Graded on a Curve:
The Boston Creative
Jazz Scene 1970-1983

The history of jazz is dominated by events transpiring in New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, California, and of course New York, but all the while the music was thriving elsewhere in a variety of styles. As evidence one need only inspect the outstanding new compilation The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970-1983; collective improvisation, full-bodied fusion, post-Fire Music free wailing, consciousness raising spoken word, and advanced composition for large ensembles all helped shape the scene. It offers an exhaustive amount of info in an 80-page book, and is available now on 2LP and CD from Cultures of Soul.

Many thousands undertook the migration to well-ensconced cultural centers in hopes of adding to the jazz discourse and achieving something immortal; a few did, the vast majority did not, and yet their accumulated sonic narrative is still a formidably mountainous accumulation of sound. A percentage of those in the early navigation stages of the established jazz canon might find Cultures of Soul’s latest compilation a daunting item to be soaked up only after contending with a few hundred records of higher profile.

This is a questionable approach. For starters, the canon isn’t going anywhere, and The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970-1983’s standard of quality is likely to get absorbed into the annals of important jazz recordings anyway. Furthermore, Mark Harvey’s extensive notes do a fine job of illuminating the specifics of the city’s jazz environs (particularly venues and educational avenues) and relating them to the East Coast and Midwest scenes while providing background into the larger avant-garde and pinpointing a succession of noteworthy Boston players in the style.

Admittedly a wide field, Harvey details the early Boston avant motions of pianist Cecil Taylor and multi-instrumentalist Makanda Ken McIntyre, moves into groundbreaking work of pianists Lowell Davidson and Ran Blake (both of whom cut albums for ESP-Disk in 1965), bassist John Voigt (sessions with guitarist Joe Morris, saxophonist Jameel Moondoc and more), and The Fringe, a trio formed in the early ‘70s comprised of saxophonist George Garzone, bassist Rich Appleman, and drummer Bob Gullotti (their self-titled debut emerged in 1978).

Davidson and especially Blake are known figures in the jazz avant-garde while Voigt and The Fringe can be discovered fairly easily by persistent fans of the style, but The Boston Creative Jazz Scene focuses on a less celebrated wave of players, all of them integral to Boston’s experimental growth in the delineated period, with the set deftly sequenced to emphasize the range of their artistry.

Most of the records were privately pressed. As major labels and venues grew disinterested in pursuing a relationship with the jazz avant-garde, this was far from an unusual circumstance. The DIY impulse became far more common for edgy jazz of the post-Coltrane era, and many LPs were self-released as performances transpired outside the nightclub sphere. Additionally, non-profits and “self-help” groups strengthened community and aided in disseminating the music.

In mid-’60s New York there was the Jazz Composers Guild as formed by the great trumpeter-composer-educator Bill Dixon and the related Jazz Composers Orchestra Association of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler. During the same timeframe in Chicago the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians set in motion a ball of support, education, and collaboration that’s still rolling today.

The activities of the AACM proved influential beyond the Windy City. For one instance they inspired Mark Harvey to help form the Jazz Coalition in Boston. Having moved north from New York in ’68 to attend the Boston University School of Theology, multi-instrumentalist Harvey received musical tutelage from pianist Jaki Byard and composer George Russell in the jazz program of the New England Conservatory of Music.

Drawn to the crossroads of jazz and spirituality, Harvey started a band that served as the resident jazz ensemble for Boston’s Old West Church. As the two selections filling side one of The Boston Creative Jazz Scene show, by 1970 his aggregation was totally free in orientation. Originally from ’72s The Mark Harvey Group in Concert at Harvard-Epworth Church, the concise “For Margot” and the considerably lengthier “Tarot: The Moon” explore notions of collectivity clearly informed by prime AACM exponent the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

It’s an influence openly cited by Harvey in the notes, but his group offers interesting points of departure; foremost, the lack of string bass and the proliferation of percussion instruments underscore a unique rhythmic sensibility generally eschewing motions of swing in favor of space, abstraction, breadth, and silence.

Moments of quiet are an effective tactic in “Tarot: the Moon.” The track’s title relates to what’s described in the notes as a “programmatic approach,” meaning improvisations inspired by writing, sculpture, painting, or in this case a card from a Tarot deck. Most important is the level of exploration from calm to sweetly cacophonous as led by Harvey’s trumpet and Peter Bloom’s tenor sax. Craig Ellis’ piano and Michael Standish’s percussion lend dimension.

