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.
— Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64. – Paul McCartney, 1967
I hardly ever think about the Beatles, and I like to think I didn’t even think much about them back in the ‘60s (I occasionally imagined that they might ultimately create a mass audience for radical music by feeding them micro-chips of commodified and narrativized musique concrete [some of the terms would come later, but the feelings were there], a fantasy of which I was ultimately disabused when in 1969 I watched a mass audience booing Lennon-Ono-Clapton for playing radical music – well, sort of, Ono screaming in a bag while the rest of the band made Velvet Underground-style feedback), but that weird bit of music-hall confectionary that McCartney whipped up for their magnum opus was in my head this morning as I woke up, prompted I suspect by two things: the fact (obvious to me) that I’ll be turning 64 in a few weeks and (much more significantly) listening yesterday to the music of Juma Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society on Eremite’s handsome and just-released box set, Father of Origin, music that insists on the nature and memory of its era. The ‘60s left me equal parts cynic and true believer, and the two got together again to listen to this box set.
Juma Sultan is a name from the past (and one I’ll confess to missing then), a musician who briefly appeared at the center of the universe, playing hand drums on stage with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock (For the limits of the continuum initiated by that Hendrix appearance, let me refer you to the web-site of Gerardo Velez [www.gerardovelez.com] who also played percussion on that Woodstock stage). Sultan is also heard on a widely circulated bootleg tape by Hendrix’s Gypsy Sun and Rainbows that includes a version of Sultan’s own “Sundance.” That was, of course, not Sultan’s only accomplishment: born in 1942, he had worked with Sonny Simmons in California, played drums and bass around New York from the mid-sixties on, and was living in Woodstock in 1968 where he had developed a band concept (and a band) called the Aboriginal Musical Society, the core of which consisted of Sultan on bass, drums and an array of other instruments, and his friend and percussionist Ali K. Abuwi (sometimes referred to as just Ali Ali…). From the late-60s to the mid-70s, the two operated recording facilities in Woodstock and New York City and acted as recording engineers and promoters, working with Studio We founder James DuBoise. Sultan and DuBoise were key organizers of both the New York Musicians Jazz Festival and the Bicentennial Jazz Festival and played key roles in the early years of the New York loft scene.
Sultan and Abuwi acted as recording engineers to a host of significant musicians at the time as well as documenting hundreds of hours of their own music. For the past few years Sultan has been operating a web-site called Juma’s Archive (www.jumasarchive.org). It consists of mostly very short clips of music from his vast recordings, often with frankly terrible sound. Lately there have been substantial efforts to rescue Sultan’s archive, including support from Clarkson University and the NEA. There’s a book due out in 2012 from Wesleyan by Stephen Farina called Reel History: The Lost Archive of Juma Sultan and the Aboriginal Music Society as well as more recordings.
Eremite is certainly leading the way with the box set called Father of Origin, based on Sultan’s etymology for “Aboriginal.” It’s a 12 x 12 box with a 28-page booklet containing an extended essay by Michael Heller on the music contained therein and the history of the Aboriginal Music Society. The set contains three different sessions by the Aboriginal Music Society on two LPs and a CD. That may seem like an odd mix of formats, but the set may be as much about the historical status of the LP as it about the music. The first session covers two sides of an LP; the second is divided between two sides of an LP, but the second side is played at 45 rpm and lasts six minutes; the third and longest session is on a CD. I’m glad there wasn’t an eight-track. I would’ve had to search for a vintage pick-up truck to play it. Every detail seems right and the materials are first-rate. The set is gorgeous, in the way that only an opulent treatment of the fragmentary and dishevelled can be. I recall once seeing exhibited the colored-paper scraps of a Surrealist artist that had been retrieved from a wastebasket and assigned to his estate with a rubber stamp signature of authenticity (Hans Arp, to be specific).
The love evident in this production is not misplaced, and it’s the hallmark of Eremite’s Michael Ehlers’ work as a producer (the label’s reissues of rare LPs by Sunny Murray and Bobo Shaw have also been impeccably done). The music of the Aboriginal Music Society is real and in this treatment sounds real in a way that music rarely can now. When you turn to Juma’s on-line archive, you get wisps of what he recorded. You might hear a badly recorded clip of the fine but largely unrecognized tenor saxophonist Arthur Doyle playing for 14 seconds or a 30 second clip of a Wilbur Ware band. Here you get long jams – the major works here range from 18 to 48 minutes – developed on the rhythmic dialogue of Sultan and Abuwi. It’s not directly derived from any African source, but it’s strongly rooted in a belief in the transformational act of drumming. You can trace Juma’s sources to that black band playing in New Orleans’ Congo Square in the early years of the 19th century, and this music seems like an attempt to recover that lost power, just as this box set is a special invocation of the musical legacy of its era. Juma remarks, “I was playing the kind of drums that I felt the guys were playing when they’d cut off your hands and didn’t allow you to play [here in America]. . . ” This is forceful music that aims to strip away the limitations of jazz, including the limitations of received language and virtuosity. It’s a stirring aesthetic for improvised music. Even if very few people seem to want to listen to it, far more people should actually do it.
