When the roots of avant-garde jazz are traced, the signs usually point to its legendary hotbeds—New York and Chicago—as the sanctuaries where icons like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and the founders of the AACM made their indelible marks. But Boston as a haven to complete the trifecta? That has yet to be etched into the annals of free jazz. Yet the tide is turning.
Underground and staunchly DIY, the radical creative music movement that emerged from Boston throughout the 1970s featured a classification-defying community of artists who have been criminally overlooked. Enter the long overdue reissue of a pair of private-press touchstones that helped document that clandestine scene. Originally released in 1974 and recently anthologized by Now-Again Records, Peace in the World, by Michael Cosmic, and Creator Spaces, by the Phill Musra Group, serve as fascinating complements to the work of avant-jazz seekers like late-period John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra.
As hometown cult heroes, multi-instrumentalist polymaths—and twin brothers—Cosmic and Musra took their cues from those titans, and it’s a fitting testament that the spiritual-jazz visions they shared are bundled together in one glorious CD, LP or digital package.
New York City-based pianist Cooper-Moore witnessed their wildly inventive sonic din during his Boston tenure with saxophonist David S. Ware. “David and I were both admirers of Musra and Cosmic. When and wherever they performed I would try to be there to hear them,” he recalls. “They were unique also. They played as if they were joined at the hip and of one mind. We knew nothing of their personal lives, where they were from, schooling, etc. It was as if they were the children of Sun Ra and not the earthly plane.”
Like Sun Ra, Cosmic and Musra were ostensibly unheard pioneers of cosmic jazz. Flying under the radar, they mined an orbit where the ecstatic and meditative converged. Influenced by the sound and ethos that the brothers cultivated as early members of the AACM, Peace in the World and Creator Spaces are majestic sprawls of out-jazz. The former album, Cosmic’s lone effort as a leader, finds him primarily on piano alongside Musra on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, Hüseyin Ertunç on drums, John Jamyll Jones on acoustic bass, Eric Jackson on percussion and Leonard Brown also on tenor and soprano saxes. Throughout four politically charged epics that swell with percussive clang and clatter, the ensemble offers gorgeous melodies while also flying off the rails with hurricane-force bluster. On Creator Spaces, the mighty trio of Musra, Cosmic and Ertunç crafts electric-hypnotic bliss—ritualistic freakouts drenched in keyboards and driven by saxophone and flute.
As Cooper-Moore remembers the Boston trailblazers who made a lasting impression on him, high on the list is bassist-composer Jones, the leader of the World’s Experience Orchestra. In addition to his performance on Peace in the World, the reissue is completed by a previously unreleased 1972 live set by Jones’ Orchestra. The shimmering 20-minute odyssey “The Prayer” conjures the uplifting vibes of Coltrane’s “Spiritual,” augmented by the screeching yet angelic amplified violin of John Klein, and Stan Strickland, another Cooper-Moore favorite, on various woodwinds.
Jones appears on another must-have collection that documents the small but forward-looking Boston scene, which encompassed not just avant-garde jazz but fusion, funk, soul and R&B as well. The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970-1983 (Cultures of Soul Records), a book/CD set, is a perfect place to get schooled on that era. Cosmic and Musra are represented, as is Jones’ band, with its anthemic protest statement “9 Degrees Black Women Liberation,” a proto-hip-hop, free-jazz poetry tour de force that evokes the Last Poets. The world-music tribal beats and space-funk insanity unleashed by saxophonist Arni Cheatham’s Thing is an exhilarating and colorful trip, while Miles Davis’ groovy electric-jazz soup looms large in the sounds of a couple of groups: guitarist Baird Hersey & the Year of the Ear, with Dave Liebman; and trumpeter Stanton Davis’ Ghetto/Mysticism, whose 1977 record Brighter Days (also reissued by Cultures of Soul) is a fireball of danceable fusion. Then there’s the experimental-jazz luminary Mark Harvey (also the author of the Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970-1983 book) and his Group’s fire music. Longtime Boston jazz critic and local scene maven Ed Hazell recalls Harvey as one of the driving forces behind Boston’s close-knit community. “Most notable among the musician-run organizations in the 1970s were the Friends of Great Black Music Loft, run by Syd Smart, and the Boston Jazz Coalition, under the leadership of Mark Harvey,” Hazell writes via email. “They supported resident musicians and brought in the occasional out-of-town guest artist as well.”
As for Cosmic and Musra—the latter still performs in Los Angeles; the former died in 2001—Hazell waxes poetic on the brothers’ serious musical and spiritual heft. “What immediately impresses when you first hear them is the total honesty and commitment,” he says. “Cosmic and Musra speak in their own voices, an achievement that one must always cherish. From the viewpoint of several decades, you can hear the crossroads at which they sit. Certainly the fire and spiritual fervency of Ayler, Coltrane and Sanders is the main artery down which the music caroms. But the textural details, the multi-instrumentalism, the world-music references speak of their knowledge of the AACM’s pathways. Their synthesis of these two influences is breathtakingly personal and compelling. … I think after this reissue, you have to include them in any accounting of free jazz and its lineage.”