.
This reissue, the session’s first time on CD, adds an additional take of a piece for three harps and trumpet, “The Burning Of Stones.” What’s striking about the lengthy opening piece, “Images,” is how utterly rigorous its execution is. A microcosm of how the quintet operates appears in the first few minutes, where vibrato-laden clarinet, vibes, arco bass and martial percussion measure themselves in small delicate progressions quickly joined by a clarion trumpet call. A linkage of short unison horn phrases quickly become slightly opposing, and lead into a few seconds of trumpet/bass duet; when Andrews’ clarinet trills enter, the trio is embroiled in darting collectivity.
Those darts return to a stately sense of pause and are rejoined by lumps of vibes and drum set, brass and wood following atonal lines into loosely intertwined phrases. The title could refer to either side of the improvisation/composition coin—short written sections that demarcate areas of related-but-open play, or the free vignettes that spiral out from collective notation.
The title track is a moderately heavier proposition, and a rare example of Andrews’ throaty tenor at play in the particulates of Smith’s writing. The piece opens with a string of small rhythm unit bursts underpinned by bass and Naughton’s “Air Raid” chords; splashes of cymbal and snare patter support Andrews’ lilting peals and the vibraphonist’s harping refractions. “Spirit Catcher” might be the nearest approach to crackling “free jazz” that New Dalta Akhri got, but the specific rhythmic order followed throughout lends the improvisations a unique quality.
“The Burning Of Stones” use of a harp trio is really unlike anything else in contemporary creative music. At once mimicking the Japanese koto and exploring upper partials in quavering dissonance, the trio is set in active relief to Smith’s Miles Davis-ian mute, like Gil Evans arranging a Toru Takemitsu composition. Like the other pieces here, the trumpet part is made up of a series of improvisational flourishes linked by notated elements (of course, all are of a single piece), each note and tone row a clearly demarked unit that gives rise to inflections and immediacy. Recorded crisply by Rudy Van Gelder (unlike the somewhat murky Kabell LPs), Spirit Catcher presents Smith’s earlier music with clarity and warmth, and it’s welcome news to have this set in print once again.”
“Love and Light Interested me so
That I dared to knock at the door of the cosmos” – SUN RA Arkestra
There is music and there are artists that dare to throw caution to the wind, yet like a masterly boomerang wielder, ensure that whatever they throw windward returns exactly where they are. These artists are neither interested in trends, fashions, nor commercial interests, what they create is monumental beyond monuments, it is significant beyond their particular genre and draws humanity and the universe closer to the heart and to the meanings of Life. Sun Ra and Lupe Fiasco are just two of the ones we would like to shine a light on for now.
Of course there are many such phenoms, we can count at least 12 from the top of the head, but this is not a list of luminaries, it is about the serendipitous connections that visionary creators seem to have. In some cases there is a conscious effort to emulate each other but in some instances, it is just dividual morphism or happy coincidence and consequence.
Let us begin with a spontaneous poem I wrote while deeply engrossed in the music of the Hip Hop artist Lupe Fiasco and then we shall take a look at how both Fiasco and Ra come together in the cosmic balance of all things Black genius.
“The Buddha is sage, impepho yabaNgoni
The sage Buddha devours everything
Walking barefoot emisebeni
Yamalanga onke …
Bearing the terrible Black beauty of Kali
Black and Blue with the temperament of Krishna
Peaceable as Ausar the foremost of the West
The greensome 12 digital Lord is a maiden voyager
Lonely as a cloud of unknowing
Now contemplative under trees
Now a dervishly whirling wind under the sea
The Buddha is a sage
The Buddha is a black sage
Whose appetite is beyond eclectic
Grips nothing too firmly
And so it all, it all falls down
Mindless while mindful
Horsepower with no harness
No pressure, nor stress
No desire, no aversion
All risk so no risk
No test, nor failure …” – Menzi Maseko
Wikipedia has a serviceable description of who Sun Ra was if one is seeking a basic overview, but what we aim to illustrate here is how this artist has influenced generations of innovators far beyond his milieu, that is if anything was truly beyond the man from Saturn.
Here is an overview:
“Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra; May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993) was an American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, and poet known for his experimental music, “cosmic” philosophy, prolific output, and theatrical performances. For much of his career, Ra led “The Arkestra”, an ensemble with an ever-changing name and flexible line-up.
Born and raised in Alabama, Blount became involved in the Chicago jazz scene during the late 1940s. He soon abandoned his birth name, taking the name Le Sony’r Ra, shortened to Sun Ra (after Ra, the Egyptian God of the Sun). He developed a complex persona and an idiosyncratic, myth-based credo that would make him a pioneer of Afrofuturism. He claimed to be an alien from Saturn on a mission to preach peace, and throughout his life he publicly denied ties to his prior identity.