The tapes have been brilliantly restored by Mike King of Reel Recordings, whose description of the tapes reveals both the problems of the original recordings and suggests the scale of his efforts to bring them to the highly listenable state that they appear in here.
The first LP was recorded in a studio in Boston in 1970. The group is a combination of AMS musicians – Sultan and Abuwi and the trumpeter Earl Cross, a regular associate – and a group of musicians who were then also resident in Woodstock and all members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band – guitarist Ralph Walsh, saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie and drummer Philip Wilson. That membership in the Butterfield band is symbolic of the era. More than just jazz musicians working in a more popular form, their skills dovetailed with Butterfield’s interest in expanding the possibilities of the blues, evidenced in the modal space jam of East-West, recorded in 1966. Modality and free jazz were opening up the possibilities for improvisation for musicians unversed in the complex harmonic language of bebop, and loose, modal improvisation was becoming a kind of lingua franca. “Fan Dance,” heard here in three segments, is like almost all the music here: its essential power (and it’s tremendous) derives from the sheer density of the drumming, with Abuwi, Sultan and Wilson creating a dense pulsing fabric. There’s speculation here that another hand drummer/percussionist is on the bulk of the session, but that may just be a part of the culture of multi-instrumentalism – the little instruments of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example, or the massed percussion of the Sun Ra band. The durability and specific contour of the music derives from the abilities of the soloists – Cross and Dinwiddie – to construct linear materials across the tapestry of percussion.
Sultan apparently paid for some 56 and a half hours of studio time in Boston, the subject of a letter included here in which he complains about the cost and claims the material is unusable because of the incompetence of the engineer. One might readily sympathize instead with the engineer, faced – in the new age of the overdub – with musicians picking up assorted drums and flutes at will. Cross plays both trumpet and mellophone; Sultan plays bass, hand drums, percussion, ahoudt (a saxophone mouthpiece attached to a straight piece of wood with finger-holes), and wooden flutes.
That marriage of modalism and multi-instrumentalism reaches another dimension in the “Ode to a Gypsy Son,” one of two pieces here attributed to Sultan as composer. Apparently Cross, Abuwi and Sultan stayed behind to record it after the end of “Fan Dance.” What’s most remarkable is its resemblance to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, or at least the adagiomovement that Gil Evans arranged for Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. It’s not quite the convergence of the continents – America, Europe and Africa – that one might have expected, but there it is, a mellifluous dialogue between Abuwi playing flute (his biography here includes flute studies at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory) and Cross’s mellophone. In the midst of the epic drum jams here, it’s a bit like the old joke, “I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out.”
The second LP is a much more contained ensemble, a trio of Abuwi, Sultan and the tenor saxophonist (and here percussionist, as well) Frank Lowe, heard here in 1971, a couple of years before his own recorded debut as leader and already a significant presence. It’s the sheer power of Lowe, his ability to roar and wail across and through the bass and hand drums, that’s crucial here. It’s controlled and effective music. Flip the LP over, change the turntable speed and you get the second of Sultan’s compositions, “Sundance,” a simple pentatonic piece far from the refined and exotic scales of Abuwi with Cross and his trumpeter’s vocabulary on “Ode to a Gypsy Son.” Sultan plays the melody on alto saxophone.
The most consistently impressive music appears on the 48-minute session on the CD. It documents a visit by St. Louis Black Artists Group (BAG) members to the AMS in Woodstock (the date is uncertain: 1969 or later), so you get a remarkable octet that has Abuwi and Sultan, as always, the return of Gene Dinwiddie and Phillip Wilson, plus the game-changing assembly of Julius Hemphill on alto saxophone, Abdul Wadud on cello, Charles “Bobo” Shaw on hand drums & percussion, and Rod Hicks on bass. The long jam suggests free blues, of course, because that’s what it is, with an environment of dense drumming around a pulse. What makes it transformative is the emotional power and sheer virtuosity that Hemphill and Wadud bring to the event. It’s not just the longest work here: it’s also the most focused and the most intense. It’s essential listening.
