The description "spiritual jazz" means different things to different people. It was first applied to the predominantly African American style platformed by the Strata-East and Muse labels in the early and mid 1970s. The tag was not introduced until a decade later, and a better one would have been "cultural jazz," despite the tautologyfor although every Strata-East and Muse artist would, if asked, almost certainly have acknowledged the inspiration of John Coltrane
's masterpiece A Love Supreme
(Impulse, 1964), little of their output was spiritual in the traditional sense. It was earthbound, concerned primarily with human and political rights.
Since the millennium, "spiritual jazz" has taken on a parallel, more or less religious meaning, used to describe music that touches on transcendentalism and divinity. A further usage has latterly been adopted to describe inter-cultural jazz, though this has largely been to avoid using the description "world jazz," which has attracted ill-informed accusations of cultural appropriation.
But enough with the lexicology. For the Italian DJ, crate digger, and guitarist and occasional recording artist Nicola Conte
, spiritual jazz means all of the above. On his spring 2018 album Spiritual Galaxy
(MPS), Conte assembled a multi-national line-up to celebrate the Strata-East and Muse tradition. On Cosmic Forest: The Spiritual Sounds Of MPS
, he explores the 1965-1975 catalogues of the German label MPS and its forerunner SABA, a total of over 500 albums. The majority of the tracks on the 82-minute CD (and double LP) feature European musicians in collaboration with traditional musicians from north Africa, south Asia and Latin America. Though some of the tracks have meditative ambiences, they are all basically "world jazz," and are eloquent ripostes to those commentators who bandy around charges of cultural appropriation.
Highlights are Philippine vocal group Third Wave
's take on Herbie Hancock
's "Maiden Voyage;" the Indo-Jazz fusion of "Yaad," featuring sitar player Dewan Motihar, German trumpet player Manfred Schoof
and French saxophonist Barney Wilen
; Swiss pianist George Gruntz
's "Djerbi," made with a group of Tunisian Berber musicians, American saxophonist Sahib Shihab
and French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty
; and American clarinetist Tony Scott
's "Burungkaka Tua," made with Indonesian musicians.
Two other highlightsGerman trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff
's "Never Let It End," featuring his compatriot Heinz Sauer
on tenor saxophone, and American tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon
and trombonist Slide Hampton
's "A Day In Vienna"have little or nothing to do with even the loosest definition of spiritual jazz, but are both stone magic. "Never Let It End" is a group improvisation with an Andalucian vibe, and "A Day In Vienna" is down the line hard-bop, about as spiritual as a gram of heroin.
Nicola Conte is an indefatigable crate digger and his finds are usually worth checking out. His series of Viagem
compilations for London's Far Out label, collecting bizarrely wonderful bossa-nova singles made in Brazil in the 1960s, is a particular delight. And so is this trawl through the lesser-known backwaters of the MPS and SABA catalogues.