Saturday, July 20, 2013

Music Reviews-The Soul Messengers, The Modern Jazz Quartet, The Pharaohs

The Soul Messengers
You may or may not be familiar with the phenomenon but there are some Black Americans who claim descent from one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, or who had African Jewish ancestors who were kidnapped and enslaved, or who converted to Judaism, or who simply very strongly believed that Black people in general were the original Chosen People. The competing religious claims, rivalries and varied histories of all these groups go back for decades and in some cases centuries. They overlap with Marcus Garvey and thus with religions and movements like The Moorish Science Temple, The Five-Percenters, Rastafari and other black nationalist based groups. It's a longer post than I want to write this at this time but suffice it to say that in mid sixties Chicago and Detroit there were Black Jewish citizens, separate from Euro-American Judaism, who were proud of both their Jewishness and Blackness. Ultimately some of these people, known as African Hebrew Israelites, or just Black Hebrews, decided that America was no longer the place for them. They decided to immigrate to what they considered Promised Lands: certain countries in Africa and of course Israel. Their experience overseas was not without headaches as they were pressured by natives to prove their racial/religious/ethnic bona fides. Many people then and now thought they were fake. They believed the same of many of their critics. Some Black Hebrews gave up and returned to the US. Others eventually settled in Dimona, Israel where after several legal battles they were allowed to stay. 

Anyway, politics and race aside, the Black Hebrews who settled in Israel brought with them intimate knowledge of the then current popular and religious music of African Americans. One group that is worth listening to is The Soul Messengers. Like Parliament-Funkadelic, this group had different names and satellite groups that it backed up but it was usually pretty much the same group of musicians and singers despite what the name on the album release might say.
I like this music. It's a melange of gospel, the gospel-pop rock that people like the similar sounding Hawkins Singers were exploring contemporaneously, classic soul, James Brown themed funk, traditional spirituals, reggae, black nationalist themed "spiritual jazz" that echoed people like Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, psychedelic soul a la Jimi Hendrix, and even some old school blues. Some of this sounds like very early Earth, Wind and Fire (WITHOUT Bailey's falsetto) . That's not too surprising since some of the group members who decided to go back to Chicago wound up playing for The Pharaohs, which was the group from which Earth, Wind and Fire took inspiration, influence and a few members.

Not everything on here is great. "Modernization" has a nice groove but the stiff lyrics don't really work for me. The song references ecological and personal dietary concerns. This is groove music. Although there are some extended solos they never ever get in the way of the collective groove. I like that these cuts all have a prominent and deep bassline. The religious elements are more implied than explicitly stated, with the exception of the classic song "Daniel". The recording production is a little dense at times but you can still usually make out the vocals. You will also recognize the song "Na Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" reworked into "Our Love and Savior" complete with Hebrew lyrics. If you are hip to the early seventies soul gospel, before the widespread adaptation of synthesizers, this music will sound quite familiar. Will you like it? I think you might. The lyrics are generally earnest and positive if occasionally less than polished. But the musicianship is pretty good though some of the songs start to run together and sound alike.

Messiah  Burn Devil Burn  Daniel  Heaven of Heavens  Our Lord and Savior
 Prince of Zeal  Do It  Victory  A Place to Be  Modernization

The Modern Jazz Quartet
Both of my parents were huge jazz fans. I think this might have been my Dad's favorite group though he usually avoided superlatives when it came to music. It is certainly the jazz music of which I have the earliest and therefore fondest memories. This group was special because it did not feature any horn players at a time when horn players were the public face of jazz. It was also special because years before the terms "world music" or "fusion" had become marketing tools The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) was mixing bop jazz with a variety of different musics, most notably baroque classical-ESPECIALLY Bach. Also though the group could swing with the best of them they were notably not wild men on stage and often performed in tuxedos. This was an indication that they took their music as seriously as any classical performer and expected their audience to do so as well. In its way this was an expression of black pride as most people often expected black musicians to be more Dionysian than Apollonian. The MJQ by both their attitude and repertoire expressed the belief that serious music belonged to black people just as surely as it did to whites.

The MJQ had a history that went back to Dizzy Gillespie's glory days in the fifties. Like a lot of four man bands The MJQ featured two opinionated and occasionally clashing leaders (Jackson and Lewis) who took the lion's share of leads and solos and wrote most of the music and two guys who generally stayed more in the background, though when called on to show their stuff they revealed just as much skill on their particular instruments. The classic lineup was Milt Jackson (vibes), John Lewis (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Connie Kay (drums).