The Aboriginal Music Society belongs to an incendiary time when the boundaries between musics were temporarily falling, and the possibilities of new relationships seemed to exist everywhere. In Sultan’s avowedly social program for recording and disseminating music, there’s also an insistence on the relationships between musical and social structures and the ways they might reflect and affect one another. The special beauty of this set is the way in which it seeks to memorialize that vision, from the lengths taken to match performance lengths to the best possible medium (and the unimaginably living sound of an analogue LP of an analogue restoration of an analogue recording) to the meticulous reproduction of sometimes decaying photographs. In its tactility as well as its sound, the set resists the easy reproducibility of the digital, insisting on the presence of the artefact and the rarest flash of color. Father of Origin lends a coolly reflective timelessness to a world as lost as it is intense, the intensity of which still feels like necessity. The set honours that intensity in the process, creating presence.
— Stuart Broomer, pointofdeparture.org
Once you break from the Great Man-oriented history of jazz, you swap a time-line for something more like a multi-hued magic carpet woven from a myriad of narratives. Some of those stories are quite public and others well hidden, but Juma Sultan is one rare bird who has managed to be both at once. He associated with the best, and not just the obscure; he was Jimi Hendrix’s good pal and go-to conga player, appearing with him at Woodstock and on The Dick Cavett show. He also played on boundary-erasing jazz documents such as Noah Howard’s The Black Ark and Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues. The Aboriginal Music Society, a mutable music group/recording studio/artist’s collective that he co-led with fellow multi-instrumentalist Ali Abuwi from 1968-1978, welcomed both anonymous players and celebrated 1960s and ‘70s personages such as Julius Hemphill, Barry Altschul, David Izenzon and Charles “Bobo” Shaw into its ranks. The AME performed at Lincoln Center and partnered with George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival to put on a series of bicentennial jazz concerts. Now aged 69, Sultan is still alive, reminiscing about Jimi on DVDs and using his musical talents to spread the Christian gospel. He is not hiding under anyone’s rock.
But if you weren’t down with the Woodstock arts community or New York’s loft jazz scene when they were around, you probably don’t know about them, because they never released a record. The ‘70s was a weird time for jazz. Major labels abandoned it, and although small labels picked up some of the slack, it was much harder to get a record made and meaningfully distributed than it is now. And while Sultan and Abuwi documented many hours of Aboriginal Music Society jams and concerts, their work was purely documentary. It took the passage of several decades and the assistance of Clarkson University and an NEA Grant to to begin to get this material into usable shape. Now Eremite Records, a label originally known for its enthusiastic sponsorship of the ‘90s East Coast ecstatic jazz community and more recently for putting out high-end vinyl editions, has gotten on board to give the Society’s music a physical manifestation.
And what a manifestation it is. Father of Origin comes in a swanky box that holds a beautifully printed, richly illustrated and thoughtfully annotated 12” x 12” booklet, two LPs pressed to audiophile specifications, and a CD. In an age when just about everything is available on-line if you care to look and double CDs of historic performances sell for less than a couple of six packs of your preferred microbrew, leading with an upscale boxed set (which, if all goes well, will be followed by more releases from Sultan’s archive) is a determined assertion that this shit matters.
But a skeptic might put forth the challenge — how much does it matter? Does this music deserve this lavish treatment any more than, say Kali Z. Fasteau and Rafael Donald Garrett’s Sea Ensemble, which got a more Spartan treatment from Flying Note a few years back? Going back to the carpet analogy, the AME’s recordings may introduce some beautiful threads into the fabric but they don’t profoundly change the grand design. Sun Ra’s Arkestra explored similar territory as they added massed percussion and experimented with pop rhythms; they also espoused communal (albeit less democratic) principles, recorded themselves, and admitted a mixture of esteemed ringers and utter nobodies into their fold.
