The Max Roach Trio featuring the legendary Hasaan, Max Roach and Hasaan Ibn Ali (Atlantic, 1965)

Defined by a series of dramatic, moody openers, or introductions - setting the scene, displacing the scene, making everything appear ambiguous and atmospheric - and very abrupt track endings, this record is something else. It carries an entire universe you don't find in any other place. If I were to be asked to 'take five' jazz records that are close to my heart, this album would be there.

Sometimes you can love a record by an artist and not be an obsessive fan of their other work, and while of course Max Roach is a major star in the firmament, it is his unexpected interaction with the little-known Philadelphia pianist, Hasaan Ibn Ali (this was his only recording, even though he was well-known at the time: Thelonious Monk cited him as his key inspiration) that makes this album so special.

Roach keeps his drumming loose, sloppy, open-wristed, almost deconstructed - falling apart as it keeps its shape - to offer a sharp emotional contrast with Ali's idiosyncratic piano playing style; at times, emphatic and assertive, other times whimsical and playful, or toying with some kind of just below the surface groove.

Track one: 'Three four vs Six-Eight Four-Four ways' opens with one of those beautifully excessive aforementioned intros, a deep, resounding heartbeat that plays with the child-like piano refrain; the drumming stops and starts, rolling in its wonderful abundance, to stop completely at four minutes to start up again with the piano-line, as an ironic after-thought.

My favourite though, this kills me, it seems so modern: track three 'Hope so Elmo' ... Opening so moody and monumental, sounding like bullets breaking up and then the drums disappear to allow the sonorous bass, provided by Art Davis to become the central element. And then Roach comes back, about four minutes in, and the piano part speeds up, becoming very determined, insistent almost, as the drums cut in and out like tiny explosions.

Now I'd never put myself forward as an expert (it isn't false modesty, but more my awareness that like a character in a short story by Borges that finds himself, in awe when faced by a library without limits, I know that there will always be a piece of music, or maybe some person holding tight to an encyclopedia to 'prove me wrong') but this track strikes me something very different, something unique within the jazz genre.

(Talking about being wrong, hope there's no issue with the title above, the YT vid doesn't have a track-listing, the wik reference is not the same etcetera; write me a note if it's off; talking about YT originally I posted the entire record, but it has since disappeared; major shame).  

The music on this album strikes me as an exploration of space - in an emotional sense, in a kind of atmosphere - rather than time, where the different elements are expanded to fit and to distort what we expect; we see it in the way the musicians hold the space open, pausing and exploring, rather than moving to some kind of resolution.  

Here's a nice comment on the record by another fan, Timy Keller that I found on the very short AllMusic review:      

This is the only record where you can hear pianist Hasaan. Note the irony of the word “legendary” in the album title for a musician then unknown and who fell from public eye soon after.

We owe Max Roach this miraculous session where we can discover new pianistic sounds that lay somewhere between Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk, soon wishing we had a whole discography of this to explore. But beyond the historic nature of the session comes the music and for that the word “legendary” seems more appropriate.

The sound and the general mood of the record made me think of the classic Money Jungle record, also with Max Roach on drums. There’s the same type of interaction and that raw and dirty feel that I love to find in improvised music.

All the compositions are penned by the pianist, another reason to regret such a small output. Hasaan isn’t a king of melody or riff like Monk but builds his tunes more around rhythmical patterns and contrasts (just listen to the head on the first track), there are no catchy melodies but the energetic quality of the whole keeps our interest alive. Maybe that’s the word that describes this album best: energy. This is a rare gem.

And I came across a thread where there were various interesting replies to the question below:

Hasaan Ibn Ali made a very fine recording with Max Roach and Art Davis for Atlantic. I’ve been searching for information about him but I can’t find anything. He was a very interesting piano player who played with a very original and different style. I was very impressed with this recording. Does anyone have any information about this man......?

'Groove Merchant' replied: 'If I remember correctly Hasaan Ibn Ali , born William Henry Langford , died in 1981 at age 50. I don't play his lp much ; guess I'd rather listen to Monk , Nichols or Hope . Tom Dowd's engineering didn't do anyone any favors either . I recall though that Max's playing is top notch , so that's as good a reason as any to dig this one out and revisit it.'