The group briefly broke up in the seventies when Jackson wanted to do different (his own) things musically, make more money and get away from Lewis while Lewis wished to continue with the classical leaning jazz sound. They reunited in the eighties but of course by the nineties and early 2000's age and infirmities had caught up with them. They've all passed on now. But they left behind a very impressive body of work, one which spans quite a few jazz and classical genres. Milt Jackson (born in Detroit I must add) had an extremely distinctive sound on the vibes and often guested on various blues, jazz or soul releases by other artists. Jackson had a very slow very fat tone which was immediately identifiable. Of course I am not that familiar with too many other vibraphone players besides Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente and Bobby Hutcherson so take that for what it's worth. Either way, once you have heard Jackson play you tend to remember his voice on the instrument.

"Fontessa" is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded in human existence.
I also loved the MJQ's collaborations with The Swingle Singers. If you like that sort of thing you should look for the CD Place VendomeAnd it's a personal pet peeve of mine but do kindly notice how the recordings from the 50s thru the 70's have plenty of body, tone and volume but are not recorded too hot or too loudly. Things are not overcompressed. You're able to enjoy the dynamics of the music. It's loud and full but there are also quiet moments. You can hear every instrument without feeling like someone IS YELLING AT YOU ALL THE TIME!!!. So I appreciated that.

Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez  MJQ with Itzhak Perlman (Summertime)
Softly,as in a Morning Sunrise   All the Things you Are Blues in A Minor   Fontessa
Django   Round Midnight (Live)
Precious Joy aka Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring by J.S. Bach
Air for the G String by J.S. Bach with the Swingle Singers
Little David's Fugue with the Swingle Singers   Bag's Groove  Live with Sonny Rollins

The Pharaohs
As I mentioned above The Pharaohs were a musical group that also touched among all phases of African American music and sought to link these musics backed to their African antecedents (thus the name) The most obvious touchstone was of course West African, specifically Nigerian (Yoruban and Ibo) music. Some of their extended jam sessions could put you in mind of people like Fela Kuti.  It also helped their musical stew that a few of the members were not just African-Americans but actual Africans. So you can hear real time interplay between the music of the African Diaspora and the original African music which inspired it. The Pharaohs also happened to come along at a time when black people were generally calling each other brother and sister instead of n***** and b**** so most of their music, even the blues or other somber pieces generally tended towards positivity and communal experiences instead of negativity or one person standing alone. They tended to be a little more secular and jazz influenced than The Soul Messengers. 

 It's not widely known but blues recording label Chess Records, home of titans such as rock and roll superstar Chuck Berry and blues giants Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, had by the mid sixties also become the operating base to younger forward looking house studio band members and producers. These folks could and did play old time traditional Chicago/Mississippi style blues when called upon to do so but were also moving in more progressive directions, fueled by the free jazz and Afrocentric approach around at the time. Some of these musicians, together with university students and a few other jazz musicians formed The Pharaohs. This group was heavy on percussion, featuring as many as six drummers, combined with other percussionists but all the same there was a lot of space in their music. With the exception of some jam sessions their music rarely sounds overcrowded and never seems overproduced.

Given that near the end of his life Hendrix was moving in a jazzier direction with more percussion, it would have been interesting to hear him record with The Pharaohs. Sadly that wasn't to be. Although they weren't that commercially successful (though they did do the music for Afro-Sheen commercials), part time member and supporter Maurice White eventually formed the group Earth, Wind and Fire and took things in an ever slightly more commercial direction to put it mildly. And he took some of The Pharaohs members with him. So The Pharaohs basically disbanded. But they had produced two albums, one live and one studio (In the Basement, Awakening) which are hard to find but which, if you are as into that time period as I am, are essential listening. This music fits almost seamlessly with what contemporary musical giants like Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Santana and War were producing. There was something in the water in the late sixties and early seventies and in my view music hasn't been the same since. As always YMMV but if you like a mix of deep Afro-funk combined with a few reworked soul tunes and African percussion explorations you may want to check some of this music out. I think The Pharaohs' version of "People Make the World Go Round" on the In the Basement album is the best I ever heard. A lot of the early work by EWF sounds like The Pharaohs. "Great House" gives you a lengthy electric guitar solo over a steady vamp. Check out their take on the Motown hit "Tracks of My Tears". If you don't smile and dance to "The Pharaohs Love Y'All", then something is wrong with you.

Freedom Road   Ibo Great House Tracks of My Tears
The Pharaohs Love Y'All  Damballah  Love and Happiness  In The Basement (Entire Album)

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