Graded on a Curve:
The Khan Jamal
Creative Arts Ensemble,
Drum Dance to the Motherland

Jazz is loaded with underrated players, and Khan Jamal is one of them; it’s a situation that stands even without taking Drum Dance to the Motherland into consideration. Upon lending a thoughtful ear to the sole privately pressed 1972 LP by The Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble, the rep of its vibraphonist leader is significantly enhanced, with the album cohering into a core document of its era’s underground fringe. Offering spiritually-inclined free jazz with striking dub-like sonic processing, it was first reissued on compact disc back in 2005, but a welcome audiophile quality silkscreened vinyl pressing of 999 copies is out now on Eremite Records.

Khan Jamal doesn’t have the unwieldly discography of some jazz players, but recordings of his vibraphone are plentiful of one looks beyond the ordinary racks. He’s on the first and fifth volumes of the Wildflowers loft jazz comps (as a member of Sunny Murray & the Untouchable Factor), Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society’s Nasty, Billy Bang’s Outline No. 12, the Jemeel Moondoc Sextet’s Konstanze’s Delight, and more recently the Roy Campbell Quartet’s It’s Krunch Time, Matthew Shipp’s Equilibrium, and the Jemeel Moondoc Vtet’s Revolt of the Negro Lawn Jockeys.

There’s also a bunch of discs Jamal has cut as a leader or co-leader, including sessions for Steeplechase, CIMP, Jambrio, Stash, and Storyville, and then harder to find stuff like Give the Vibes Some, his ’74 date for French label Palm, and The River, a ’78 duo album with marimba player Bill Lewis for Philly Jazz Inc. (Jamal is indeed a Philadelphia guy). And until last decade, amongst the scarcest Jamal-related LPs were those issued on Dogtown Records, a small label reportedly owned in part by saxophonist Byard Lancaster.

As stated above, Eremite brought out Drum Dance to the Motherland on CD in 2005, and five years later Porter Records reissued the sole album by the Sounds of Liberation, a band composed of Jamal, Lancaster, Omar Hill, Rashid Salim, Dwight James, Billy Mills, and Monnette Sudler. Predating Jamal’s Creative Arts Ensemble, their sound is a funky, spiritual free jazz meld that far exceeds the quality levels normally attained by this stylistic blend. CD copies are still around, but the vinyl is out of print.

Compact disc copies of Drum Dance to the Motherland are also available, but it’s such a wonderfully unusual record (even within the spectrum of “out” jazz, which naturally can get quite unusual) that its first-time vinyl reissue is cause for great cheer. Even better is Eremite’s continued involvement; from Raphe Malik to William Parker to Peter Brötzmann to Glenn Spearman to Allen Silva to Test, the label of Michael Ehlers has been at the forefront of the free jazz underground since kicking into gear back in 1995, and from this writer’s perspective, his endeavor has yet to falter.

Along with Jamal’s vibraphone, marimba, and clarinet, Drum Dance to the Motherland features the drums and African percussion of Alex Ellison, the drums, glockenspiel, and clarinet of Dwight James, the Fender and double basses of Billy Mills, and the guitar and percussion of Monnette Sudler. Already, this is far from the standard instrumental arsenal, but the most arresting element in the equation is the real-time sonic enhancements of Mario Falana, who live engineered a performance taking place at Philly’s Catacombs Club and apparently broadcast on local radio.

His presence is immediately felt in “Cosmic Echoes,” which opens the LP with rumbles, thwacks, honks, and yes, echoes, the latter suggesting King Tubby hopping a flight from Jamaica to the Continent with the intention of producing a BYG/Actuel session for The Art Ensemble of Chicago. After a few minutes, the rhythmic clatter and squawk is replaced by more celestial atmosphere, a change that’s no doubt encouraged the comparisons to Sun Ra.

The association is an apt one. As Drum Dance to the Motherland’s master tapes are long gone, the reissue was sourced from a mint vinyl copy, and this circumstance only intensifies a connection to the many self-releases by Sun Ra on his Saturn label. But overall, the similarity shouldn’t be overstated; there are many facets of this LP that will recall other artists (prior, contemporaneous, and subsequent), but the cumulative effect is very much its own thing.

The lengthier “Drum Dance” is loaded with clarinet huff that’ll please any Actuel or ESP-Disk fan, though the highlight of the selection is Jamal’s vibes, as he completely evades the often overly sophisto nature of the instrument, in combo with the incessant rhythms, as Falana’s judicious production additives lend a legitimately psychedelic edge.

The first side alone justifies the album’s purchase price, but the flip’s opener “Inner Peace” delivers the highlight of the set in how Sudler, who plays with the clean tone recognizable from myriad post-bop guitar trio sessions, successfully interweaves with skronk, drift, echo, and in the latter portion of the cut, vibes. In “Drum Dance” Jamal’s mallets bring a tribal feel, but here he glistens and glides as the band achieves a spiritual plane without sacrificing aural punch.

Again, psychedelic ambience is abundant, but nowhere more so than in closer “Breath of Life” with its dub trippiness, mallet cascades and less immediately jazzy guitar figures. It secures Drum Dance to the Motherland as arresting at the outset and wholly satisfying at the conclusion. The in between is killer, too. Had the Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble managed to get heard by more than a few while extant, they would’ve been a major deal. This LP is anything but an oddball prologue to Jamal’s subsequent career.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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