Trumpeter Raphe Malik has remained an underground figure from his early days working with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons through his first recording as a leader ( 21st Century Texts, FMP, 1989) and those that followed. He made up his own name ("raphe" means "the seam of a seed," something that he picked up out of the dictionary after having a vision under the stars in Ohio) and has never really settled down into any sort of predictable groove. His powerful, quick-witted playing with several important members of jazz's avant-garde has earned him attention, but not the kind that sells records or makes headlines.
Last Set may not change any of that, but it's a particularly valuable document because it brings to light the high-flying dynamics that went on under the radar during the mid-'80s. Recorded in 1984 at Boston's 1369 Jazz Clubfive years before the venue went belly upthe performance also features the late cult hero Reverend Frank Wright on tenor saxophone, William Parker on bass, and local Syd Smart on drums. It's hardly the first time these players got together: Malik met Smart when he was 19, Wright three years later. Parker was Malik's regular bassist for ten years before this recording was made.
The recording consists of three long pieces from ten to thirty minutes in length, and while the composition credits formally go to Malik, it's pretty clear that there's a whole lot of free improvisation involved. The second piece features some heavy duty blowing by the horns, together and separately, Malik and Wright darting around the high end of their respective instruments. A full-on blowout toward the end strangely morphs into polyrhythmic swing, Parker riffing away on odd niblets underneath in his own inimitable way.
Be warned that in addition to his unpredictable, edgy saxophone playing, Wright also does his share of "singing," if you want to call his nearly unintelligible rough-and-tumble vocal performance that, but it's well-received by the other players, particularly Malik, who lends a sympathetic ear. The trumpeter's slurred notes near the conclusion of "Companions #2" evoke broad swaths of sound, hinting at and dancing around a melody before the final clarion call comes.
As a snapshot in time, Last Set reveals the focused intensity with which these players approached the avant-garde continuum. But there's also something timeless about the way they share the risks and rewards of group improvisation, teetering on the edge but always pulling through together.
To learn more about Raphe Malik, check out recent interviews published at AAJ and opprobrium online.
Sad C; Companions #2; Chaser.
Raphe Malik: trumpet; Frank Wright: tenor sax, voice; William Parker: bass; Syd Smart: drums. Recorded
September 13, 1984 at the 1369 Jazz Club, Cambridge, Massachusetts.