But the AME did it their own way, and it’s a way worth hearing. The three early ‘70s performances showcase a variety of performance strategies, including a trio overdubbing in the studio, another self-recorded trio with saxophonist Frank Lowe, and a couple of large ensemble jams, one featuring some visiting heavies from St. Louis’s Black Artists Group. On the first LP, the three-part “Fan Dance” braids the twisted lines of trumpeter Earl Cross, saxophone and flute player Gene Dinwiddie, and guitarist Ralph Walsh over a variety of rhythmic approaches that incorporates post-Miles electric heaviosity and pan-African polyrhythms into a uniquely free flow. Early on, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (whose friend and occasional drummer Philip Wilson is on board here) did something similar, but their excursions into this territory generally had a theatrical dimension that’s missing here. It’s all about the music, brother, and especially the rolling grooves. “Ode To A Gypsy Son” comes from the same session, but was made after most of the players had left. Sultan’s unintended elegy for his pal Hendrix, who died one week after it was recorded, is as much an atmosphere as a musical performance. Moaning voices, flutes, mellophone and a homemade reed instrument called an ahoudt (which sounds like a bassoon) snake through a jungle of hand drums, taking you deep into a place without words; if this is how Sultan felt about Jimi, their connection was on a spiritual plane far from the crosstown traffic and the foxy ladies.
The second LP is brief, but pungent. One side is cut at 45 RPM, and the total running time of both sides is 26 minutes. It’s of historical note because the third player joining Sultan and Abuwi is tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe. It’s Lowe’s first known recording, predating his work with Alice Coltrane by several months and his ESP debut, Black Beings, by a couple years. Lowe’s serrated-edge style is already in place, and he adapts well to his partners’ undulating percussion and winding melodies; in fact, despite the specificity of his sound, the music is all theirs’. One thing that this and the session preserved on CD show is how strong the AMS aesthetic was; even such singular players as Lowe or alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill fit into their sound rather than turn the Society to their ends. The CD’s recording is undated, but the personnel are known. It was made on a day that the Society was joined by some visitors from St. Louis’s Black Artist’s Group. With up to four of the eight players on drums, the group sustains an unrelenting rhythmic surge. Dinwiddie, Hemphill and Abuwi (on oboe) don’t solo so much as they unspool long lines that pull together, diverge and snake in and out of the unstoppable beats. The ensemble shouts support, and somewhere in the middle of it, Abdul Wadud essays savage slashes or yanks at his cello strings so that they articulate a pulse much like the one that McCoy Tyner inserted into his latter performances with John Coltrane.
It’s thrilling stuff, and it’s easy to get lost in the music’s white water flow. While packaging aficionados will swoon over Father of Origin‘s beautiful execution, it’s the way the sounds take you away that proves its significance.
— Bill Meyer, dustedmagazine.com
There has been an impressive amount of research in recent years about African-American artist collectives formed in the 1960s, most notably Benjamin Looker’s Point From Which Creation Begins: The Black Artists’ Group Of St Louis, Steven L. Isoardi’s The Dark Tree: Jazz And The Community Arts In Los Angeles, and George E. Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM And American Experimental Music. As valuable as they are, they create an incomplete narrative about the spectrum of models used by African-American jazz musicians for more than a half-century to achieve self-determination – their ability to deliver their music directly to their communities without compromise or exploitation. Given that, historically, more than 90 per cent of black-owned businesses in the US are sole proprietorships – accountants, barbers, et al, who have no paid employees – it follows that comparable numbers of musicians have sought self-determination without affiliation.
In New York during the late 1960s and 70s, musicians tended to go it alone in creating new outlets for their work and that of their colleagues. The spaces that gave loft jazz its name were the initiatives of individual musicians like Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers, while artists like Rashied Ali took a more traditionally commercial route by opening restaurants and bars. Even spaces that identified as community based were often the results of one person’s labour – Studio We, founded in 1968 by trumpeter James DuBoise, being a case in point. Raised in Pittsburgh, DuBoise was inspired by the Musicians Club, which dated from the 50s, pointing to a continuity between generations of musicians rarely emphasised by historians and commentators. Studio We figures prominently in the little-known but instructive saga of bassist/percussionist Juma Sultan, most widely known for his membership of Jimi Hendrix’s Gypsy Sun And Rainbows (later pared down to the trio of Hendrix, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, who recorded the album Band Of Gypsys). Sultan pursued an ambitious self-determination agenda spanning concert production, running a studio and educational programmes, largely realised through the Aboriginal Music Society ensemble, which was at the core of Sultan’s partnership with percussionist/woodwinds player Ali Abuwi. The irony of their decade-plus endeavours is that they did not release any recordings as AMS, even though they played concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYU’s Loeb Student Center and Alice Tully Hall. Father Of Origin, Eremite’s meticulous three-disc box set, leaves the listener/reader with a simple answer as to why: Sultan was just too busy with all his various projects. The Lower East Side was a far less hospitable environment than Woodstock, where Sultan and Abuwi were based between 1968–70, following an initial shedding period in the Richie Havens owned apartment where Sultan built instruments and rehearsed. They had the run of the Tinker Street Cinema (Sultan and Hendrix jammed there on two separate occasions in the summer of 1969), which yielded enough cash flow for them to lease the 80-acre property that later became Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio. Only the theft of AMS’ bankroll of several thousand dollars, enough to perpetuate their dream of an artists’ retreat replete with living quarters, film lab and recording studio for at least another year, forced Sultan to return to New York.