And another reply: 'I attended a Jimmy Heath interview/master class on Saturday afternoon, followed by a Jimmy Heath concert in the evening. During the Q&A with the audience, I asked Heath about Hasaan. His face kind of lit up as he asked, "Hasaan? The piano player?!?" He spoke for a couple of minutes about Hasaan, mainly focusing on his eccentricities. Here are a few random bits:

1) To Hasaan's annoyance, Philly Joe called him Hot Sam. Others called him Count Langford.

2) Hasaan complained about another musician, saying "He stole my 13ths, but I got 29ths!"

3) Hasaan had the habit of buying new ties and cutting them in half, a practice that still seemed to baffle Heath.

4) Heath referred to Hasaan being avant garde before Cecil Taylor, and said that Hasaan didn't get as many gigs as other pianists, which the following story might explain. Hasaan was playing a gig with the singer Bull Moose Jackson, who was an ugly man (hence the nickname) who could sing pretty. The band was going to play 'Flying Home'(Heath sang the melody so people would know how it went). Bull Moose said to Hasaan, "Give me that intro." Hasaan proceeded to play the intro as you'd expect Hasaan to play it. Bull Moose then said, "Give me that intro again!" He couldn't find where to come in.

The audience enjoyed Heath's Hasaan anecdotes, even if most of them had never heard of him before. Heath remembered that Hasaan only appeared on one album, so maybe some of them will seek it out. In my question, I also asked about John Dennis, another obscure Philly pianist. Although Heath didn't address the Dennis part, I was happy to at least learn more about Hasaan. I get really nervous when speaking in public, but Heath's stories made the rise in blood pressure worth it.' 

Re Veteran Groover's posting of 15 May 2012: "Hasaan had the habit of buying new ties and cutting them in half, a practice that still seemed to baffle Heath."

Hasaan did not cut his ties in half. What gave people that impression was this: Hasaan would position his tie with the narrow, back part in the front, adjust the length so that the narrow part hung only to mid-chest, and wind the remainder of the tie around his trunk so that it would be hidden under his shirt. I know this to be true because I once saw him do it. 

by HomageToDonByas

Hasaan did not cut his ties in half.

I like that this is the only post from "HomageToDonByas."

Listened to the Atlantic recording today. Tom Dowd panned Hasaan's piano far left — right on top of Art Davis's bass. Max gets (pretty much) the whole right channel to himself. The record (not the recording) itself is killer. Though Hasaan was mentored by Elmo Hope, I hear quite a bit of Herbie Nichols in his playing. Almost a missing link between Monk and Nichols. Anyone else hear this?

I'm back by request from Spontooneous but not sure that I have any more of interest to contribute. Any specific questions?

Welcome back! Would you please tell more about his behavior, on or off the stand? Was he easy to get along with? Solitary? Prickly? Angry? Spacey? (Not too specific there, I know! Just trying to get a better picture of him.)

He was extremely eccentric. He was not prickly, not angry. He was an only child and was doted on by his parents, with whom he continue to live as an adult.

He titled his letters. I remember one title: Retrospect in Retirement of Delay.

Drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey, in a 2008 interview with writer Don Alberts, said, "And who was [Thelonious] Monk's idol? Hasaan Ibn Ali. Nobody knows that!"

Ref: Alberts, Don (2011) A Diary of the Underdogs: Jazz in the 1960's in San Francisco. p. 120. Chill House Publishers. 

Rising Son, Takuya Kuroda (Blue Note, 2014)

Sometimes that entire fusion thing can be close to unbearable to listen to; I have memories of watching a group here in Paris that was made up of super-enthusiastic types playing a 'musical mix' inspired by Af-ri-ka and felt so tired just watching them and their high energy antics (so left early). The trick, I think, is to underplay the influences, keep it low-key: serve it cold.

In this sense, this debut offering from Kuroda works beautifully. The first three tracks on this 2014 album are some of the best jazz, influenced by other genres, that I have heard for a long while. The first track - the title of the record, 'Rising Son' in particular hooked me as soon as I heard it, mainly because of the pretty strange, in some ways, production/recording. It seems as if the bass is brought forward so much it almost slips into distortion, it's a heavy and excessive sound that overpowers the rest, keeping the trumpet quiet, almost forgotten. I find this surprising and fresh. Similarly, the plastic-fantastic start is lovely and the stumbling, falling over your feet beat is nice too.

