One of the undersung elder statesmen of the jazz avant-garde, guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson
played a vital role in the burgeoning loft scene of the 1970s, where his work with Oliver Lake
was especially noteworthy. On albums like Lake's Holding Together
(Black Saint, 1976) and Zaki
(hatOLOGY, 1979), Jackson brought a deep reservoir of influences, not the least of which was a rock/R&B sensibility that he would later develop in more pop-oriented directions during the 1980s and '90s, a shift for which his own release from 1978, Karmonic Suite
(Improvising Artists), can be seen as a key transition point. Since the 2000s, Jackson has returned to his creative jazz roots, and his WHENUFINDITUWILLKNOW
(Golden Records, 2019) was a telling statement from an artist who still exhibits an adventurous spirit. On Frequency Equilibrium Koan
, however, we're treated to a glimpse of the early Jackson, with a killer lineup from the very core of the 1970s loft culture, on a live recording from 1977 that reveals a good deal of the magic Jackson would forge over the decades to come.
With alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill
, cellist Abdul Wadud
and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff
, Jackson had colleagues whose breadth of vision and technical facility matched his own. And even though the quality of the recording isn't pristine, made as it was on Jackson's portable field recorder, it still captures enough of the musicians' well-calibrated interactions to reveal the chemistry they clearly possessed.
The title-track opener begins somewhat tentatively, with the four musicians seeming to look for a way to start the conversation, but not quite finding a shared point of entry. The exchanges are deliberate and measured, with lots of open space. Yet Hemphill's keening alto has a forceful presence, and Wadud's wide-ranging contributions are as varied as Jackson's, with akLaff limiting himself to occasional interjections that become just a bit more animated by the close of the cut. "Heart & Center," conversely, is more immediately accessible, with a shuffling groove and plenty of bluesy grit, with Jackson riffing mightily and Wadud taking on a support role almost as a rhythm guitar as his own sinuous plucked lines propel the track forward. All four players generate a nice head of steam on this cut, and Hemphill's garrulous flurries are especially energetic.
The third track, "Clarity," maintains the music's power, albeit in a freer vein, and at eleven-plus minutes it offers the best glimpse of the musicians' voluble tendencies; the rapid-fire dialogue that ensues between Hemphill and Wadud is ferocious, and Jackson's flinty runs are just as impressive, building to a thrilling finish. After these invigorating pieces, the closer, "Meditation," is somewhat of a letdown, as Jackson turns to bamboo flute and Hemphill sits the track out. It's a surprisingly tenuous conclusion to an album that in other respects finds its identity more assuredly.
All told, Jackson has provided another valuable document of the formative period of the 1970s avant-garde, capturing the work of four musicians whose creativity and chance-taking ethos helped make this one of the most fertile periods in the development of American jazz.
Frequency Equilibrium Koan; Heart & Center; Clarity; A Meditation.
Michael Gregory Jackson: bamboo flute (4).