All the while, the tape was rolling, documenting a wide swathe of musicians from the East Coast and the Midwest. Sultan and Abuwi were not fastidious archivists; the date of one session is only approximated as “post-1969”. However, Sultan has embarked on the digitisation of over 400 tapes, from which this Michael King-mastered collection was picked. ‘Revelatory’ is an overused term in assessments of such archival packages, but it applies to Father Of Origin on specific counts. One of the LPs is devoted to the trio of Sultan, Abuwi and Frank Lowe, a blisteringly intense 1971 set recorded months before the saxophonist’s first sides with Alice Coltrane; Lowe’s rhythmically-charged, thickly textured blowing already putting considerable space between him and the growing pack of late Coltrane influenced tenor players. Cellist Abdul Wadud simply burns on the gritty post-1969 jams on the CD that also features fellow BAG members saxophonist Julius Hemphill and drummer Charles ‘Bobo’ Shaw – it is among his very best performances, right up there with Hemphill’s Mbari sessions. The sessions also capture the vibrant crosstalk between contemporary blues luminaries and free jazz stalwarts. Paul Butterfield Blues Band saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie and drummer Philip Wilson play on two of the three sessions; on the Woodstock session with the aforementioned BAG musicians, they are joined by Butterfield bassist Rod Hicks, while the group’s guitarist Ralph Walsh is heard on a 1970 session recorded in Boston. The music documented on Father Of Origin is unadulterated free jazz, but there is a palpable sense of newly found energy in the music, one as steeped in the hippy vibe of Woodstock as it was in the Black Arts Movement, which is most apparent on the LP featuring a sextet with trumpeter Earl Cross, Dinwiddie, Walsh and Wilson. They so quickly and convincingly establish a primal unity that the visceral Dinwiddie noticeably struggles to break out of the circle to solo. While the music of Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society was so obviously a product of its times, its elemental impetus ultimately made it timeless.
— Bill Shoemaker, The Wire
Staggering archival box set that documents the previously unknown/unreleased activities of percussionist/ bassist Juma Sultan’s Aboriginal Music Society: established in Woodstock in 1968, AMS bridged a bunch of scenes and musical approaches, with members of St Louis’ Black Artists Group, AACM players and NY Fire Musicians like Frank Lowe regularly sitting in. Sultan was a member of Jimi Hendrix’s Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, his pre-Band Of Gypsies ensemble, and he played with Hendrix at Woodstock. Woodstock was where the roots of the AMS were set and the first of the LPs in this stunning deluxe box set features an amazing overdubbed psychedelic ritual from a hybrid Woodstock/NYC line-up featuring Sultan on bass, hand drums & percussion, ahoudt and wooden flutes alongside his shadow Ali Abuwi on hand drums, percussion and flute, Earl Cross on trumpet and piano, Gene Dinwiddie on tenor and soprano saxophone and flute, Ralph Walsh on electric guitar and AACM percussionist Philip Wilson on drums. Perhaps the real gravy, however, is the second LP that features a staggering set cut with saxophonist Frank Lowe on 2nd April 1971 at AMS Studio, NYC. It’s a trio set-up, with Lowe on tenor sax and percussion alongside Sultan and Abuwi and it represents the earliest recorded evidence of the saxophone at the absolute peak of his powers, pre-dating Black Beings on ESP-Disk and his appearance on Alice Coltrane’s World Galaxy. This might well go down as the most significant Fire Music archival find to date, with Lowe tearing through phantom registers and playing in a wild, devotional style that is genuinely revelatory. The third recording comes on the CD, a stunning big band blow-out featuring some key BAG players, with Sultan and Abuwi joined by Dinwiddie on flute, Philip Wilson on drums and Julius Hemphill on alto saxophone, Rod Hicks on bass, Charles ‘Bobo’ Shaw on hand drums and percussion and Abdul Wadud on cello. It represents some of the players’ most inspired work and shows the degree of autonomous grassroots collaboration and cross-fertilisation that was taking place on the free jazz underground after the collapse of major label support. The whole deal comes in a chunky box screenprinted by Alan Sherry and with a large 12”x12” book featuring screened ephemera, amazing archival pics and a full detailed history of this particularly potent moment in history. Edition of 600 copies and easily the archival event of the year, with the kind of attention to detail and presentation that truly raises the bar for the chronicling of counter-cultural arts movements. Simply phenomenal and very highly recommended!
