Alan Braufman: A Valley Worth Searching

On a reissued album by the saxophonist, the NYC loft-jazz scene of the ’70s lives again

Alan Braufman in 1974

This article will appear in the November issue of JazzTimes.

In the 1970s, New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and collapse. Crime was rampant, drugs and prostitution ravaged the streets, and piles of garbage lined the sidewalks. But even as the city descended into crisis, downtown Manhattan, specifically the desolate then-industrial section known as SoHo (South of Houston Street), served as the epicenter of a creative music boom like no other. It was there that the movement known as loft jazz took shape. Inside sprawling, underused, and dirt-cheap live-in/work spaces, forward-thinking musicians steeped in the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos found their community-minded sanctuary. From Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea and (Rashied) Ali’s Alley to Chris and Danny Brubeck’s Environ, loft jazz’s chief hubs are now the stuff of legend, immortalized in books like Michael C. Heller’s recent exhaustive study, Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s.

Now a reissue of a rare 1975 album—alto saxophonist Alan Braufman’s Valley of Search—has shed new light on the underground movement. Originally released by producer Bob Cummins on his India Navigation label in an extremely limited run, Valley of Search is a seminal document in the spiritual-leaning jazz canon, and it adds another hallowed address to the loft-jazz map: 501 Canal Street, the unheated wreck of a building where it was recorded.

For Braufman, 501 Canal—where he moved from Boston in 1973 after his friend, pianist Cooper-Moore (then known as Gene Ashton), secured the whole building for a measly $550 per month—was a creative hotbed. Performances were a regular occurrence in the building’s ground-floor storefront; Braufman and his saxophonist pal and roommate, the late David S. Ware, could also woodshed there whenever they weren’t working odd jobs. “David and I paid $70 a month each for the floor,” Braufman, now 67 and a longtime resident of Salt Lake City, recalls. “He got a job delivering lunches on Wall Street and he got me in on that. So we just walked down there and worked for two-and-a-half hours, four or five days a week. We didn’t have to do anything else for money to pay the rent, so we could practice all day while we weren’t doing that.”

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Braufman had been schooled on jazz at a young age. As a teenage saxophonist he was a city staple, hopping on the train, crashing at his sister’s downtown apartment, and becoming a regular at clubs like Slugs’ and the Village Gate. In 1968, he moved to Boston for school, where he crossed paths with Ware, Cooper-Moore, bassist Chris Amberger, and drummer Marc Edwards. Ultimately they all wound up at 501 Canal, as tenants, regular storefront players, or both. Braufman’s group and Apogee (Ware, Cooper-Moore, Amberger, and Edwards) were the building’s principal players; they mostly flew under the loft-jazz scene’s radar, but Braufman has no regrets about how they operated: “Rivbea, Ali’s Alley, and Studio We put on a lot of artists, and we basically just did our own thing.”

Today, thanks to Braufman’s nephew Nabil Ayers, a music-industry veteran who spent his toddler years at 501 Canal banging on the drums of the late Tom Bruno, the saxophonist’s own singular “thing” is experiencing a resurgence. When Braufman found a few copies of Valley of Search’s original pressing and sent one to his nephew, Ayers made it his mission to give the album a second life on his own independent label, The Control Group. “I was born in 1972 and this record came out in 1975 and I remember it really well,” Ayers says. “I remember all these songs. ‘Nabil’s Little March’ was a song I used to play drums on with Alan. I’ve known this album pretty much as long as I’ve been alive.”

Cover of Alan Braufman album <I>Valley of Search</I>
Cover of Alan Braufman album Valley of Search

Heavily influenced by Braufman’s hero Pharoah Sanders, Valley of Search is cosmic jazz of the highest order. Accompanied by Cooper-Moore (on piano, dulcimer, and recitation), bassist Cecil McBee, drummer David Lee, and percussionist Ralph Williams, Braufman knocked out its nine ecstatic compositions at 501 Canal over two sets, all first takes, using just a few microphones. A powerhouse player, he breathes fire from start to finish. “What I remember is an alto player who played big,” Cooper-Moore says today. “Almost like, ‘He should get a bigger horn to blow all that air.’ I had been playing in a band that had David S. Ware on tenor. Alan played big like that on alto. And just like Ware, Alan had a voice that was distinctly his own.”

From the primal clang and clatter and bow-scraping salvos of “Rainbow Warriors” to the haunting “Chant,” complete with majestic scorched-earth Braufman wails that probably shook the crumbling foundation of 501 Canal, Valley of Search never pauses—most of its songs melt into one another seamlessly. As Braufman tells it, that was no accident: “I was influenced by Don Cherry’s concept on Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers, and Eternal Rhythm that music shouldn’t stop after every tune with people clapping and talking. It should just flow and keep it going.”

Braufman is keeping it going himself. In August, he and Cooper-Moore celebrated the reissue of Valley of Search with a performance at the Brooklyn experimental music venue National Sawdust; as Alan Michael, he continues to play in Salt Lake City. “I don’t know what happened, but about four years ago I got really inspired and started writing again, practicing a ton and getting it back together. I’m actually pretty happy with where I’m at right now.”