The Stark Reality's psychedelic, funky, jazzy kids' music

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There are plenty of passages on the recent three-CD set Acting Thinking Feeling (Now-Again), by the obscure Boston band Stark Reality, that count as jazz and jazz-derived (and most of the group's work featured a very young John Abercrombie). The group's members were all jazz players, but under the leadership of Oklahoma native Monty Stark—whose instrument was an amplified vibraphone distorted to sound like some celestial electronic keyboard—they willfully jumbled genres, grooves, and modes to a dizzying degree. Back in 2003, Stones Throw released a compilation of the group's work called Now, but this new set reissues everything the band ever cut, including some crazy big-band material made before the band stripped down to a quartet.

The new set includes the entirety of the band's only official release, a double album called The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael's Music Shop (released by AJP, a short-lived imprint run by jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, in 1970), in addition to music the band cut for several productions of the Boston public TV station WGBH. Among the newly unearthed material is a big-band cut called "New World Generation," a crazy pastiche of out-harmony arrangements, brisk swing grooves, exploratory flute excursions, and multilayered vocals (a la the Beach Boys) delivered in a clear pop-rock style. The words, written by the group's bassist Phil Morrison, espouse flower-power unity, but not without skepticism—there are some wonderfully strange lines ("You say to love your neighbor and all men are born free / But when some want to move next to you—just look at Milwaukee / Hypocrisy, deceit and lies are veiled in old cliches . . .").

The first disc includes stuff the band recorded, usually in the apartments of its members, for a couple of WGBH shows, at no cost. Stark worked at the station as a nonstaff producer, and clearly saw this as a good opportunity, and, indeed, the band he put together for this purpose eventually became a club fixture in Boston. It's no surprise that the Stark Reality's music has been given a second life by DJ and producer Eothen Alapatt. It's loaded with funky breaks and concise horn riffs, and it was obscure. For the Carmichael record, Stark radically reharmonized and rearranged songs from a 1958 album called Hoagy Carmichael Is Havin' a Party, on which the legendary songwriter, singer, and pianist wrote and sang a passel of original children's songs. Black Eyed Peas sampled a track from the Carmichael record for their 2005 song "Audio Delite at Low Fidelity," and conveniently neglected to either get permission or pay for its use. Stones Throw, working on behalf of Stark Reality at that point, collected, although according to Alapatt's liner notes, only for "pennies on the dollar." In any case, it inspired him to give Stark Reality its proper due with this set. Sadly, Stark died in late 2009, several years before its completion.

The Carmichael record was actually the idea of the composer's son Hoagy Bix Carmichael, who wanted his father's work to appeal to the younger generation. Of course, it's hard to imagine how the music the Stark Reality came up with would appeal to kids—it probably wouldn't have appealed to most adults, either. This shit is weird. According the liner notes, the elder Carmichael wrote of the Stark Reality album: "Out rolled some of the damndest music either of us had ever heard. This is children's music? Monty's voice? Somewhere between the filings on the edge of a pie pan, and the singing of a guru during one of his most exalted moments." Apparently, that counted as a seal of approval.

It's truly music of its time—groove-heavy, fuzzed-out, hippie-flavored, at once limber and leaden, and dripping with optimism. For me it's more of a fascinating relic than music that I'd turn to regularly, but it serves its purpose. Below you can check out the final track from the Carmichael album, "All You Need to Make Music."

Today's playlist:

Joëlle Léandre, Nicole Mitchell, and Dylan van der Schyff, Before After (Rogue Art)
Aretha Franklin, Soul '69 (Atlantic)
Old Calf, Borrow a Horse (No Quarter)
Leah Paul, Bike Lane (Skirl)
Booker Ervin, Tex Book Tenor (Blue Note)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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