His widely eclectic and avant-garde music echoed the entire history of jazz, from ragtime and early New Orleans hot jazz, to swing music, bebop, free jazz and fusion. His compositions ranged from keyboard solos to works for big bands of over 30 musicians, along with electronic excursions, songs, chants, percussion pieces, and anthems. From the mid-1950s until his death, Ra led the musical collective The Arkestra (which featured artists such as Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and June Tyson throughout its various iterations). Its performances often included dancers and musicians dressed in elaborate, futuristic costumes inspired by ancient Egyptian attire and the Space Age. (Following Ra’s illness-forced retirement in 1992, the band remained active as The Sun Ra Arkestra, and, as of 2018, continues performing under the leadership of veteran Ra sideman Marshall Allen.)
Though his mainstream success was limited, Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer, and remained both influential and controversial throughout his life for his music and persona. He is now widely considered an innovator; among his distinctions are his pioneering work in free improvisation and modal jazz and his early use of electronic keyboards and synthesizers. Over the course of his career, he recorded dozens of singles and over one hundred full-length albums, comprising well over 1000 songs, making him one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century.”
Enter the prolific super MC/Rapper/Composer, Lupe Fiasco.
It would require a few more pages to describe the proficiency and scope of the prodigy called Lupe Fiasco, suffice to say that not since De La Soul or Digable Planets and Shabbaz Palaces, has there been a Rapper possessing such a heightened sense of cosmic balance. His music is simply larger than his genre, his lyrics are unparalleled and with the advent of his latest album Drogas Wave, he has simply gone beyond the level of musical world building and created an epic of gargantuan proportions. Drogas Light and Drogas Wave are an Afrocentric Science Fiction odyssey unheard of, except maybe since Deltron 3030 or Del The Funky Homosapien and Dan The Automators collaboration …( more on that later).
Here is a review ( I shall add mines in another post):
Lyric by Kurt Elling incorporating “Winter Stars” by Sara Teasdale (Flame and Shadow, 1920)
Afloat and all at sea / the stars align in threes
They’re so fine and free / in blue and in green
Like leaves on endless trees
Come climb the sky with me /
come hear and come to see Melody
in perfect symmetry
/ in love / in light / in key
I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea Seemed
to have drenched my spirit’s wings— I bore my sorrow heavily.
But when I lifted up my head From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east Burn steadily as long ago.
From windows in my father’s house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a boy Above another city’s lights.
Years [a]go, dreams [a]go, and youth goes too,
The world’s heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.
“The result is quality in every note …” – MF DOOM skit
“he warped time and space to deliver a message to eternity.” – Early Samuel R. Delaney
Delaney won the Nebula prize his science fiction novella Babel 17 in 1966, and won the Nebula and the Hugo Award for his 1968 novella titled, Time Considered as a Helix of Semi Precious Stones, and his monumental novel Nova was one of the best SF novels of the sixties.He was described by critic Algis Budrys as ‘the best science fiction writer in the world’, all this for a writer who happened to be Black, or Afrikan American, writing in a genre that was not yet considered the forte of Black people, whether writers or readers.But we have always told fantastical stories and some have written them too, but how many of us read them? Perhaps it was the titles of science fiction novels that tickled my poetic fancy, as I have always been into more political reading, but then again, there are vast landscapes and expansively intricate sub-political plots in many science fiction novels. I still look forward to finding Delaney’s short-story titled,”We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,”
Good Music possesses a similar power to great fiction, fictions that alter reality, inspiring us to achieve hitherto unimagined feats.
One of my favourite artists today is, Janelle Monae’, she is into Science Fiction, it is evident in the design and cinematography of her videos, but more apparent in her debut album The ArchAndroid, as well her latest visionary offering Dirty Computer. Monae’ is among those creators that others call Afro-Futurists. It is a term that some embrace and some refuse to be subsumed under,just as the likes of Ben Okri and Amos Toutoula and Octavia E. Butler refused to be labeled as Magic Realists, or Fantasy writers. Although the latter is better known as a pioneering Science Fiction writer, she too is much more than any label. It is my wish that one day soon, such creators become more popular and read widely especially among Black communities, their stories could be the missing connection that we need to not only make sense of the dread conditions of Black existence, but they also offer impressive ideas and solutions towards what we can become if we were free to self-determine.
One day soon, I shall write about what I think about the potential impact of Black writers on society, if only reading was as popular in Southern Africa as it is in other parts of the world. There are just so many ifs and buts.Like, if only more young Black folks would listen to jazz, alternative electronic music as well as more Afrikan traditional sounds.There are so many writers, but who reads? SO many visual artists, but who is viewing and purchasing their work, so many producers of great art, inventions and progressive ideas, but so many impediments, mostly due to the sheer amount of historically based social ignorance.
Sometimes I write a few short stories which can be slotted into the genre called Science Fiction or Fantasy. I have not published any of these except for submitting some to some competitions where I have made the top 5 or top 3 of the selections, nevertheless, I can state unequivocally that I am a lazy writer. I should be writing everyday or at least producing a single short-story a week, considering the amount of ideas that flow through my head on a daily basis, even my dreams are the stuff of sheer mad-genius. Even though I am interested in writing fiction, I am more passionate about sociological writing, if I had the vocabulary I would write more about music. There is no excuse these days for not having a vocabulary or at least some knowledge about any subject – I mean, we have the internet. There is very little that cannot be known, at least at the novice level, as long as you have wifi or data.