Graded on a Curve: Sounds of Liberation, Unreleased (Columbia University 1973)

Emerging from the Germantown & Mt Airy neighborhoods of Philadelphia in 1970, the Sounds of Liberation are a noteworthy chapter in the labyrinthine progressions of 1970s jazz. This is in no small part due to the participation of vibraphonist Khan Jamal and saxophonist-flautist Byard Lancaster. Out now on vinyl through Dogtown Records in collaboration with Brewerytown Beats Records and with CDs available through Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey label, Unreleased (Columbia University 1973) documents the group’s unusually wide stylistic reach. Offering what its makers dubbed Black Liberation Music, it’s an enlightening pleasure for the ears.

In addition to Jamal and Lancaster, the Sounds of Liberation consisted of guitarist Monette Sudler, bassist Billy Mills, and drummer Dwight James, with significant input from percussionists Omar Hill and William Brister (aka Rashid Salim). In March of 1972, they first hit the studio for an LP that was issued the same year by Dogtown, initially as New Horizons.

Later pressings, including Porter Records’ 2010 LP/ CD reissue, were eponymous; under either title, the album delivers a killer journey into the funky-spiritual jazz dimension. As it hasn’t inspired much in the way of conversation or articles either in print or on the web, I’d also argue that the set is underrated (it’s OOP physically but currently available for the hearing on digital platforms).

Sounds of Liberation’s name does come up in relation to the Khan Jamal Creative Art Ensemble’s Drum Dance to the Motherland, which was recorded in October of ’72 and also released by Dogtown (with CD and LP reissues by Eremite in 2006 and 2017, respectively). If New Horizons/ Sounds of Liberation resides pretty plainly in the neighborhood of spiritual jazz groove, Drum Dance to the Motherland (which features Sudler, James and Mills in the band) was just as clearly a break from exploratory post-Fire Music norms, featuring in-the-moment sonic processing that’s tangibly and strikingly dub-like.

With Unreleased (Columbia University 1973), the stylistic growth continues down paths of community outreach and betterment (while extant Sounds of Liberation performed for school kids and inmates as well as in clubs). In short, the group tapped into what was being played on household stereos and by radio stations during this period (music that would’ve been “in the air,” y’know?) and then integrated it into an approach that remained undisguisedly descended from the ’60s jazz avant-garde.

The group’s success in hybridization might seem a little surprising, though as they travel diverse avenues of accessibility the overall intensity doesn’t suffer. In fact, opener “Thoughts” puts the guitar of Sudler (a consistent treat on Drum Dance to the Motherland) right up front in a scenario that’s considerably loft-jazzy; fans of the Wildflowers volumes should definitely take note.

As the rhythms get increasingly robust, Jamal is in strong form, expressive but not overly busy (the downfall of many a jazz vibist), and the track really takes off. Lancaster is notably absent, but I’m solidly sure that’s his flute in “Keno.” Although he’s credited with playing sax only, it’s not difficult to deduce that Lancaster was multitasking, as he was indeed a flautist (plus, he’s holding the instrument in the back-cover photo).

“Keno” is a decidedly Latin affair, by which I mean it could easily put one in mind of the Fania label, and those are some good thoughts to have. If it’s not quite as sharp as the best of Colón, Barretto, or Bataan, there’s still an abundance of verve (courtesy of Hill and Brister), with Jamal adding distinctiveness and Lancaster obviously comfortable throughout. Emphasizing their adeptness and versatility, “Badi” ups the Latin tempo while giving it both a funky kick and a boost in jazzy edge.

The boldest jazz maneuver on side one (sequenced between “Keno” and “Badi”) unfurls with no loss in funky momentum. Retaining the flute and adding alto sax (clearly some multitracking occurred at Columbia U), “Sweet Evil Mist” (Rib Crib)” also emits a few intermittent foghorn-like reed blasts. Intriguing. Overall, it’s a sweet ripper. Really, the only knock is that the cut doesn’t stretch out for a while.

Side two’s sole track “New Horizons (Back Streets of Heaven)” does extend for a good bit (totaling nearly 11 minutes; this is a concise LP) as the post-Pharoah Sanders soar and glide gets a vocal group soul injection that really drives home Sound of Liberation’s geographical reality. In short, folks who dig both Black Unity and Gamble & Huff just hit the jackpot.

There are some differences. While far from reserved, Lancaster doesn’t attain Sanders’ peak levels of ecstatic breathing. That’s alright however, as Jamal’s contribution sometimes suggests an early ’70s collab of Bobby Hutcherson and Sanders in one of his more amiable moods, with The Stylistics joining them in the studio. Altogether, a beautiful (if hypothetical) gathering.

And again, it all works much better than expected, partly because it always registers as natural rather than as a strained attempt at commercial viability stemming from frustration and/ or desperation. Unreleased (Columbia University 1973) doesn’t hit me as hard as the group’s debut (or Jamal’s Drum Dance to the Motherland, for that matter), but that’s largely because it’s not throwing as powerful of a punch. Instead, it’s about creative breadth, the spark of invention, and yes, the Sounds of Liberation. Hey, we need them now more than ever.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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