Luther Thomas and the Human Arts Ensemble: Funky Donkey, Vols. I & II
I’m glad I gave Funky Donkey a second and third try, even though my final impressions remain mixed. This ensemble, affiliated with the St. Louis BAG (Black Artists Group), has released recordings under the aegis of both Thomas and Charles Bobo Shaw. My first encounter, on an Arista Freedom LP, was unfortunately negative despite my best efforts to dig the music.
Funky Donkey was recorded in 1973 and originally released on Creative Consciousness (CC1001T) in 1977. Circle Records subsequently reissued the music on vinyl. The title track falls short of period epics like "Wrong Key Donkey," "Sex Machine" (choose either Sly or JB), or "Dogon Blues"but the piece has its moments, especially as it progresses. It starts with a brief period of free horn playing, then launches into guitar riffs against a horn riff. The sound on "Funky Donkey" clearly dates to 1973, but this is a down-home band with few pretensions. For nearly twenty minutes, the group explores the rock-with-horns’n’wah-wah sound. Even with a few free horn sprees, it still doesn't pack a booty-shakin' groove. Midway through, the guitar riff breaks up and the ensemble tumbles into free territory; you can almost hear the intro to “Dazed and Confused.” Guitarist Marvin Horne has clearly been listening to his Led Zeppelin (and it hasn’t hurt). We are now in blues territory, and it feels good, but soon the rock-steady drum and guitar riff returnsand so do the doldrums, despite a time-out for Thomas to jam with bass and tambourine.
This quiet and interesting segment evolves into “Una New York,” a nearly twenty minute-long Latin-tinged composition in which the entire group hits a stride. The horns are slightly and interestingly out-of-tune. The solos offer intrigue, as does the percussion, done to a New York salsero turn. The horns exalt in their interplay, and even some Ivesian tunes semi-appear, here “A Hunting We Will Go.” Although the riffing persists throughout, it now serves a greater cause as the group more creatively pursues ideas on top.
The third and final track is a twenty-seven minute exploration into and through Oliver Lake's "Intensity." The trumpet (presumably Lester Bowie’s) sputters a melody (not a contradiction here); and then unison horns present slow themes over a running rhythm section. It’s a blowing session with a driving rhythm underneath. (Is the nifty flute courtesy of Mr. Parran?) Roughly two-thirds of the way in, it slows down and levels out, leading to a loping blues walk with a sort of second-line horn weave, with “Dixie” phased in and distorted.
The composition "Intensity" also appears on Lake’s own wonderful Heavy Spirits (Arista Freedom LP AL 1008), now a Black Lion CD. Lake's version lasts a brief 2:23. It offers high strings, with horn lines that could be placed with Luther Thomas's version, though Lake mgically fragments the theme with his horn and then the strings end it. What a contrast!
Final Verdict: It's good to have track one on board, but start from track two and you'll still have a forty-five minute good time.
As is standard in this marvelous series curated by John Corbett, the disc features a repro of the original LP label, and the inner tray presents the label of side B. Despite the overloaded sonics of the original tapes, this is history, and not to be slighted.
Track Listing: Funky Donkey; Una New York; Intensity.
Personnel: Luther Thomas, alto saxophone; Lester Bowie, Floyd LeFlore, Harold Pudgy Atterbury, trumpet; Eric Forman, Fender bass; Abdella Ya Kum, Rocky Washington, percussion; Marvin Horne, guitar; Charles Bobo Shaw, drums; J.D. Parran, reeds; Joseph Bowie, trombone.