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Juma Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society - Father of Origin

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Artist: Juma Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society

Album: Father of Origin

Label: Eremite

Review date: Nov. 8, 2011

Once you break from the Great Man-oriented history of jazz, you swap a time-line for something more like a multi-hued magic carpet woven from a myriad of narratives. Some of those stories are quite public and others well hidden, but Juma Sultan is one rare bird who has managed to be both at once. He associated with the best, and not just the obscure; he was Jimi Hendrix’s good pal and go-to conga player, appearing with him at Woodstock and on The Dick Cavett show. He also played on boundary-erasing jazz documents such as Noah Howard’s The Black Ark and Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues. The Aboriginal Music Society, a mutable music group/recording studio/artist’s collective that he co-led with fellow multi-instrumentalist Ali Abuwi from 1968-1978, welcomed both anonymous players and celebrated 1960s and ‘70s personages such as Julius Hemphill, Barry Altschul, David Izenzon and Charles “Bobo” Shaw into its ranks. The AME performed at Lincoln Center and partnered with George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival to put on a series of bicentennial jazz concerts. Now aged 69, Sultan is still alive, reminiscing about Jimi on DVDs and using his musical talents to spread the Christian gospel. He is not hiding under anyone’s rock.

But if you weren’t down with the Woodstock arts community or New York’s loft jazz scene when they were around, you probably don’t know about them, because they never released a record. The ‘70s was a weird time for jazz. Major labels abandoned it, and although small labels picked up some of the slack, it was much harder to get a record made and meaningfully distributed than it is now. And while Sultan and Abuwi documented many hours of Aboriginal Music Society jams and concerts, their work was purely documentary. It took the passage of several decades and the assistance of Clarkson University and an NEA Grant to to begin to get this material into usable shape. Now Eremite Records, a label originally known for its enthusiastic sponsorship of the ‘90s East Coast ecstatic jazz community and more recently for putting out high-end vinyl editions, has gotten on board to give the Society’s music a physical manifestation.

And what a manifestation it is. Father of Origin comes in a swanky box that holds a beautifully printed, richly illustrated and thoughtfully annotated 12” x 12” booklet, two LPs pressed to audiophile specifications, and a CD. In an age when just about everything is available on-line if you care to look and double CDs of historic performances sell for less than a couple of six packs of your preferred microbrew, leading with an upscale boxed set (which, if all goes well, will be followed by more releases from Sultan’s archive) is a determined assertion that this shit matters.

But a skeptic might put forth the challenge — how much does it matter? Does this music deserve this lavish treatment any more than, say Kali Z. Fasteau and Rafael Donald Garrett’s Sea Ensemble, which got a more Spartan treatment from Flying Note a few years back? Going back to the carpet analogy, the AME’s recordings may introduce some beautiful threads into the fabric but they don’t profoundly change the grand design. Sun Ra’s Arkestra explored similar territory as they added massed percussion and experimented with pop rhythms; they also espoused communal (albeit less democratic) principles, recorded themselves, and admitted a mixture of esteemed ringers and utter nobodies into their fold.

But the AME did it their own way, and it’s a way worth hearing. The three early ‘70s performances showcase a variety of performance strategies, including a trio overdubbing in the studio, another self-recorded trio with saxophonist Frank Lowe, and a couple of large ensemble jams, one featuring some visiting heavies from St. Louis’s Black Artists Group. On the first LP, the three-part “Fan Dance” braids the twisted lines of trumpeter Earl Cross, saxophone and flute player Gene Dinwiddie, and guitarist Ralph Walsh over a variety of rhythmic approaches that incorporates post-Miles electric heaviosity and pan-African polyrhythms into a uniquely free flow. Early on, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (whose friend and occasional drummer Philip Wilson is on board here) did something similar, but their excursions into this territory generally had a theatrical dimension that’s missing here. It’s all about the music, brother, and especially the rolling grooves. “Ode To A Gypsy Son” comes from the same session, but was made after most of the players had left. Sultan’s unintended elegy for his pal Hendrix, who died one week after it was recorded, is as much an atmosphere as a musical performance. Moaning voices, flutes, mellophone and a homemade reed instrument called an ahoudt (which sounds like a bassoon) snake through a jungle of hand drums, taking you deep into a place without words; if this is how Sultan felt about Jimi, their connection was on a spiritual plane far from the crosstown traffic and the foxy ladies.

The second LP is brief, but pungent. One side is cut at 45 RPM, and the total running time of both sides is 26 minutes. It’s of historical note because the third player joining Sultan and Abuwi is tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe. It’s Lowe’s first known recording, predating his work with Alice Coltrane by several months and his ESP debut, Black Beings, by a couple years. Lowe’s serrated-edge style is already in place, and he adapts well to his partners’ undulating percussion and winding melodies; in fact, despite the specificity of his sound, the music is all theirs’. One thing that this and the session preserved on CD show is how strong the AMS aesthetic was; even such singular players as Lowe or alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill fit into their sound rather than turn the Society to their ends. The CD’s recording is undated, but the personnel are known. It was made on a day that the Society was joined by some visitors from St. Louis’s Black Artist’s Group. With up to four of the eight players on drums, the group sustains an unrelenting rhythmic surge. Dinwiddie, Hemphill and Abuwi (on oboe) don’t solo so much as they unspool long lines that pull together, diverge and snake in and out of the unstoppable beats. The ensemble shouts support, and somewhere in the middle of it, Abdul Wadud essays savage slashes or yanks at his cello strings so that they articulate a pulse much like the one that McCoy Tyner inserted into his latter performances with John Coltrane.

It’s thrilling stuff, and it’s easy to get lost in the music’s white water flow. While packaging aficionados will swoon over Father of Origin‘s beautiful execution, it’s the way the sounds take you away that proves its significance.

By Bill Meyer

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