There are certain crises in which "mere" protest just doesn't seem sufficient. Whether talking about climate change, the seemingly unceasing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or (to take 2020's signature example) the ongoing challenges of racism in the criminal justice system, the perceived need to resort to something more dramatic than voting or taking part in a march or demonstration naturally arises. If the forces arrayed against us aren't simply unjust or harmful, but might in fact be classified as "evil," then is something more significant warranted? Perhaps calling on divine deliverance is the only logical alternative. At least such was the conclusion of the Mark Harvey Group in A Rite for All Souls
, a piece of "aural theater" performed on October 31, 1971 at the Old West Church in Boston, Massachusetts. At a time with public outrage over the Vietnam War hitting fever pitch (the Pentagon Papers had been published that summer), Harvey and his colleagues created something which was part performance art, part jazz concert, and part religious ritual, in the hope of marshaling all manner of resources, both musical and spiritual, for the struggle for peace.
Today, trumpeter Harvey is most commonly known for his long-standing leadership of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, which he founded in 1973. But his role in the Boston jazz scene went well beyond that, as his work as an activist and Methodist minister put him in a position to do community outreach of various kinds, including his stint in the early '70s as an intern-minister at the Old West Church, where he led the congregation's jazz ensemble. One of his colleagues in that group, Peter Bloom
, is featured on Rite
, and his expansive creativity on a range of saxophones is one of the delights of this recording. Harvey and Bloom are joined by percussionists Craig Ellis and Michael Standish and, together, the four traverse a musical landscape which is freely-improvised, with each segment drawing thematic inspiration from various poetic resources, including W.B. Yeats' "Second Coming" and Ellis' own "Napalm: Rice Paper."
There is an anything-goes aspect to the performance, particularly in the selection of musical instruments, which range from conventional choices such as trumpet, French horn, saxophones and drum kit to more unusual ones such as saxophone mouthpieces, organ pipes and other "found" devices which the group assembled as a "sculptural installation." That experimental spirit along with the group's flair for the dramaticthe band entered the church for one segment wearing monks' robes and displayed gigantic tarot cards on either side of the stagemight bring to mind the theatrical approach of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And Harvey's aesthetic is clearly influenced by that group's fondness for spectacle. But unlike the Art Ensemble's liberal use of humor and irreverence, the music here is deadly serious.
Much of the recording has a spartan simplicity, with dialogue between Harvey and Bloom at the center, augmented by Ellis and Standish. Ellis possesses fearsome skills as a drummer, with a powerful delivery which invigorates "The Second Coming," perhaps the most impassioned music on the recording, as the musicians use Standish's recitation of Yeats' bleak vision as fuel for their evocation of a frightening impending apocalypse. But the music only reaches this kind of intensity in select moments, as it is more often content to carve out space for reflection and lamentation. There is anger here, certainly; Ellis' harrowing "Napalm: Rice Paper" has a barely-contained rage which leads to a scorching barrage from Bloom and Harvey. But the prevailing sentiment is much more one of irreparable loss and tragedy, with silence and absence playing a bigger role than grander gestures in propelling the music.
Admittedly, with over ninety minutes of music altogether, it is a lot to take in at once. The stasis of some prolonged segments makes one miss the ambience and other visual components that undoubtedly contributed to the concert's power. But even as a partial glimpse into an era in which music meant so much more than just entertainment or a pleasant diversion, A Rite for All Souls
is invaluable. Harvey and his partners are indeed wrestling with demons here, and it is a potent thing to behold.
(CD 1): Invocation/introit; Recitation (Spel Against Demons); Fanfare; Recitation (The Second Coming); The Falconer; The Falcon; Recitation (Orpheus); The Soul of Charon; (CD 2): Prelude; Recitation (Napalm: Rice Paper); Rite for the Souls of the Children; Coda; The Rite continued; The Rite concluded.