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Some History Lessons in Jazz From Players Past and Present

Published: 2011-11-07
Julius Hemphill The percussionist and bassist Juma Sultan is a link between free jazz and Jimi Hendrix, and a puzzle piece in the history of musicians' cooperatives. He moved to New York City from California in 1966 and a few years later to Woodstock, N.Y., joining an artists' group called Group 212 Intermedia Workshop.

With the multi-instrumentalist Ali Abuwi he helped form the Aboriginal Music Society, a loose assembly of players who prided themselves on absolute inclusiveness; you could join in, no matter what you did. ("Any Song, Any Key, Anywhere," was their motto.) Hendrix dropped by to play with him in 1969, a few days before the Woodstock festival, resulting in a much-bootlegged jam session. Then Mr. Sultan returned to Manhattan and moved into Studio We, the performance space on Eldridge Street, recording and resuming his playing with Mr. Abuwi and whomever else.

The Hendrix recording is not—repeat, is not—on the two-LP-and-one-CD boxed set called “Juma Sultan's Aboriginal Music Society: Father of Origin," to be released next week by Eremite. It's a lavish and thorough monument to a chapter of jazz in which the cultural politics were sometimes more interesting than the music. But three other Aboriginal Music Society sessions are here, and they suggest the struggle and chaos of the most purely democratic free jazz, in which there wasn't really a stable common language. All players brought bits and pieces of their own interests and experiences, which generally included an absorption in late Coltrane. The last session is the most pointed and best, a jam including some musicians from the St. Louis musicians' cooperative Black Artists Group, including the saxophonist Julius Hemphill, the cellist Abdul Wadud and the drummer Phillip Wilson. With reproductions of hand-drawn flyers and black-and-white photographs snapped on the fly, the boxed set is a cool, collected document of a wobbly, scratchy time.

Julius Hemphill

The first record by the jazz saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, “Dogon A.D.," a spacious, clever, funky, curious, original, unsentimentally written, unpretentiously played, boiled-down and generally brilliant record, is back in print for the first time in about 30 years. Hemphill put it out on his own label, Mbari, in 1972, and Arista reissued it on vinyl in 1977, but since then, nothing. (A German company, D. A. Music, owned the rights and sat on them.) During that time it has been one of the greatest and perhaps most celebrated unavailable records in American music. Its contents, particularly the title track, have been performed in concerts organized around Hemphill's work since his death in 1995, and Vijay Iyer covered “Dogon A.D." on his 2009 record “Historicity," one of the better albums of that year. Recently the label International Phonograph found the original analog master tapes, and transferred them to digital; the new CD issue is clearer and richer than I've ever known it. One of the best things about the record is its use of space, and I can now properly hear the space among the four instruments: Hemphill on saxophone and flute, Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Abdul Wadud on cello, Philip Wilson on drums.


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