Michael Gregory Jackson: Clarity

Clifford Allen By

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Michael Gregory Jackson
2010 (1976)

In the musical climate of 2010, the fact that a diverse range of musical styles and approaches can be combined is something often taken for granted. Creative music has long recombined musics from various non-Western sources as well as jazz and Western art music. While not always successful, improvised music has been brought together with contemporary popular music, such as indie rock and electronica. There is something hinted at by merging different traditions—that some musicians and composers are, at their loftiest, trying to get ever closer to a universal music. Others might put it more simply—that the sounds heard in their heads are not satisfied by what is currently available given the extant musical boundaries. Guitarist, composer, improviser and songwriter Michael Gregory (nee Michael Gregory Jackson) is a figure who paved the way for the Black Rock movement in the 1980s, recording for Arista and Island and heading the power-trio Signal (with drummer Pheeroan AkLaff and bassist Jerome Harris).

Gregory's first LP as a leader was recorded in 1976. This session, Clarity, shows a slightly different direction, as he was then simultaneously involved in the New Haven coffee shop folk scene and creative improvisation. Here, Gregory is joined by regular associates, reedman Oliver Lake and trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Wadada Leo Smith, as well as tenor saxophonist David Murray across a set of seven original compositions. Clarity was first issued as an LP on the tiny Bija imprint and this ESP-Disk licensed reissue is its second incarnation on CD (oddly, no note of its original label is included here). In addition to vocals and guitars, Gregory contributes bamboo flute, marimba, chimes and other percussion to the date.

The opening "Clarity" (the title also contains a graphic element not reproducible here) begins with terse acoustic guitar arpeggios, keening flute and tenor, and then moves through an evenly-spaced upward tone row, following along a path outlined by Smith's concept of rhythm units. The shock—at least to those solely weaned on improvised music—comes when Gregory spins out a delicate, soulful tune with a vocal delivery reminiscent of a young Stevie Wonder. It's a short sung poem that meanders along a burbling sonic brook, but its effect is extraordinary, immediate and unlike anything else before or since in improvised music. Gregory follows this with chunky chordal blocks, expanding and contracting as trumpet, tenor and flute carve a cottony rhythm line towards the piece's conclusion.

A similar lyricism, while not espoused vocally, imbues "A View of This Life," seemingly built off the sound-rhythms and enunciated capsules of the title piece. It's rare to hear David Murray in such a measured and particulate context, but he navigates the complex intervals and tiptoe pace of the theme sans bluster. Though the tune may be built on improvisation—indeed, the naturalness of the quartet's progression through the material gives an open quality even as it's clearly through-composed.

"Oliver Lake" is a duo for guitar and curved soprano saxophone, sharp and knotty staccato passages butting against areas of equally extreme calm. Gregory's guitar virtuosity is readily apparent, scumbling phrases into grays and browns with the use of a volume pedal (apparently an influence on Bill Frisell), and almost immediately returning to plucked pirouettes. There is one solo guitar piece on the disc, a fantasia for 6-string and environmental reverb recorded live in Los Angeles, "Prelueoionti," which nods at players like Leo Kottke, Sandy Bull, and John Fahey's "Approaching of the Disco Void." The melodies and intervals still tie back into ensemble composition, but Americana and East European folk music are equally evident as Gregory unspools his phrases.

The lengthy "Clarity (4)" is the most open-form piece, employing extended passages of free improvisation that grow out of the tune's soft pan-tonal written opening. The phrases at the outset are short—coiled tenor growls, muted brass whine and dive-bombing flute encircled by swelling gongs and metal percussion. Short recurring thematic elements return, grounding the improvisation and maintaining a diffuse tonal center, even as Murray lets rip with unbridled tenor squall, a jubilant ferocity taken in stride with the accompaniment of flutes and chimes. A searing but short alto/trumpet duet pulls even more greatly at the edges of the piece, Gregory joining in with a pitch divided electric guitar before the closing melody appears.

"Iomi" uses a very simple series of pitches altered through tempo shifts, and it's this bald-faced simplicity that often works best in Gregory's music. Even as the interpretation of that simplicity might draw out timbrally complex, acrobatic improvisations, what is at the heart of the music is something centered and direct. These early investigations have granted a quality that Gregory's music retains; his current trio Clarity-<3, with drummer Kresten Osgood and bassist Niels Praestholm, fuses the melodic/rhythmic units of earlier work within a contemporary jazz-rock form. Rarely is a vision so wide-ranging encapsulated by such basic tenets as clarity.

Tracks: Clarity; A View of This Life; Oliver Lake; Prelueoionti; Ballad; Clarity (4); Ab Bb 1-7-3 Degrees; Iomi.

Personnel: Michael Gregory: acoustic and electric guitars, voice, wooden flute, electric mandolin, timpani, marimba, percussion; Oliver Lake: alto and curved soprano saxophones, flute, talking drum, cowbell; David Murray: tenor saxophone; (Wadada) Leo Smith: trumpet, soprano trumpet, flugelhorn, Indian flute.

Year Released: 2010 | Style: Beyond Jazz

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