Philadelphia certainly seems to receive only grudging affirmation in relation to other urban centers in the larger cosmology of creative improvised music. It’s a crime considering the fact that a solid scene has been thriving there for years. New York and Chicago may have the corner market, but bands like this jointly fronted quartet are surely gaining ground through the purity and convictions conveyed through their collective sounds. Byard Lancaster is something of a cottage industry and figurehead himself. As a grass roots promoter, educator, political activist and near-legendary improvisor he’s helped sustain a vibrant musical community alongside equally influential colleagues such as Khan Jamal. His 1992 self-published manifesto, Horn Works: Music Discipline
is virtually required reading for any musician seeking improvised expression as a means of creative and financial survival.
Teaming with old colleague Pope and piloting a small Philly delegation to the Spirit Room he sets up shop with a set of music that has all the passion and flavor of a street corner sermon. The majority of compositions (all save one, originals) are arranged for maximum blowing potential riffing off highly emotional melodic centers and relatively basic, but effective, rhythmic vamps. By keeping things comparatively simple on the composing front the pair place emphasis where it rightfully belongs, in the playing.
On “People From Zimbabwe,” the horns spiral out in unison and isolation above a supple, undulating rhythm. An effusive, Mingusian harmony serves as center for the balladic “Philly in 3, Part II” with Odean taking first honors on tenor and Byard moving to the fore shortly thereafter for a stirring run of phrases on alto. The band affords Eric Dolphy’s “Miss Ann” a brisk, but textured rendering with the horns twisting through the angular head before striking out on divergent tonal paths. “Sanctuary Blessing” is a mere tone poem of two minutes, but the four players still manage to pack a mountain of pathos into the piece. “Collage” is just what the title implies, a patchwork splicing of juxtaposed harmonic lines brought into bold relief by raging rhythmic undercurrent. Saxophones are the prime frontline voices, but Lancaster’s loquacious flute does surface on tracks like “Blues for a Beautiful Brother” and the lovely “Ballad for Sabina.”
Most striking is the fierce sense of pride and expressive purpose conveyed by these Philadelphia musicians, which is palpable throughout this highly visceral disc. This set proves that Philly isn’t the home of the Liberty Bell for nothing. The Revolutionary War artifact’s symbolic features have bled beautifully into the city’s musical subculture and the clarion call “Let Freedom Ring” is just as poignantly appropriate to today’s music as it was to the original context of our Nation’s birth. Bottom line: it’s time the Philly contingent received the props it so richly deserves!
CIMP on the web: http://www.cadencebuilding.com
Personnel: Byard Lancaster- alto saxophone, bells, flute; Odean Pope- tenor & soprano saxophones; Ed Crockett- bass; J.R. Mitchell- drums. Recorded: January 23 & 24, 2001.