The next two tracks show their influences more clearly, but still with a kind of graceful gentleness that works. Interestingly, Kuroda cites Lee Morgan as a key influence on his latest record, Zigzagger (released in October this year), an artist I've been discovering and rediscovering a lot recently, for his ability to pre-empt new directions, in an under-stated way. There is a similar modesty in the approach of Kuroda, which is welcome.

A description of Kuroda's approach, influences, with reference to his most recent record from his website :

Whether moving from Japan to the U.S. or navigating between the influences of jazz, soul, hip-hop, Afrobeat and electronica, trumpeter/composer Takuya Kuroda has never followed a straight path. On his fifth studio album and Concord Records debut, the aptly named Zigzagger, Kuroda darts between those wide-ranging interests with a funky swagger and an intensely swinging vigor. The deeply infectious album, due out October 7, 2016, finds the trumpeter snaking his way around the opposing poles of acoustic and electric, bristling grooves and blissed-out vibes, punchy brass and fluid synths, carving his own distinctive sonic path along the way.

“Life is sometimes not that easy, sometimes not so difficult, and it should never go straight,” Kuroda says. “It’s always zigzagging. So I put my soul and spirit into that word.

Here's a taste of a track from Kuroda's most recent record ...

'Keep on Running' Stevie Wonder (Music of my mind, Tamla, 1972)

Some gonna get you
Some gonna grab you
Some gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you
Whole lotta folks, you better run faster.

Some gonna grab you
Some gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you
Some gonna grab you
Oh You need this thing to grab you, ha.
Yea, yea

Keep on running
Keep on running from my love
Keep on running, yea
Keep on running from my love

Disco precursor, some say that this almost seven minute sparkle and joy, where Stevie Wonder's exuberance comes to full effect could be taken from the template of the later work of Moroder, but also black echo, and radical reinvention - though there is nothing to suggest that Stevie Wonder did this consciously - of a key track from the 1960s rock canon. 

Whereas the Spencer Davis group tune from 1965 is extremely accessible, comfortably fitting itself into familiar conventions of rhythm and message, Stevie Wonder's track is playful, mercurial and hard to pin down. (There's an entire back story behind the rock version of 'Keep on running' first written and recorded by Jackie Edwards, an artist who played a key role in the invention of ska, first via his recordings for Studio One and then the songs he wrote for artists at Island Records: let's hope he got those royalties).    

'One fine day I'm gonna be the one,' sings the rather stolid teenage Steve Winwood, as he makes his way through the tune, his straight-up delivery set off by the fuzz effects on the guitar. In contrast, Stevie Wonder plays around with ambiguity; starting with the 'some gonna get you' (who is that subject talking there?) and sounds like he's having a ball, smiling at the ruse.

Opening with a 'single repeated pitch in the synthesizer and piano along with unpredictable percussion accentuations,' to use the words of James E Perone, who has written a book on the artist, The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music.  Perone writes that the track is carried along by a 'harder-edged version of keyboard-based funk, particularly because of Wonder's synthesized version of pedal-laden electric rhythm guitar' (that he says marks the influence of other musicians from the era, such as Curtis Mayfield).

'Wonder's dissonant piano links at the end of the stanzas add significantly to the "scary" nature of the song,' Perone writes. But it is this 'scariness' that Perone has problems with, as he writes that while the track 'finds Stevie Wonder expanding his expressive range, (it) also presents him as a bit of an unsympathetic figure' - the problem being what Perone sees to be Wonder taking on a 'macho "superbad" persona' that is like a 'scary ... Superfly-like sex machine'.

The problem with the song is that the lead character is so foreign to anything Wonder had done before (or after for that matter) that it stretches the limits of believability for the listener ... (It is) almost like a song that was written and arranged for another singer.

Perone cites the song's lack of commercial success - it reached no. 36 on the Billboard R&B chart and no. 90 on the Billboard pop charts - and that it was one of Stevie Wonder's worst performing singles as evidence that the audience didn't know what to make of the song,

Now, it's not really my interest to defend or explain or locate Stevie Wonder, as if, but even a cursory look at the lyrics makes it clear that taking such a literal stance is a bit problematic, especially since the (female) backing vocalists have such an important role in the song's structure (and are ones repeating the essential refrain). 