— David Kennan, volcanictongue.com
At this point, even in “avant-garde” or creative music, there is an almost unimaginable level of availability and access to recordings, both contemporary and historical. Reaching back a few decades, the climate was significantly different because even though musicians could produce their own recordings, it wasn’t nearly as cheap or easy to distribute the work. That said, whether an artifact came of it or not, we can be thankful that there were a number of musicians who had the foresight to document broad swaths of their music – record companies’ interest (or lack thereof) be damned. The archives of trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon and drummer Alvin Fielder come to mind, as does that of percussionist, bassist and bandleader Juma Sultan, whose involvement with the lofts, arts communes and self-produced concerts and recordings has left an extraordinarily vast reach of unreleased material that’s just now beginning to appear.
Sultan’s storied Aboriginal Music Society, founded in 1968 with fellow percussionist Ali Abuwi, never released any proper documents, though they received frequent mention in Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life(Serpent’s Tail Press, 1980) and members appeared on recordings like altoist Noah Howard’s Black Ark (Polydor, 1968). Sultan traces his roots to the West Coast where he worked with Sonny Simmons, while Abuwi hails from Detroit and played with Yusef Lateef and Barry Harris. By the latter half of the ‘60s, both had relocated to New York. Following summer activities associated with the 212 Artists’ Colony, the AMS was formed as a presenting organization and recording studio as well as a variably-sized ensemble, the latter aspect drawing personnel from both improvising musicians’ circles and psychedelic rock (Sultan was a friend of Jimi Hendrix). After two years in the Woodstock/Krumville area, the AMS reformed in New York City and, in conjunction with the New York Musicians’ Festival and trumpeter James DuBoise’s Studio We, became a locus of the emerging Loft Jazz scene. Father of Origin is the first appearance anywhere of the AMS’ music proper, and focuses heavily on the collective’s earlier free improvisation leanings; a set to be released later this year on Porter Records will explore more straight-ahead configurations. Both are released in full cooperation with Juma’s Archive (http://www.jumasarchive.com). Father of Origin also might take the cake for artwork among 2011 releases – housed in a lavish box, the set consists of two high-quality LPs, one CD (in its own attractive mini-sleeve) and a book with reproduced flyers, rare photos and an exhaustive essay by Michael Heller.
The first sessions presented here were recorded in 1970 for the aborted Aboriginal Family Album LP, joining Sultan and Abuwi with storied underground trumpeter Earl Cross (a fixture in the AMS) and, curiously, three members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band – guitarist Ralph Walsh, as well as former AACMers drummer Philip Wilson and saxophonist/flutist Gene Dinwiddie. The LP consists of four group improvisations – the three-part “Fan Dance” and “Ode to a Gypsy Son,” which is stripped down to Cross, Abuwi and Sultan for a dusky overdubbed meditation on mellophone, voice, flutes, bowed bass and percussion. Importantly, while this music is realized with a wealth of non-Western percussion and wind instruments and hews to a tonal landscape that is far from anything traditionally found in jazz, it would be incorrect to call it African, Afro-Cuban or Afro-Asian in its derivations. Rather, the “Aboriginal” refers to a source-level of communication that predates commonplace forms and does not necessarily attempt to “Africanize” jazz or free jazz. Diasporan roots are subsumed to a broader, albeit heavily percussive sound-world that susses out colors and interpersonal responses from a more basic human investigative need. Rhythmically, the drum patterns are extraordinarily varied and emerge in heightened ecstatic flurries or textural accents rather than hemmed-in ritual – not necessarily “random,” but drawn from spontaneous impulse.
