Sounds of Liberation: Unreleased (Columbia University 1973) (Dogtown)

A review of previously unreleased material from the Philadelphia-based septet

Sounds of Liberation, Unreleased (Columbia University 1973)
The cover of Unreleased (Columbia University 1973) by Sounds of Liberation

Sounds of Liberation was a young musical collective based in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood in the early 1970s. Their music, an innovative but accessible blend of free jazz and funk, both invoked and expanded on the ideas of artists as diverse as Pharoah Sanders, Curtis Mayfield, the Last Poets, “Mother Nature”-era Temptations, and Hubert Laws. They recorded a single album for the Dogtown imprint in 1972; the following year, not long before they disbanded, they cut several more sides—apparently in a studio, as there’s no audience to be heard and some multitracking is evident—at Columbia University. This vinyl LP brings those long-lost sessions to light for the first time.       

The Sounds consisted of saxophonist/flutist Byard Lancaster, vibist Khan Jamal, guitarist Monnette Sudler, bassist Billy Mills, drummer Dwight James, percussionist Omar Hill, and conguero Rashid Salime. Their compositions harked back to Sanders’ spirit-infused two-chord vamps, propelled by burbling, aggression-laced funk. Sudler, especially, is impressive—her leads are probing, her chording propulsive and sure. On sax, Lancaster alternates full-toned melodic ease with Sanders-like squawks and overtones, and his flute work is supple and adventurous. Jamal deftly accentuates his instrument’s dual role as a melodic and rhythmic voice, while Mills and the percussionists interweave with open-eared alertness. Side two consists of a single extended piece, “New Horizons (Backstreets of Heaven),” on which the group show themselves to be gifted vocalists as well as instrumentalists, although the somewhat muddy production precludes understanding many of the lyrics.

The overall mood here is of youthful idealism and optimism, tempered by a startlingly mature aesthetic vision and well-honed musical acumen—all too poignantly reminiscent of a time when this kind of project might be considered almost “mainstream,” and the future looked bright with promise.

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.