What's interesting for me when listening to the greats of this era and this genre, perhaps, is the way they understood the importance of music as being made up of distinct elements and that their genius came through the way they played around with these elements, allowing some to come forward or recede, or keep them constant. This is where their creativity lies. For this reason I'm not listening to relate to the singer, or what he/she is singing, as this music is not an expression of Stevie Wonder's feelings. It's self-conscious and manufactured, intentionally: the lyrics are not the whole, just another element.  

Other than that my preference is to see the 'some' as intentionally vague; potentially referring to internal/external devils, ready to play havoc and attack your peace of mind, rather than a literal bad guy waiting to take a leap 'from the bushes'. Wonder, too, seems to be encouraging such a perspective ie that the lyrics should not be taken literally: at one point he shifts it to talking about his friend, rather than himself ('Some folks say that you're really, really fine/But all you want to be is just a friend of mine/But I know I'm gonna get you with him - real soon').

Anyway, whatever your take on the lyrics, this track is magic in itself, even the sceptical Perone can't help but recognise this:

Some of the synthesiser links are more showy than what Wonder would later allow himself in his more commercial funk pieces. The piece slows down approximately 4-1/2 minutes into a 6-minute-40 second performance. The subsequent re-crescendo in the repetition of “keep on running, running from my love” chorus sound like what a fine funky soul band might do in a live concert performance, or a studio jam.

And better sound quality, though am not 100 % sure it's the same live performance (or even if Stevie Wonder is playing in the video above ... he seems to be missing just a few musicians). 

It's commonplace for critics to note that Music of my mind marked an important development in Stevie Wonder's career, as a statement of independence (as his first record freed of the shackles of Motown) and musical intent. Penny Valentine in her review for UK magazine, Sounds praised Wonder's arrangement of 'intriguing vocal patterns" on what she deemed "an album of explosive genius and unshackled self-expression.'

Check out this interview between Valentine and Wonder on the album's release, where Stevie Wonder rhapsodises about the Moog synthesiser and how liberated he felt to be doing his own thing. Indeed, the use of synthesiser is key to Wonder's musical development, to quote a more recent Sputnik review: Wonder 'makes a small job of transposing the passion of soul music into a synthesized world, turning his army of electronics into delicate digital emotions.' Here's another assessment, running along the same lines:

What resulted was a cohesive album where the songs fit together well. It was his first album to make the synthesizer the dominant instrument, which resulted in the dramatic use of chord and key changes, which quickly became a consistent part of his style and sound.

And yet another that begins with a quote from the album liner notes ...

The sounds themselves come from inside his mind. The man is his own instrument. The instrument is an orchestra.”
Music of My Mind was also the first to bear the fruits of his increased focus on Moog and Arp synthesizers, though the songs never sound synthetic, due in great part to Stevie’s reliance on a parade of real instruments — organic drum work, harmonica, organs and pianos — as well as his mastery of traditional song structure and his immense musical personality.

 

But to close I like this quote best, from a super-enthusiastic contemporary review from Rolling Stone that captures my own point of view regarding this piece of music four decades on:  

‘Keep On Running’ is a knockout. The cut begins with a kind of ominous tangle of electronic squiggles, piano, nervous cymbal clashes and dark bassy threats as Stevie sings, “Something gonna get you/Something gonna grab you/Something gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you.” After two verses and a few anticipatory beats, the song breaks out in earnest, the beat picks up and Stevie repeats, “Keep on running/Keep on running from my love.” I can’t remember hearing a synthesizer sound so exciting and alive. Later, as the music gets hotter, and Stevie more mock-threatening, a girls’ chorus comes in and all build together on a relentless repetition of “Keep on running, running from my love” that takes up the better part of the song’s more than six minutes. If you can listen to this sitting very still in your chair, something is wrong.

Bless you Sinéad

In 1992, when Sinéad O'Connor transformed Marley's key track 'War' to an acapella plea for the world to recognise institutional child abuse in the Catholic Church - on the rather surprising platform of SNL - the performance almost 'derailed her career' to use the common assessment of the time (and Internet since).

