Graded on a Curve: Entourage,
Ceremony of Dreams: Studio Sessions & Outtakes, 1972-1977

Integrating elements of jazz, folk, classical, global sounds, and experimentation into non-trad performances that included dancers and whenever it was possible, mood-enhancing lighting, the Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble cut a pair of records for Folkways in the 1970s. Ceremony of Dreams: Studio Sessions and Outtakes 1972-1977 greatly expands the group’s story, offering 30 unreleased tracks in a 3CD package with notes by music critic J.D. Considine and sole surviving group member Wall Matthews. But vinyl lovers fret not, as ten tracks from the set are getting issued concurrently on LP. Both are out March 23 through Tompkins Square.

The Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble, or just Entourage for short, can be aptly described as having crafted progressive-avant-folk-global-fusion; for all those hyphens, it’s a sound that regularly just gets reduced to the tag of ambient. Formed by saxophonist-keyboardist Joe Clark, initially as a loose live band that held court in a Baltimore nightclub, the outfit went through a few distinct phases.

Once Clark, who was a musician in residence in the dance department at Bennett College in Millbrook, NY, tired of weekly commutes to Charm City, a second incarnation of the group took shape, featuring violist-guitarist Rusty Clark (no relation) and drummer Michael “Smitty” Smith; this is the lineup that recorded Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble, which Folkways put out in 1973 (and reissued on LP in 2012, with copies still available from the label).

After relocating to New London, CT for another college gig, Clark recommenced Entourage, in part due to Richie Havens’ interest in releasing an album by Clark on his Stormy Forest label. Augmenting the first album’s trio with guitarist Wall Matthews from the group’s Baltimore period, by the time they were ready to make a record, Havens was no longer keen on the idea, and The Neptune Collection came out through a return to Folkways in ’76, with Moses Asch providing a whopping budget of $300 (it’s also currently available physically, but only as a custom CD).

Unsurprisingly for a unit that was blazing a trail rather than honing a variation on an established genre, neither record sold many copies, but they did receive some strong critical notices. Perhaps due to their penchant for performing in consort with dancers in a modern mode (as depicted on Ceremony of Dreams’ cover) Entourage’s next opportunity came through choreographer Murray Louis, who’d been tapped by the Royal Danish Ballet to produce a new work based on Cleopatra.

Towards the end of their lifespan they were also asked by Nebraska Educational Television to create music for a half-hour program on the state’s Bicentennial Highway. If it all seems like a very ’70s arts collegiate/ PBS scenario, well yeah, but Entourage isn’t wanting for contemporary relevance, as Keiran Hebden of Four Tet sampled The Neptune Collection’s opener “Neptune Rising” in his track “She Moves Me”; the subsequent copyright settlement provided Entourage a larger sum of money than either of their albums.

With an opening alternate take of The Neptune Collection’s “Tarbox Poltergeist,” Ceremony of Dreams’ LP does a fine job of immediately communicating what made Entourage special. With florid fingerpicking front and center, the result is a bit like Bert Jansch wandering away from Pentangle for the possibilities of string-based drone, an aura naturally deepened by Rusty Clark’s viola. It all backs up Matthews’ claim of congruence to La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music.

A large divergence is Entourage’s preference for succinctness, and as Joe Clark’s saxophone emerges in “Millbrook,” one might be reminded of world-fusion pioneers Oregon. “Euphoric Bells” (also an alternate take from Neptune that returns as a fragment on side two) brings piano to the fore, its pleasantness avoiding the staid, with the atmosphere instead highlighting a Minimalist connection (notably, classical and/ or jazz experience is a constant in Entourage’s background) that gets both accentuated and then blended with more trad-based song structure in “Journey by Water.”

An early version of Neptune’s “Days” really dives into the confluence of string-drone and fingerpicking. It’s a standout on the vinyl, in part because it stretches out for a while, and likewise, “Military Music 1 (From Cleopatra),” which successfully achieves its titular aims (it’s here and in “Euphoric Bells” that Smith’s presence is most felt) without losing grips with the ensemble’s general sound. Neither does “Sleazy Sue (Love Duet 1 from Cleopatra),” which closes the LP and vies with “Euphoric Bells” as the vinyl’s prettiest statement. It also contains some of Clark’s most robust viola fiddling.

As said, faltering into New Ageist insubstantiality is mostly avoided, which given the impact of the dream state on the music, is mighty impressive. Overall, the title of “Soft Fist” is an apt descriptor of the group’s mission, with sharp viola progressions and flutters of saxophone gliding atop a study foundation of guitar. “E Minor Piano” is a solid if maybe too short reminder of the unit’s avant side.

Those already attuned to Entourage’s thing will probably want to grab the CD set, in part for the documentation of bassist Terry Plumeri’s brief tenure in the outfit. Having joined between the recording of the two Folkways discs, his contribution, as stated in Considine’s notes and underscored by the full version of “The Shores of God,” somewhat redirects matters into the then-nascent fusion style of Weather Report.

Bluntly, I’m kinda glad Plumeri wandered off, but others will surely feel differently. For curious newbies with turntables, Ceremony of Dreams’ LP contraction will provide a well-rounded taste; after time spent, those looking for a deeper dip will do good with the 3CD, as it maintains a comparable level of quality throughout.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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