Rene Ford: Unsentimental (2004)
The Innova web site describes this recording as sounding like what a collaboration between Sun Ra, John Coltrane and beat poet Ted Joans might have turned out like. At least in terms of Ford's tenor playing, Gato Barbieri is probably a better comparison than Coltrane. This is especially evident on "Playing With Fire," where the overall approach is similar to Barbieri's early '70s work, such as Fenix or El Pampero, with the polyrhythmic percussion laying a firm rhythmic base over which Ford builds gradually developing tenor sax lines with the piano and electric bass providing a subtley shifting harmonic backdrop. The grittiness of Ford's tone is also comparible with Barbieri's.
The interaction of the poetry and vocals with the music is a fundamental concept of the album and the "spaciness" of much of the spoken word justifies the Sun Ra connection. Words such as "universe," "molecules," "inertia," "being" and "perpetual motion" dominate the poetry, and at times the use of repeated lines might be a little heavy for some tastes. Take as an example this passage from "Space Finding Time":
Perpetual motion is relentless, perpetual motion is relentless, perpetual motion is relentless, molecules in motion remain, molecules in motion remain, molecules in motion remain in motion and inertia is a distant memory.
The use of the two contrasting voices is another key characteristic of the album. Powell!'s resonant voice dominates a great deal of the music, much as you'd expect from a man who spells his name with an exclamation mark. Ndosi is more of a wild card, not featured quite as much as Powell! but doing some crazy things with her voice when she is in the picture, and she is possibly the most engaging performer on the album.
The recording quality is generally good, but the percussion is favoured heavily in the mix over the piano, and the piano sound itself is quite dull. This is actually fairly effective when grooving with the electric bass, as at the opening of "Playing With Fire," but when Alicia Wiley is given solo space a brighter sound would better illustrate her playing, especially as her approach is more rooted in dense harmonies than distinct melodic lines. No recording engineer is listed in the liner notes and bassist Bailey is credited with mixing, implying that at least some of the music is made up of home recordings.
As a whole, the music works best when it gets down to the funky grooves of "Playing With Fire" or "Caminati." It's interesting how across the majority of the album the focus is more on the voices and rhythm section than Ford himself. On a number of the shorter tracks he doesn't perform at all, and rarely is he the central focus.
Fans of spacey poetry interacting with percussive grooves should find much of interest here but overall there isn't enough harmonic or melodic substance to justify a recommendation to a wider audience.
Track Listing: 1. Perpetual Motion, 2. Playing With Fire, 3. Space Finding Time, 4. Caminati, 5. Free Men Name Themselves, 6. Ode to Gentle Men, 7. Songs and Stories and Poems, 8. Favors, 9. Song for Patricia, 10. Unsentimental
Personnel: Rene Ford - Saxophones; Jeffrey Bailey - Bass; Mankwe Ndosi - Vocals; J. Otis Powell! - Performance Poet; Eliezer Freitas Santos - Percussion (vocals on 8); Alicia Wiley - Piano; Kevin Washington - Trap Drums Kit