Raphe Malik: Last Set & Sympathy

Clifford Allen By

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What is sometimes sorely missed among the current crop of players in the jazz "tradition" (and by "tradition" I mean both straight-ahead and free music) is a sense of weight. This weight, or gravity, is both sonic and metaphysical and improvised music is at a loss without it. While he was a regular member of the ensembles of Cecil Taylor and altoist Jimmy Lyons in the '70s, it is somewhat rare to hear Malik leading his own ensembles and stepping out from behind such specific compositional contexts; Malik's gifts as both composer and improviser are extremely noteworthy. Culled from archival and recent recordings, these two discs offer a clearer picture of Malik's art.

In vanguard jazz, the trumpet is not the most dominant instrument and many of its most noteworthy practitioners have seemingly built a foundation on a language of broken phrasing, growls and smears—what could be called "technical limitations."

Raphe Malik
Last Set

Don Cherry, Alan Shorter and Bill Dixon all follow this stylistic model, trading bravura for subtle motifs. Malik, however, has built an improvisational language on clear, insistent phrasing, repeating and disassembling short phrases at high energy and punctuating with the occasional blurred arpeggio a la Albert Ayler ("Sad C" from Last Set is an excellent example of this). Culled from a 1984 live performance at the 1369 Jazz Club in Cambridge, Mass., Last Set offers a glimpse into one of Malik's early ensembles.

The group features the trumpeter's regular trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Syd Smart, both of whom figured prominently in the Lyons-Malik band, augmented here by tenor saxophonist Frank Wright. Often considered one of the true tenor firebrands in the wake of Coltrane and Ayler, Wright's R&B roots were always more directly on the surface and by the date of this recording, had synthesized bop, R&B and freedom into a unique lexicon with more than its share of humor (Wright's fabled vocalizations are in fine display here, too). Finally, though there is a slight bit of phasing on the tape, the recording quality and condition are excellent for a 20-year-old live master and only the most severe audio nuts need not apply.


Recorded almost twenty years later, Sympathy features Malik in a trio with cornetist/saxophonist Joe McPhee and drummer Donald Robinson, whose significant work with Malik tenor foil Glenn Spearman has been documented (albeit not frequently enough). Hearing Malik next to McPhee, it is clear that the former is far less of a smearer than the latter, even in a setting where blurred multiphonics are the starting point for an improvisation. The stylistic differences between the two players make for very interesting listening, Malik the stately, melancholy bluesman and McPhee the sprite; McPhee the Don Cherry to Malik's Albert Ayler. Robinson's subtle, polyrhythmic swing is the perfect underpinning for the two trumpeters, Malik's poise especially benefiting from such wonderfully understated rhythms. It is fair to say that, whereas Malik's recordings with Wright, Spearman and Lyons are distinct and forceful outings, this trio with McPhee and Donald Robinson is a more textural affair. The compositions are less immediately arresting, but the reward is a unique entry in Malik's catalog. With these two very different sessions from Raphé Malik, the presence of improvised music is affirmed. And in a music where saxophonists, pianists and drummers seem to lead the march, the call from the brass chair is something not to be underestimated.

Last Set

Tracks: 1. Sad C (15:11); 2. Companions #2 (30:07); 3. Chaser (10:19).
Personnel: Raphe Malik - trumpet; Frank Wright - tenor saxophone; William Parker - bass; Syd Smart - drums.


Tracks: 1. Testament (9:14); 2. Resolving a Quote (7:43); 3. Velocity (4:53); 4. Space March (7:33); 5. Hypersonic (10:03); 6. Motivic (8:19); 7. Untitled Dialogue (6:41); 8. Call and Response (8:20); 9. Escape Route (12:35).
Personnel: Raphe Malik: Trumpet; Joe McPhee: Soprano Sax, Pocket Trumpet; Donald Robinson: Drums.


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