Cosmic Jazz Countdown – No. 1

Derek: My No. 1 Cosmic Jazz tune is Black Renaissance – both a track name and a collective of people brought together by the pianist Harry Whitaker to celebrate Martin Luther King Day on 15 January 1976.

Friends gathered in the studio, a current and ex-wife of Whittaker’s were both there and recited poetry on the record and Roberta Flack, with whom Whitaker was recording commercially successful work at the time, passed by.

The recording was released by the Japanese Baystate label without Harry Whitaker knowing, nor did he receive royalties as Baystate folded and most copies of the record vanished.  The masters of the recording were lost in a house fire at a friend of Whitaker’s and it was not widely available until the Californian label Ubiquity released the album Body Mind & Spirit in 2002 with two tracks: Black Renaissance which is 23:40 long and Magic Ritual).

Black Renaissance is a party on record, a fusion of jazz and rap before such fusions were known. It is music for the body, music for the mind and certainly music for the spirit. It was recorded in one take; it feels spontaneous and improvised, joyous but contemplative, highly innovative and always unpredictable. It alternates between wild blow-outs, moments of still with momentary pauses and affirmative rap and poetry.

The strong line-up includes Azar Lawrence on sax, Buster Williams on bass, Billy Hart drums, Mtume percussion and the highly impressive Woody Shaw whose trumpet solos demand your attention for their beauty and strength, as well as a cast of singing and speaking voices in the studio cascading over each other. Whitaker’s piano thumps away behind it all and provides flowing swirls to link the various segments of the record.

Gilles Peterson on the sleeve notes to the Ubiquity records release describes Black Renaissance as “one of my all time favourite tunes, up there with Sun Ra’s Sleeping Beauty and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme”. It is my Cosmic Jazz No. 1 and as a singing/speaking /rapping voices says on the record “Can you DIG it”? Dig it you must – get that Ubiquity order in now.

As a sad footnote I should add that Harry Whitaker died in November 2010.

Neil: Charles Lloyd has turned it all around. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Lloyd was a boho trailblazer in the 1960s with his kaftans and his threads but lost it all in the 1970s. Then he was persuaded to join pianist Michel Petrucciani before making it all come good when he signed with ECM records in 1989 and releasing a string of albums showing a new maturity of tone.

Lloyd is no innovator – his style on tenor is unmistakably derived from Coltrane – but his recent body of work with ECM shows his concentrated musical wisdom generously shared with a new generation of inspirational jazzers. And there’s no better place to start than the live album Rabo de Nube.

Released in 2008 when Lloyd was 70, Rabo de Nube features seven long tracks, of which Booker’s Garden is – for me – the stand out. Like many of Lloyd’s compositions it begins with an understated wispy melody with Lloyd on alto flute. But the real magic begins when pianist Jason Moran makes his entrance. Moran has a percussive, contemporary style but his twists and turns on a dazzling solo inspire Lloyd to create a new groove that locks down the music with a new intensity before the piece ends as it began with a return to meditation.

Lloyd live is a magical experience. His shamanic role with a generation of musicians half his age is not remote like Miles Davis, but instead generous and accommodating. Lloyd knows the qualities of his fellow performers and has no need to grandstand or challenge. The result is genuine group music with Lloyd at the centre but never dominating. There’s a tenderness here that also recalls the spirituality of Impulse-era Coltrane but tempered by a searching, yearning delicacy that is uniquely Lloyd’s. I love this music and return to it frequently. It is honest: never simplistic, always interesting and throughout the CD’s 75 minutes intensely rewarding.

In an unexpected way, it was easy to have Lloyd fill the top spot in my Cosmic Jazz list. His music has been getting closer and closer to where I want to be with jazz over the last few years. The liner notes for Rabo de Nube feature a poem for Lloyd by Serbian-born Charles Simic. A few lines seem to sum it up:

Voice of solitude. Voice of insomnia. Call of a night bird. Continous prayer.

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