Chicagoan Arnold “Arni” Cheatham was also deeply impacted by the AACM; traveling to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music, unlike other short-term visitors he remained in the city to positive effect, founding the educational program JazzEd and forming Thing, a group not to be confused with the Norwegian/Swedish avant jazz outfit of the same name.

Cheatham’s Thing released one self-titled LP in ’72 on Innerview Records; documenting a live performance at Harvard University, it was reissued on CD in 2008 by the Porter label. As evidenced by “Sketch Parts 1 & 2” and “Road through the Wall Parts 2 & 3” they excelled at tough-edged fusion a la ‘70s Miles Davis and early Weather Report.

Rhythmically forceful via Kiah “T” Knowlin’s drums and Dorian McGhee’s congas, the plugged-in portion of the lineup featured Bob O’Connell’s guitar, Vagn Leick’s piano and David Saltman’s bass as Wil Letman’s trumpet and Cheatham’s alto/soprano saxophones spearhead the charge. The results fall unabashedly into the fusion camp but with a muggy potency widely sidestepping commercialism.

A searching yet far from difficult listen, Cheatham’s Thing differs substantially from the Coltrane-Sanders horn skronk of the Phill Musra Group, a trio consisting of the leader and his twin brother Michael Cosmic on various horns and Huseyin Ertunc on drums. All three are credited with percussion as Cosmic adds organ tones bringing distinctiveness to a decidedly spiritual excursion.

“The Creator is So Far Out” and “Egypt” are taken from the ’74’s The Creator Spaces as initially issued on Intex Sound. Derived from a studio date, the spiritual plunge of the Musra Group is more than slightly reminiscent of the Impulse-ESP-BYG Fire Music zone, but with the welcome twist of Cosmic’s organ, its inflection quite dissimilar to the jazz-standard Hammond.

“Egypt” flaunts a raft-load of flute as Musra’s chimes hint at Coltrane’s Om and the percussion suggests the Art Ensemble, unsurprising as the brothers had played in the AACM big band while in Chicago. But perhaps the highlight of the Musra Group’s pieces is the gnawing whine of Cosmic’s zurna, a Middle-Eastern instrument similar to the oboe.

“9 Degrees Black Women Liberation” by Worlds’ (a truncation of World’s Experience Orchestra) shifts into the merger of jazz and poetry, with Larry Roland’s flowing topicality a cinch to bring the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron to mind. However, the cut is affable rather than angry as it transcends the dicey finger-snap of spoken-word territory, Chauncey Hutcherson’s drums and sextet leader John Jamyll Jones’ bass laying down a hearty, pleasant groove accented by Earl Grant-Lawrence’s flute.

Culled from the second of Worlds’ two LPs, it signals a move toward the accessible as The Boston Creative Jazz Scene nears its close. Next is Stanton Davis’ Ghetto Mysticism; Brighter Days was issued in ’77 on Outrageous Records Inc. (reissued by Cultures of Soul in 2011), and “Play Sleep” is an intriguing bouillabaisse of elements.

Davis’ connection with composer-arranger-teacher George Russell is reflected in the overall structural vigor as the piece’s origin from the pen of veteran Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek accentuates a likeable and pretty rare union of funk and ECM. It leads into the highly unexpected fusion-esque large ensemble oddness of Baird Hersey’s “Herds and Hoards” from The Year of the Ear, his ’75 debut featuring saxophonist Dave Liebman; the title also functioned as the name of his group.

A student of Bill Dixon, Hersey’s reels in a wholly different kettle of trout from his teacher’s elevated abstraction. After a short solo flute spot (the instrument seemingly ubiquitous in the era’s jazz) Hersey ups Stanton Davis’ funk quotient as “Herds and Hoards” kinda connects like Lalo Schifrin collaborating with a fledgling Bill Laswell on a project funded by Ze Records.

Succumbing to neither vamping or noodling, wielding guitar that should please fans of McLaughlin and James Blood Ulmer, and spurting bursts of horn squawk and oozing passages of gripping angularity, Hersey closes an extremely worthwhile survey of under the radar invention. For lovers of adventurous jazz expression The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970-1983 is a necessary acquisition.


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