May 1997

Hamiet Bluiett
Im/possible to Keep
India Navigation Company
Anthony Davis and the James Newton Quartet
Hidden Voices
India Navigation Company
Cecil McBee
Alternate Spaces
India Navigation Company
Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah
India Navigation Company

During the late '70s and early '80s, India Navigation chronicled the maturation of the New York loft jazz scene, playing a key role in the ascent of David Murray, Chico Freeman, and others. With the exception of the truly dispensable Pharoah, producer Bob Cummins had excellent instincts in constructing a catalog that balanced unconventional solo albums by Hamiet Bluiett and Leroy Jenkins, Freeman's burnished ballads albums, and the hard-nosed post-Coleman contours of Murray, Arthur Blythe, and others. Pharoah aside, these reissues offer an excellent vantage on a long-gone scene.

It's a stretch to call the two-CD Bluiett set a reissue; it does contain the entire S.O.S. LP, but also over 90 minutes of previously unissued material. The LP consisted of a single cut, "Sobre Una Nobe," which veered from swaying, samba-tinged sensuality to molten intensity. Not only has it lost none of its luster in the intervening years, it has taken on a greater gravity in this new collection, which documents the two complete sets recorded at Axis in Soho back in '77. The present album title, Im/possible to Keep, refers to the baritone saxophonist's quartet of pianist Don Pullen, bassist Fred Hopkins, and drummer Famoudou Don Moye, which explored extended spaces and retooled a war-horse like "Tune Up" with a sharply focused fervor.

Another such ensemble was the co-op quartet of pianist Anthony Davis and flutist James Newton. Hidden Voices is a well-paced program meshing Davis' then emerging compositional vocabulary, and Newton's bead on the tradition of Wess, Kirk, and Dolphy. Bassist Rick Rozie and drummer Pheeroan Ak Laff possess the requisite flexibility to lend Davis' extended structures an orchestral bearing, and to provide an earthy pulse on such idiomatically grounded Newton compositions like "Forever Charles," written for the then recently deceased Mingus. Trombonist George Lewis, later a staple of Davis' Episteme, guests on two tracks; his quick-witted exchanges with Newton on the Mingus tribute are among the album's many high points.

Given the nearly universal consensus that Cecil McBee is one of the best bassists on the planet, and the exceptional compositional and bandleading skills he demonstrates on Alternate Spaces, it's astonishing that he hasn't led more dates since his the follow-up India Navigation album, Flying Out. McBee's program of boldly lined cookers, poignant ballads, and daring structural statements, elicit consistently strong work from Freeman, Pullen, Moye, trumpeter Joe Gardner, and drummer Allen Nelson. As a soloist, McBee nails everything from fleet blues choruses to wistful lyricism.

Munoz's phase-shifted guitar, Jiggs Chase's gurgling organ, and Bedria Sanders' pseudo-hypnotic harmonium, are the dominant textures accompanying Pharoah Sanders as he meanders through Pharoah, sprinkling snippets of melody and soulful utterance like lotus petals. The 20-minute float on a two-chord vamp is one thing, but a vocal number that sounds like a Santana reject, and a finale with the panache of a psychedelic-era rock opus, are just too much.

Originally published in May 1997
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