Best known for his mainstream work with Woody Shaw
on classic albums like The Moontrane
(Muse, 1975) and Stepping Stones
(Columbia, 1978), it may come as a surprise to learn that pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs was not just a friend and mentor to Ronald Shannon Jackson
, but that he also played on the drummer's Decode Yourself
(Island, 1985)an album that, like much of Jackson's Decoding Society work, took Ornette Coleman
's harmolodic Prime Time group as a starting point for his own innovations.
If Jackson's Decoding Society garnered him the most attention, he had other things to say as well. Pulse
(Celluloid, 1984) revolved largely around Jackson's drums and poetry, but also featured an unexpectedly lyrical closer, "Lullabye for Mother," performed by Gumbs alone on piano. Even less known is that producer David Breskin asked Gumbs, the following year, to make a record of solo piano improvisations based around Jackson's melodies. Composed on flute, these linear melodies afforded Gumb the opportunity to expand them harmonically and use them as contexts for further improvisational exploration.
Sadly, these improvisations were not released back in the day, but when Jackson lost his battle with leukemia in 2013 Gumbs decided to issue these recordings in download-only form on his Ejano Music imprint, where he'd previously issued 2005's Remember Their Innocence
, two years prior to Sack Full of Dreams
(18th & Vine, 2007). Bloodlife: Solo Piano Improvisations Based on the Melodies of Ronald Shannon Jackson
reveals as much about Jackson as it does the unjustly overlooked Gumbs, more recently heard in R&B contexts but still keeping his jazz chops sharp with bassist Avery Sharpe
on albums like Sojourner Truth
(JKNM, 2012). The innate lyricism of "Lullabye for Mothers" bookends the album, with "Lullabye for Mothers (Good Morning)" delicately unfolding with the innocence of a child's opening eyes, while "Lullabye for Mothers (Good Night)" does the opposite, its dramatic flourishes leading to an ending of calm tranquility that could also serve as a heartfelt hope of peace for Jackson.
In between, there are moments of change-heavy bop-centricities on "Freedom of Spirit" (spotlighting the pianist's' firm touch and effortless virtuosity) and hints of church on "Rising to the Occasion," two original Gumbs improvisations culled from the same sessions. The brighter "Behind Plastic Faces" is a song begging for lyrics, while the title track is a more open-ended piece of free play, filled with stops and starts, broad dynamic reaches and a unique place where Gumbs' inherent melodism meets Jackson's more outré disposition.
Solo piano recordings are a challenge; beyond artists like Paul Bley
and Keith Jarrett
seeming to have grabbed ownership, it quite simply lays the performer bare, with nowhere to hide. It's no surprise that Gumbs has stepped up to the challenge; that he did so almost 30 years ago may well be. We'll never know what could have been had Bloodlife
been released back then, but it's plenty good enough that it's finally seeing the light of day as a posthumous tribute to a lost friend. Bloodlife
's heartfelt homage not only shines a spotlight on an artist long deserving greater recognition, it's also a poignant reminder of another who, at 73, left this mortal coil far too soon.