The opening “Fan Dance” is perhaps a bit closer to what we commonly think of as “free” or “loft jazz,” Dinwiddie’s steely Chicago-schooled tenor galloping over a field of bass, traps and hand drums as trumpet and guitar chatter and ricochet off the ensemble. Walsh’s throaty South Side blues interjections are an interesting six-string foil, perhaps a bit less manic than Richard Martin’s work with the Solidarity Unit (though that’s a relevant stylistic comparison); nevertheless they’re an acidic counterpoint to an already somewhat contrarian landscape. A similar configuration is heard on the CD, two group improvisations that augment Dinwiddie, Cross, Abuwi, Wilson and Sultan with altoist Julius Hemphill, percussionist Charles “Bobo” Shaw, and cellist Abdul K. Wadud (Ralph Walsh is absent). The latter three had recently relocated from St. Louis, thus giving extra BAG credence to the AMS’ “something in the water” vibe. The second improvisation is particularly strong, immediately harping on the charged interplay between Hemphill and Wadud as trap-kit bombs cut through clattering hand drums and the cries of flutes and oboe. At around nine minutes in, Sultan, Shaw, and Abuwi bring together an entranced web, which Wilson continually tries to upend. While “groove” might not be exactly what the four drummers have created, the interwoven rhythms and commentary creates a mightily explosive allover wash.
The post-Woodstock period of the AMS is represented by the second LP, which sets the hand drums of Abuwi and Sultan against tenorman Frank Lowe in what are the saxophonist’s earliest recordings to surface. The first side presents an untitled improvisation while the second is Sultan’s composition “Sundance.” Though neither is particularly long (eighteen and eight minutes, respectively), these pieces are more than just historical curios as Lowe exhibits characteristic strength and relentlessness in a pre-Black Beings (ESP, 1973) setting. I’m reminded of Richard Williams’ discussion of trumpeter Alan Shorter’s playing on “Mr. Syms” from Archie Shepp’s Four for Trane (Impulse, 1964). In that recording, as well as the work considered, one can hear the soloist being encouraged, almost prodded, and learning (or gaining confidence) on the stand. Taut, didactic drum patterns form a framework for Lowe’s abstractions – simple, hard-bitten phrases that move towards an eventual melding with the percussionists’ coarse quilt. At first in stark relief to Sultan and Abuwi, Lowe’s playing seeks common ground, then leans forward and goes for it, leaping and yelping in one passage, narrowing his phrases to drill-bit intensity in another, but the recording exemplifies how he gains an understanding of Aboriginal Music in process. Throughout two LPs and one CD, Father of Origin presents communal improvisation of a very high order, and with more music forthcoming from the archives as well as a book documenting the AMS, essential pieces of our creative music puzzle will continue to be filled in. For now, Eremite has put together one hell of an archival release.
— Clifford Allen, Signal To Noise
Mention the name Juma Sultan to most listeners and if it rings a bell at all, they’ll remember him as one of the percussionists in Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock band. A few more may bring up his participation on a handful of releases by Archie Shepp, Noah Howard, and Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre. But until now, only the most avid listener would conjure up the name Aboriginal Music Society. Michael Ehlers and crew have changed all that with the release of this deluxe boxed set comprising two LPs, a CD, and a beautifully produced book, all of which serve to fill in a missing gap in the documentation of the New York loft scene of the 70s.
Sultan grew up on the West Coast, where he was exposed to free jazz through performances by Sonny Simmons, which sparked an ongoing friendship. Conversations with Simmons led him to synthesize the concept of “Aboriginal Music”, using the term to mean a search for the “Father of Origin” of music (taking the root of aboriginal as “abba”, or father). When Sultan moved to New York’s Lower East Side in 1966, he met up with Ali K. Abuwi, a multi-instrumentalist and transplant from Detroit. The two shared an interest in percussion, home-made instruments, and a DIY approach to their music. By the summer of 1966, they migrated upstate to Woodstock where they found a community of like-minded artists, crossing paths with Burton Greene, David Izenzon and Sunny Murray amongst others. The group of musicians banded together, putting on concerts and fostering collaborations with poets, playwrights, and rock musicians who had settled in the area, including AACM alums Phillip Wilson and Gene Dinwiddie (who were members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) as well as transplants like the firebrand free jazz brass player Earl Cross. This nexus of musicians would form a constantly evolving group which Sultan and Abuwi named the Aboriginal Music Society. By 1970, the musicians began to return to New York where they settled in a series of lofts, eventually finding a foothold at a performance space that came to be known as Studio We. The group established themselves as a community focused on self-determination, creating recording studios, organizing festivals, and searching out opportunities to play venues like Alice Tully Hall and NYU. But for all their efforts, and the countless hours of recordings they amassed, none of their music has been released until now.
