Khan Jamal is a well-known jazz vibraphonist from Philadelphia, but it was only recently that most listeners could discover his long lost piece of avant-garde afro-jazz pre-history: a live recording made with a psychedelic dub quintet Creative Art Ensemble.
Critics were quick to attribute the innovative style to the influence that Sun Ra wielded over Philadelphia’s scene in the early 1970s. It is true that after losing the lease of Sun Studios, the Arkestra moved to the house owned by Marshall Allen’s father in Germantown. But as we know, Sun Ra never reconciled himself with the loss of his foothold in New York City (who would be?) and by 1972, the Arkestra was probably spending more time touring than at home. Although Steve Buchanan (of ‘Tiny Grimes’ fame) once told me fascinating stories about Sun Ra followers in Philly, the extent to which Arkestra exerted direct influence on Khan Jamal and his young cohorts is rather difficult to measure.
Jamal initially honed his skills in his band Sounds of Liberation, which also included Byard Lancaster. He later perfected his climactic style with the greats of free jazz drumming: Sunny Murray – the ultimate destroyer of time-keeping dogmatism and Ronald Shannon Jackson, the man who reintroduced tense melodism into the harmolodic canon. Yet none of these later recordings prepared the backtracking listener for this 1972 jewel.
I have no idea what the original LP looked like and have reproduced above the poorly executed CD cover ‘graced’ with Caribbean-looking artwork and mixed- in references to the Djoser Pyramid in Saqqara.
There is something singularly makeshift about the way this live recording opens, as if caught in mid-flight. Amidst ramshackle ruckus, dubbed out percussion and thrifty, tinny cowbells, there rears its bell a reverberating clarinet wheeze. Copious swellings pour in en masse, while downcycles focus on a rather atheist drumset and cymbal overtones. It is such binary selection to run either a snare or a cymbal that betrays Sunny Murray’s pervasive influence. After a less dynamic passage, the volume springs up, but is quickly dispersed with a highly reflective reverb. The illusion of warm space comfortably nestles a ride cymbal or a tenor tom tom drum. An electronic blip makes elliptic rounds somewhere at the back. Jamal’s vibraphone enters the fray in a similar way: initially pedestrian but soon smeared out in moist, swampy echoes. Jamal concentrates on color exploration, leaning towards the high end of the range. Then he suddenly changes the course and runs full scales with excitement of a child who grabbed its first xylophone. Since the entire combo is profusely drenched in the dub reverb, Jamal eschews any agogic accents and he seems to keep his foot well away from the vibraphone pedal. The drummers – Dwight James and Alex Ellison remain very discrete throughout. Finally, Monnette Sudler’s liquid guitar surfaces, awakening the cymbal-bound Ellison. A bubbly electronic swirl adds some mystery to this deceptively random and stubbornly non-evolutive exercise in climate control.
Drum Dance to the Motherland
Simple hi-hat beat struts in, flanked by spontaneous handclaps and clarinet dashes into the shrill C-territory. This leads to inevitable blowouts, but such audacity notwithstanding, the overall atmosphere remains relaxed. Vocal calls and the shaking/clapping galore occasionally step into cheeky dub potholes. The unorthodox clarinet is consistently shrieky, rounded only by such defensive reverb. Ellison’s planispheric drumming is multiperiodic and anticyclical. The entire percussive machine reminds us of the most African side of the AACM’s classics. Dwight James’s second clarinet respires uncorrelated to Jamal’s hysterical flaunts. When the leader sets aside the clarinet and focuses on his marimba, the hovering tribe follows with a classic rhythm set, hand drums and a plethora of ubiquitous shakers. Soon Jamal goes pentatonic, reclaiming the blazing Western African heritage. Ellison’s drumming never crowds out the main idiophone’s fragile resonators, even though some of his cymbal work clearly predates the free jazz lessons of the previous decade. It is quite astounding how deep a texture these musicians manage to extract from what remains a purely percussive journey.
Bill Mills’s bass rumbles deep, sculpting a robust, tensile core to spiraling shakers. These extremes of high and low range are further expanded through the reverb. Sudler’s germinative, delicate guitar solo weaves into this tissue with a telepathic interdependence reminiscent of George Benson’s inroads into Davis’s universe on “Miles in the Sky” or “Circle in the Round”. In stark contrast, Jamal’s clarinet bleats like an orphaned goat marooned afar from its herd. The recurrent dub hijack may vary in density but is almost omnipotent and only the bass survives it intact. Each time the kidnapped clarinet frees itself from the echo treatments it reasserts itself without a triumphalist fortissimo and instead disguises itself as if to avoid the abduction next time around. The jazzy guitar notes are short and unscrambled in a highly concentrated fashion amidst the maze of carpeted reverb formulas. The walking pulse becomes hypnotically predictable, with the vibes usurping a fender piano role, sewing a double helix around the bass figure. But the development is directional, marked by a barely perceptible growth in tension, courtesy Ellison’s insistent cymbal work. This is a smoky psychedelic out-jazz at its most colloquial and trippy. Regrettably, it is at this point that this exhilarating, interstellar adventure is cut off.
Breath of Life
A heavy dose of Jamaican-style switch-backs between deep reverb and upfront realism eerily modularizes the percussive apparatus. It is Jamal’s vibes that set this intense accumulation of reboant percussive layers apart from cosmic kraut-folk experiments that swayed contemporaneous West Germany’s underground audience. Sudler’s unadulterated guitar figure eventually sweeps into the opiate groove by suspending its bluesy progressions. She is on the verge of elaborating a nascent theme when the reel runs out.
I am only aware of two other recordings made by Khan Jamal in the 1970s. The cosmic interplays of the vibraphone/marimba duos with Bill Lewis are certainly recommended. He has been pursuing successful duo formats ever since.
Khan JAMAL CREATIVE ART ENSEMBLE: “Drum Dance to the Motherland” (1972)
Khan JAMAL: “Give the Vibes Some” (1974)
Khan JAMAL & Bill LEWIS: “The River” (1978)
Jamal’s output has blossomed since the 1980s, but my familiarity with these records is insufficient to provide reliable reference.