Way out

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Philadelphia vibraphonist Khan Jamal isn’t very well known outside of the jazz world, but within those ranks he’s long been one of the most reliable voices on the instrument, an elegant player with a deep sense of the blues and a probing creativity. In the 60s he was involved with the jazz avant-garde, coleading a group called Cosmic Forces with reedist Byard Lancaster and later working with drummers Sunny Murray and Ronald Shannon Jackson. But a recently reissued recording from 1972 shows that, in that particular moment, he was in a class by himself.

Drumdance to the Motherland was recorded live in October of that year in a subterranean coffeehouse in west Philadelphia, on the campus of University of Pennsylvania. It was issued some time later in an edition of 300 copies on Lancaster’s Dogtown label—it wasn’t supposed to be a fetish item, but at the time 300 copies was all he could afford. The record was never really distributed outside of Philadelphia, and nearly three decades later it became a highly sought-after collector’s item. The disc's rarity is one thing, but the otherworldly sounds captured within its grooves are quite another. The group morphed out of the Sounds of Liberation, a jazz-tinged R & B band that opened for many soul stars of the day, and on Drumdance to the Motherland they play a weird mix of free jazz, psychedelia, dub, and Afro-futurist mayhem.

The album was just reissued by Amherst's Eremite, which is a free-jazz label, but this recording transcends most stylistic borders—it’s way out there. It’s a wonderfully murky recording, and thanks to the live mixing and dub effects provided by the live engineer Mario Falana (brother of entertainer Lola Falana, sez the liner notes) it’s hard to believe that it was performed live and totally improvised. It’s not that the four pieces sound like well-formed compositions—they’re loose, rhythmic jams with simple motifs arising with endless permutations every few minutes—but this quintet had its shit down, and somehow Falana’s mixing made an integral part of the band. (Maybe he was the Martin Swope of free jazz?)

Some of the electronic effects were made by the musicians themselves; drummer Dwight James attached a device to his snare that created an echo effect. The thick polyrhythmic grooves and an elusive sonic haze certainly suggests the influence of Sun Ra , who had moved his Arkestra to Jamal’s Germantown neighborhood two years earlier. On the fifteen-minute “Inner Peace” guitarist Monnette Sudler —who’s long been a steady mainstream presence on the Philly scene--uncorks a lyric solo that’s as spacey as it is bluesy, while Jamal switches instruments to play some snake-charmer clarinet. However freaky things get, the five musicians maintain a sublime degree of communication, carefully reacting to and prodding one another. Ultimately this album delivers a stunning demonstration of the free-jazz ethos applied to a fairly nonidiomatic, deeply spiritual sound world, and it sounds as fresh and unusual now as it probably did back then.

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