All these years later, leaving aside all the fuss and carry-on of the time among many forgotten types, we can appreciate this act as a supremely courageous gesture as well as a sublime musical performance, just on the basis of her voice, her conviction, alone. For me this is bravery incarnate, and when you know something of O'Connor's childhood, the fact that she could speak out like this is inspirational.

O'Connor was one of those rare prodigies, having written 'Troy'

when she was a teenager. The song makes reference to lines from Yeats' 'No Second Troy' ('Why, what could she have done being what she is?/Was there another Troy for her to burn?').

One of her loveliest songs, while still being one of her most political - even though that word feels leaden in this context, as it is so much 'more' than this - is 'Black boys on mopeds'; a song that is also a very touching representation of motherhood. For me this song shows the value of stepping past the categories we find ourselves in and the value of empathy that crosses racial and other categories. O'Connor sings of wanting to protect 'her boy' while singing of the suffering of 'black boys' shot by the police; they are one and the same.

The song was inspired by the death of Colin Roach who died from a gunshot wound inside Stoke Newington police station in London, in 1983. From wiks:

The 1990 album by Sinead O’Connor “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” featured a track called “Black Boys On Mopeds.” Although the lyrics do not mention Colin Roach directly, the entire album is essentially dedicated to his family, and contains a photograph on the inner sleeve of his sad-faced parents standing in the rain in front of a poster of their son. Below the image is the inscription: God’s place is the world; but the world is not God’s place.

The French often talk about being curious and how this is a valuable quality, more and more I think it is the essential quality - not love, whatever that might mean for you, that's too individual - but curiosity and openness to the experience of others. (And yet all over the place, perhaps particularly in progressive spaces, I see people closing in, seeking some kind of purity of experience based on identity. This seems so misguided ... nothing is, or can be, pure).   

Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her
I’ve said this before now
You said I was childish and you’ll say it now
Remember what I told you
If they hated me they will hate you
England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving
Young mother down at Smithfield
Five a.m., looking for food for her kids
In her arms she holds three cold babies
And the first word that they learned was please
These are dangerous days
To say what you feel is to dig your own grave
Remember what I told you
If you were of the world they would love you
England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving

    

'Karen' The Go-Betweens (Able Label, 1978)

I just want some affection
I just want some affection
I don't want no hoochie-coochie mama
No back door woman
No Queen Street sex thing
I want a tiger on bended knees
With all the kindness of the Japanese
I just want some affection
I wish I heard voices
Wish I was a telephone

Karen yeah-yeah, Karen yeah-yeah
Karen yeah-yeah, Karen yeah-yeah yeah
I said yeah, oh Karen!

I know this girl
This very special girl
And she works in a library, yeah
Standing there behind the counter
Willing to help
With all the problems that I encounter

Helps me find Hemingway
Helps me find Genet
Helps me find Brecht
Helps me find Chandler
Helps me find James Joyce
She always makes the right choice

She's no queen
She's no angel
Just a peasant from the village
She's my god, she's my god
She's my g-o-d, she's my god, yeah, yeah
She's my g-o-o-d, yeah

Oh, she's my god now Yeah!
Karen yeah-yeah, Karen yeah-yeah
Karen yeah-yeah, Karen yeah-yeah yeah
I said yeah, oh Karen!

And she stands there in the library
Like a nun in a church does
Like a nun in a church does
She stands there all alone
'Cos she gets me something that I
Just can't get now anywhere else
Cause the girls that I see
Walking around, yeah the ones I see
Walking on the street
Are so damn-da-da-da-damned cold
'Cos they must have eskimo blood in their veins
And the one that I want
I just can't see
I can't see her there
I can't see her anywhere

Alright!
Oh Karen yeah-yeah...
Karen, Karen, Karen, Karen, Karen, Karen!

How this song speaks to me ...  

'Into the groovey' Ciccone Youth (The Whitey Album, Enigma/Blast First, 1989)

Those opening moments of the deep-Goth bassline, and then the percussive sounds that remind me of a swinging door (I can’t even make out the instruments) strike me as one of the lushest openings in ‘pop’ or alternative music; slap, slap, slap. 

The Allmusic review by Bradley Torreano agreed, saying the cover 'manages to mold a fantastic dirge out of the original. Thurston Moore's lazy vocals pair up with Madonna's sampled voice seamlessly, and the low-quality production only adds to the homegrown feel.'

