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Various Artists: Black Saint/Soul Note Critics' Picks Volume Three

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No stars How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Here’s a sampler to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Soul Note label – and nearly the 25th year of its sister Black Saint. The critics polled here had the fun of going through the catalog – and the challenge of summarizing the labels in 75 minutes! A tough task, but they came through: the music here (made from 1978-1992) is challenging, exciting, and fun, made by an amazing cast of characters. It’s a great feat for a label – and makes you want to be critic, so you can pick Volume Four!

It opens dark and bold: French horn Tom Varner and a pianoless quintet. The rhythm races, and the gathered horns state a sinister theme, riffing wildly as Varner whoops through his solo. Ed Jackson’s alto MUST be heard. As the deep brass leaves, Henry Threadgill’s flute enters. It’s Air, with a Middle Eastern sound and a sinuous bass. While Threadgill is soft and pretty, his partners are tense, slamming the beat home while Threadgill does some bird trills. It’s truly a ‘group’ sound, with Fred Hopkins’ bass an equal lead voice.

We suddenly go a new direction. In a nest of percussion, two horns share an earthy theme while a bass sounds the deep wood. Andrew Cyrille conducts the “Metamusicians’ Stomp” and we stare in awe as the organic theme takes its course. Witness David S. Ware in his early days; his forceful tone and his vital scream. Hear the interplay; feel the pulse; love the music. The mood prevails as Joseph Jarman recites the poem “Black Paladins”: “In those days, we shall be terrible”. Jarman blows hard as the rhythm clusters behind him. Johnny Dyani has a rubbery solo high atop the bass; the percussion gets busy. The sound is convoluted – fiery. It fits.

We suddenly go a new direction. It’s that familiar piano, that big thick sound – only it’s a big band. From 1985, Cecil Taylor’s Orchestra of Two Continents presents a piece like “Carioca” – but not for long. Horns weave in an out, Taylor is oddly sparse among all the furor – then he goes for the gusto. It’s the heady rush of Free Jazz with a fuller sound, and a tone informed by modern classical music (in the middle there’s a near-quote of “Rite of Spring”!) An exhausting experience, to say the least.

We suddenly go a new direction. Ran Blake, with an acidly classical tone, dances 6/8 through “The Short Life of Barbara Monk”, based on “How High the Moon”. Ricky Ford is a marvel: he is gentle, growly, lonely, and angry – all within seconds of each other. As Wayne Horvitz steams with the bluesy chords, John Zorn pops the alto on Sonny Clark’s “Voodoo”. It’s the hardest tone I’ve ever heard on that instrument. Horvitz gets cerebral, with a flash of Cecil. Bobby Previte’s solo is mostly on tom-toms. And Zorn? He wails to the wind, honks, squeaks – all his avant-garde tricks in the context of conventional jazz. And it works. His straight-ahead turn on the same solo (he breathes fire) is also a joy.

We suddenly go a new direction. Led by Milford Graves, a quartet of drummers set up the native rhythms. Dense, primal, and entrancing; there is so much going on I cannot describe it – you can only feel it. And the uncategorizable Sun Ra, from a late studio date in 1990, serenades us with a rumva – fueled with synthesizer, flute, and odd notes peeking out the corners. It’s “Sunset on the Night on the River Nile” – the voices go smooth as the band gets more raucous. It’s indescribable, and so is Sun Ra.

If you plan to explore these labels, this tells you what to expect. It’s all unconventional, and much of it is for the avant listener. If this is your tea, and you want adventure, you can start here.

Record Label: Black Saint

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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