The first LP captures a set by the full-blown ensemble recorded at Intermedia Sound Studios in Boston in 1970. Here Sultan and Abuwi are joined by fellow Woodstock residents Dinwiddie on tenor, soprano, and flute, Ralph Walsh on guitar, Cross on brass, and Wilson on drums. Things kick off with “Fan Dance, part I”: Wilson’s open jabs, Sultan’s rumbling bass, and the percolating textures of Abuwi’s percussion slowly build a loose pulse, flavored with slashes of electric guitar. Cross enters on muted trumpet, joined by Dinwiddie’s tumbling tenor lines, and things start to take off. The reed player’s blues roots inform his torrid guttural attack, driving Cross to spirited, raw-edged playing with occasional interjections of hammered piano clusters. Walsh’s guitar brings to mind Sonny Sharrock’s contributions to Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid, injecting serrated slabs of chords while adding in skewed blues fragments. The wildly churning intensity of Wilson, Abuwi, and Sultan keeps things moving, providing an energized, coursing thrust. “Fan Dance, part II” backs off from the densities of part one, with Dinwiddie switching to flute against the dark-edged hues of Cross’s mellophone. It’s just three minutes long, the themes just emerging against the primal groove of the percussion before things fade away. “Part III” is also brief: blustering brass punch against crunching guitar as reeds and percussion squall along, dissipating into a tumultuous section of crashing piano, vocal moans, and sputtering percussion. The session closes with the 13-minute “Ode to a Gypsy Son,” a trio with Sultan, Abuwi, and Cross. Percussion, home-made flutes and reed instruments are overdubbed into a seething mix, with buzzing textures, whistles, chimes, rattles and vocal wails creating a mercurial ground for Cross’s lyrical mellophone playing.
The second LP captures a private session from April of 1971 with Abuwi, Sultan, and tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe. Sultan had originally met Lowe in San Francisco in the 60s and the two reconnected when Lowe moved to New York. This session has historical importance as it is the earliest recording of Lowe, pre-dating Alice Coltrane’s World Galaxy by several months. The first improvisation starts out at a slow simmer, with bells and chimes building to a cyclical groove of hand percussion. The three musicians push at the pulse, amping up the energy after a few minutes as Lowe picks up his tenor and dives in with choppy overblown phrases that build with muscular insistence. One can certainly hear Coltrane’s influence on Lowe’s tone, but even at this early stage, his voice is starting to emerge. Across the tumbling percussion, his chipped and repeated phrases build like a muezzin’s call. An oblique quote from “Summertime” is threaded in, but he quickly picks it apart into elemental phrases which are chopped, inverted, and extended. The piece breaks open mid-way through as ululating vocalizations replace Lowe’s tenor, leading to a momentary pool of calm; the intensity mounts again with Lowe’s soaring incantations, before the percussion coda that circles back to the opening. Side 2 kicks off with Sultan on alto, laying out a pentatonic theme countered by Lowe’s tenor, after which Sultan switches to bass and the three take off on an improvisation rooted in the initial melody. Sultan’s dancing bass provides an effective anchor, with Abuwi sticking mostly to bells and shakers, punctuating Lowe’s free flow. The music has a bracing free lyricism that finally winds down with Sultan on reeds again, as he and Lowe ramp the theme down against an ambling pulse. At just 18 minutes on the first side and 8 on side B (cut for maximum fidelity at 45 RPM), one wishes there were a bit more from this session.
The CD included in the set provides yet another view of the Aboriginal Music Society, again in collaboration with musicians from outside the core group. This one captures Sultan, Abuwi, Dinwiddie, Wilson, and bassist Rod Hicks collaborating with visiting St. Louis musicians Julius Hemphill, Abdul Wadud, and Charles “Bobo” Shaw, and the summit between the Woodstock crew and the members of the Black Artists Group is electrifying. Things start out with Hemphill, Wadud, and Shaw joined by Dinwiddie on flute and the cellist’s forceful free swing and the drummer’s roiling rhythms propel the group with vigor. As the rest of the musicians join in, the music develops a thundering energy stoked by dual drumming of Wilson and Shaw, countervailing pulse of Wadud and Hicks, and crisscrossed lines of alto, flute, and occasional interjections of Abuwi on oboe. What’s particularly intriguing about this meeting is to hear the cross-fertilization of both groups, with the BAG crew pushing the Woodstock musicians toward a less pulse-centered sense of freedom and the Woodstock musicians giving an orchestral density to the music with rich percussion textures.
Sultan’s efforts as organizer and documentarian have finally begun to pay off. With startup funds from the NEA and Clarkson University, he’s now found assistance to digitize and organize his archive. Check out his site (http://jumasarchive.com/) for a glimpse of the gems sitting in the vaults. Word has it that Porter Records has a release in the works and there is a book that is due to come out next year. Let’s hope this awesome release is the first step in getting this music out.
— Michael Rosenstein, paristransatlantic.com