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Luther Thomas was one of the early pioneers in the struggle to mesh free jazz-based improvisation with the visceral rhythms of funk and Rhythm and Blues. Working with colleagues in the Black Artist’s Guild, an AACM-styled musician’s collective based in St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 1970s he hatched a handful of recorded experiments that traced his investigations, all of which quickly fell out of circulation. Thanks to John Corbett’s Unheard imprint one of those seminal sessions has been resurrected and augmented in the form of Funky Donkey.
Transferred presumably from analogue tape sources the fidelity is coarse and spotty, but the sonic smudges end up adding to the immediacy inherent in the live concert recording. An introductory free-form exchange of strangled horns locks into a raunchy raucous groove paving a path as Horne’s scritch-scratch guitar scribbles around the vamping horns. Clamorous percussion piloted by Shaw’s choppy trap fills lays down a snowballing rhythm and Bowie’s trombone throws a few punches out front followed in succession by the other horns. Near the pieces midway mark a freefall plummet into collective improvisation sets off a stretch of unrepentant noodling on the part of Horne and the rest of the rhythm section. Foreman’s fat fornicating bass line eventually digs in as a chugging anchor and the crew returns to ebullient vamping with the horns scrawling spray painted thematic streaks on top. Another interlude toward the piece’s close allows for more vacillating interplay between the horns before a seamless switch to side two and the Shaw penned “Una New York.” Materializing out of a Latinzed groove with flute, light percussion and Horne approximating keyboard comping the horns seize on the structure with gregarious gusto. Bowie takes a limber trumpet solo over a shifting bed of hand percussion. Others, including the erstwhile leader Thomas step to the plate in leisurely order for their own say and the upbeat groove is fully sustained over the track’s meandering length.
“Intensity,” a previously unreleased piece recorded during the same concert that yielded the first two tracks, breaks up some of the earlier funk slab for a more concentrated focus on free jazz. Bowie’s whinnying trombone opens things up above a bubbling rhythmic backdrop viscous as boiling molasses. Climbing and descending unison riffs from the remaining horns against Horne’s speed walking bass line. Thomas’ strident alto soon rises to the top of the heap as ringleader for the extended jam, which careens through the minutes clocking in at close to a half hour.
Listening to the entire rowdy din it’s tempting to imagine how these guys would fare in a head-to-head face off with the polished tightly scripted salvos of the Tower of Power horn section. Odds are they’d probably blow them off the stage. What the HAE lack in terms of finesse is more than compensated for in muscular bravura. The balance between free improvisation and implacable rump-shaking funk is a precarious one, but Thomas and his cadre largely pull it off.
Atavistic/Unheard on the web: http://www.atavistic.com
Track Listing: Funky Donkey/ Una New York/ Intensity.
Personnel: Luther Thomas- alto saxophone; Lester Bowie- trumpet; Joseph Bowie- trombone; Charles Bobo Shaw- trap drums; J.D. Parran- reeds; Floyd LeFlore- trumpet; Harold Pudgey Atterbury- trumpet; Abdella Ya Kum- percussion; Rocky Washington- percussion; Marvin Horne- guitar; Eric Foreman- Fender bass. Recorded: Fall 1973, St. Louis, Missouri.