This piece of music, a tribute to Madonna’s hit, was first released on a 12 inch with two other tracks and then later formed part of the lp, The Whitey Album – by Sonic Youth feat. the Minutemen’s Mike Watt . It also included a very basic rap (‘Tuff Titty Rap’) and Kim Gordon intoning Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’. Not everyone liked it, with one Trouser Press critic stating: ‘This joke doesn’t translate and the disc comes across as a self-indulgent mess.’

Recently, Cameron MacDonald at Stylus spoke of how he felt confused when he first heard the record as a teenager, in that he thought 'Sonic Youth was a skate-punk band' (despite the fact the group had released a number of difficult, challenging records before this, say Evol or Sister). He added: 'I didn’t even know that the “Youth” were in their thirties and forties by then.'

Making reference to how mixed the response was, he adds:

Sonic Youth gave few hints in interviews about why they concocted the 1989 record other than saying that it just happened. Whitey can either be accepted as a sublime moment of pop and hip-hop deconstruction or it can be dismissed as art-rockers with heads full of bad taste and pretension dicking around in the studio.

And as for 'Into the Groovey' when MacDonald first heard it, he dismissed it as the flattest dance song he had ever heard.

The Flashdance beats plodded, the guitars muttered the basic melody, and Moore could barely keep himself awake on the karaoke mic. Samples of Madonna’s off-key serenade remind us that this is a “cover” from time to time. Intentional lameness was not high-art to me.

Well, maybe all of this was intentional, the 'flatness' and Moore's slowed down, sleepwalking delivery (though mot so much the perceived 'lameness' , of course). I love this cover for the way it embodies contradictions (unlike other critics I don’t think it’s a parody, but sincere appreciation; Thurston Moore seems to be singing the lyrics as if he means them and the sound is fab, deep and mysterious) and makes manifest musical layering.

MacDonald says how fans of hip-hop, or even hip-hop artists, might dislike this record and see it as a kind of disrespect, I can’t see why as musically it’s a punk take on the genre, where noise/distortion is used in the same way scratching might be for emphasis, to break something up, to jolt us into awareness or as a way of making connections between the elements. And the way the sample of Madonna comes back, as if she is underwater and rising to the surface like a singing mermaid is pretty lovely and difficult to dislike, I think.

The contrast between her sweet voice and the other, heavier musical elements, as they interact with each other; or gesture towards the other is what keeps this fresh. I liked this song when I first heard it (and bought the vinyl) and still do all these years on. It’s a perfect example of punk deconstruction – and humour, possibly though I don’t hear that so much – that was very much of the era, with other electro-alternative groups such as Consolidated in San Francisco or Bongwater/Kramer in New York.

It's a great example of a kind of deadened disco, nurtured by 70s noise/electronic acts, and no less powerful for that; darkness and light.

To finish, Sonic Youth at their best - during this time - were masters at creating atmosphere, as shown by this song ‘Providence’ from Daydream Nation that I think has influenced other more recent acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It's so simple, featuring a cryptic answering machine message from Mike Watt and, what one Youtube poster says, is piano from Chick Corea’s acoustic band. Even if Wiko says otherwise: 

Providence consisted of a piano solo by Moore recorded at his mother’s house using a walkman, the sound of an amp overheating and a pair of telephone messages left by Mike Watt, calling for Moore from a Providence, Rhode Island payphone, dubbed over one another.

Straight Life, Freddie Hubbard (CTI, 1971)

Featuring: Freddie Hubbard (trumpet & flugel), Herbie Hancock (Fender Rhodes), Ron Carter (acoustic bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Richard 'Pablo' Landrum (congas), Weldon Irvine (tambourine), George Benson (electric guitar) & Joe Henderson (tenor sax)

Recorded in a one-day session on the 16th November 1970 and released the following January. The 17-minute opener ‘Straight Life’ is, as the Jazz historian Douglas Payne writes ‘almost a funked-up bossa’ with Joe Henderson trading, at times overshadowing Hubbard whose delicate performance offers a bridge between old and new.

