Graded on a Curve:
Alan Braufman,
Valley of Search

As part of NYC’s fertile ’70s free-spiritual-loft jazz scene, the alto saxophonist Alan Braufman cut a solitary and underheard album as a leader, the ’75 effort Valley of Search. It was the second LP on the esteemed independent jazz label India Navigation, captured essentially live with no overdubs, alternate takes, or extra cuts, and while a handful of particulars solidify its stature as a noteworthy recording (including the debut of pianist and instrument builder Cooper-Moore), the biggest is its robust, ecstatic improvising. Long a rarity and never given an authorized reissue, a fresh vinyl edition is out June 29 through the Valley of Search label.

Clifford Allen’s excellent liners for this reissue go into greater depth, but in brief, the move that made Valley of Search a reality was Braufman’s leaving Boston along with a group of Berklee College of Music students for New York City, and specifically lower Manhattan; the others were saxophonist David S. Ware, bassist Chris Amberger, and pianist Gene Ashton, who’s known today as Cooper-Moore.

Next came the acquisition of a space in which to live and create, in this case a building on 501 Canal St. Once moved in, the first floor was designated for performances. Others took up residence, including drummer Tom Bruno and vocalist Ellen Christi; Amberger moved out. Through rehearsal and performance, the Braufman-Ashton unit, which included bassist David Saphra and drummer Ralph Williams, grew into the role of the house band. With time and diligence came increased attention and then the opportunity to record.

The five LPs (released separately) or three CDs (issued as a set) that hold the Wildflowers loft jazz sessions (a series of events held at Sam Rivers’ Studio RivBea that featured a range of players both well-known and obscure) remain a bountiful point of entry into this scene, but they should in no way be considered definitive. A whole lot more was happening, and a sizable percentage was preserved through Bob Cummins’ India Navigation label.

Braufman met Cummins at a party thrown by Cecil McBee, the bassist on Valley of Search and a mentor figure for the saxophonist; their meeting came in Boston through the Jazz Workshop, with Braufman eventually playing on McBee’s ’74 album Mutima for the Strata-East label. The bassist returns the favor here, replacing Saphra, as drummer David Lee (another friend from Boston) joins the band.

To record them, Cummins simply set up microphones on 501 Canal’s first floor and then captured two sets. In contrast to a large hunk of loft jazz activity, which strove to integrate the sounds of freedom with other, sometimes more conventional aspects, the results of the Cummins session are much closer to the spiritual free jazz core, with the influence of Pharoah Sanders (with whom McBee had played) undeniable.

And yet distinct, as the first instrument heard in the opening section “Rainbow Warriors” is Ashton’s dulcimer, it’s usage underscoring his Loudoun County, VA birthplace and subsequent building of instruments (including the mouth bow and diddley-bow). After this recording, Ashton returned to VA with his family for a long stay; when he moved back to NYC in 1985, it was as Cooper-Moore, a name derived by combining the surnames of his grandmothers.

As Cooper-Moore, he recorded a ton, but Valley of Search provides an early glimpse of his artistry (one similar to saxophonist Frank Lowe’s Black Beings offering the recording debut of bassist and frequent Cooper-Moore collaborator William Parker). As Ashton, he was already considerably able, but along with the uniqueness of dulcimer and his solid at-times McCoy Tyner-esque piano, his chanting of a Bahá’í prayer deeply adds to the record’s spiritual thrust.

This surely helps situate the LP into the context of its era, but it doesn’t date things in any kind of negative way, especially as it ushers in a killer surge of collective, and yes, Sanders-like, energy. It’s here that Braufman’s leadership (which isn’t really the word, as least in a trad post-bop sense) is established. That’s to say, his alto is assured, described by Allen as rooted in Jackie McLean but more immediately connected to the whole post-Coltrane explosion as heard on numerous recordings from the ESP-Disk and BYC-Actuel labels.

And into the ’70s via India Navigation. What becomes obvious is that Valley of Search is no likeable but lower-tier example of the movement. There are no weak links; the drumming of Lee and especially the percussion of Williams don’t just erupt and splatter forth but react to and intrinsically aid the music’s occasionally sharp turns, e.g. the redirect into flowing sax melodiousness and keyboard momentum that is “Thankfulness.”

Ah, flow. Unsurprising given the nature of the recording, the individual tracks cohere into an appealing, well-thought out, and satisfying whole. “Love is for Real” starts out in the groove zone before elevating into a wild ride of vertical motion, sax tangle, and sustained breath fury, with the surrounding whistles bringing to mind the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But the whole band just is going for it, and if you love (as opposed to merely respect) late-Coltrane, there is no way you’re not going to appreciate what’s here.

Matters do settle down, and then Braufman momentarily blows his top. “Miracles” is a fine bass solo from McBee and “Ark of Salvation” simmers nicely as the prelude to “Little Nabil’s March,” which comes off like a combo of Ayler’s wild catchiness and again, the Art Ensemble, but with a swell drum solo from Lee in the latter portion. The ruminative beauty (a la mid-period Impulse Coltrane) of “Destiny” closes the record.

That Valley of Search is just emerging now might lead some to persist in suspecting that it’s somehow a lesser example of the loft-free experience, but please consider that it followed saxophonist David Murray’s Flowers for Albert, which is one of the ’70s ruling jazz discs, in the India Navigation discography. Also, Braufman has a legitimately small body of work, and the masters for this set are reportedly lost (but don’t worry, as the transfer sounds fine). The gist? if you dig the free, then quit worrying and get ready to be knocked out by these recovered sounds of freedom.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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