But what I love most here, apart from the graceful making space for the various performers to come forward, is the atmospheric bass-line provided by Ron Carter. He conjures up an amazing sound, similar to a stone being dropped in water; not moving in any particular direction, not moving forward but providing the foundations. It sounds percussive, so deep, allowing the other instruments to offer their counterpoint, in particular the expressive fluidity of Jack DeJohnette; who Payne writes is ‘firing rapidly on all pistons, more like a rock drummer than a jazz drummer.’ Here’s more from Payne’s notes from the 40th anniversary re-release that also mentions Hancock ‘comping gloriously’:

Henderson solos magnificently in a trademark style that mixes the power and fury with the passion and fire of his unappreciated and undervalued Milestone albums of the period. Henderson’s solo nearly decimates Hubbard’s own solo – nothing shabby, but hardly matching the intensity of the song’s other performers. Hancock then solos in the funky melodic style he established on Fat Albert’s Rotunda (no spacey interludes here), followed by Benson providing an almost intellectual interjection that still has the warm soulful passion that seems to suggest the composer wanted to alternate Henderson and Hancock’s jazzier interludes with Hubbard’s and Benson’s soulful passages. A percussion workout ensues to bring it all back home. 

Read the rest of Payne's review here, cited on the blog of LA Jazz journalist, musician and producer Arnaldo DeSouteiro. Another critic on Sputnikmusic.com had this interesting opinion to share on ‘Straight Life’ …

What’s interesting, though, and what sets it apart from “Bitches Brew” is the bombastic melody parts. The heads are basically hard-bop styled on top of fusion rhythm sections. Unlike the dark Miles record, it’s upbeat and melodic, but not overly poppy or cheesey like some fusion.

The second track ‘Mr Clean’ is wildly beautiful as well; the final piece ‘Here’s that rainy day’ (a standard that comes from a forgotten Broadway musical) doesn’t do much for me.

Check out this extraordinary performance of Freddie Hubbard and band playing ‘Straight Life’ in Paris 1973, again it’s the rhythm section that stands out for me, with an amazing contribution by drummer Michael Carvin (does he have bones in his wrists?) and the band looking super cool, natch.

This 2001 interview with Freddie Hubbard by Ted Panken, originally published in Downbeat is also worth a look, which opens with a really nice description of Hubbard’s gift

He had a big sound, dark and warm, almost operatic. His breathtaking facility allowed him to play long, melodic lines of saxophonistic complexity; depending on the situation, he’d cover all the changes or navigate lucid paths through soundscapes comprising the most abstract shapes and timbres. In every situation, Hubbard projected the persona of trumpeter-as-gladiator, an image of strength, force and self-assurance that told several generations of aspirants, I’m Freddie Hubbard and you’re not.

The Elements, Joe Henderson (Milestone, 1974)

Personnel: Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, piano); Alice Coltrane (harp, piano, harmonium, tamboura); Kenneth Nash (spoken vocals, wood flute, congas, sakura drum, bells, gongs, percussion); Michael White (violin); Charlie Haden (bass); Ndugu Chancler (drums); Baba Daru Oshun (tabla, percussion). Recorded at Village Recorder Studio, Los Angeles CA Oct 15-17 1973

One critic began his review of this 1974 release with the following comment, ‘This is one of the odder Joe Henderson recordings’ - while the comment made me laugh, it puzzled me as this record is strikingly coherent; in its theme, the four elements (Fire/Air/Water/Earth) and the way the musicians meld together, as one commentary put it, ‘the musicians' collective genius at listening and responding to each other’.

Combining both epic, melodic expressions of spirituality and belief (see the final 13-minute piece ‘Earth’) and deconstructed musical play (found in the lively opener that I wrote 'sounds like plastic' and keeps popping unexpectedly, ‘Fire’ for example) but always, always pushed along by a musical intensity and sharp intelligence. You can still feel the energy of this music, more than four decades on from when it was first recorded and imagined.

As with any truly great Jazz record, it needs to be heard in one sitting, to allow the memory of the earlier pieces to inform your experience of what is happening now, in the present moment. I first came to this music via ‘Earth’ (seeking out anything I could find that featured Alice Coltrane) but more recently I’ve been listening to ‘Water’ on repeat. In the words of another fan of the record:

Joe does things on this album that are unlike anything else he ever did as far as the sound and tone of his sax are concerned. One example of this is the effects he uses on the third cut ‘Water’. He was able to “treat” his sax to make it sound as if it were emanating from the far depths of the ocean …

Coda: