The Koch label, which has made a small industry out of re-releasing out-of-print cds from other labels, has apparently seen it fit to rerelease several Verve/Antilles discs that went out of print a few years back. Included among these are the live Bird tribute disc with J-Mac, Johnny Griffin, Duke Jordan and other notables, a best-of disc culling the best from McCoy Tyner’s Big Band output on Verve, and this disc: Jackie McLean’s “Rhythm of the Earth” from 1992. A ten-year interval for reissue, and a good time to reassess the work then.
“Rhythm of the Earth” is a thematic title which refers to the cultural patterns of the Dogon people in Mali, West Africa. Lest one think this is some kind of world music affair with exotic instruments and abundant percussion though, please take care to examine the lineup. It is a straight-ahead lineup geared toward the “big room sound” that McLean has favored in recent years and which probably found the most notoriety through the sextet manifestation of Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Of course, we know from Blakey that Saxophone, trumpet, and trombone playing melody lines together can be a big sound indeed. But this is neither Blakey-type hard bop nor world music Jazz; the thematic portion of the program dictates the kind of feels and moods the compositions shall evoke, and judging by the majority of the content on this disc, McLean and company clearly wanted to evoke some epic, intense moods. "A post-bop blowout with a spiritual undercurrent" is what this record might be called.
McLean assembled players who could obviously pull off the sense of epic drama through their solos. Take Roy Hargrove: he is in excellent form throughout on trumpet, sounding often like Woody Shaw in terms of sheer intensity and his machine-gun delivery , and this, note- is one of his more edgy appearances on record, no doubt about it. Then of course there is a cast of outstanding past students from Jackie’s Jazz studies program at the Hartt school: Steve Davis, Nat Reeves, Eric McPherson, and Alan Jay Palmer. They all play with fire and abandon, and there’s nothing “school” about their playing at all, Alan Jay Palmer being a minor revelation on piano in an earthy modal vein and McPherson’s active drums providing enough rhythm for at least one Earth on this session. "E-Mac" was already a force this early in his playing career.
The wild card of course and the add-on to the "Big Room" is Steve Nelson on vibes. Nelson, who has gained much props from his play with Dave Holland’s Quintet, is now recognized as a superior musician, but those who follow him may not have yet heard this disc, in what is undoubtedly some of his best playing on record. His chordal accompaniment is spot-on, the pedal sustain he uses here is really what “makes” the epic feeling here in a lot of places (acting somewhat like an "instrumental" synth- atmospheric!), and last but not least- his soloing is more aggressive and uncompromising than we typically hear from him. His own records, where he typically plays standards, don’t give one an idea of what he can really do, but in this open setting there can be no doubt both about his tasteful sensibility as well as his intensi-bility, if you will. Nelson shows that he is the closest heir to Bobby Hutch in this post-bop blowout.
Let’s talk actual music then, as there is more than enough to speak of in this thematic program conceived by the illustrious Jackie Mac.
There really isn’t a bad cut on this disc, and as a thematic record it should be noted that the record lays together really pretty nicely. A more intense, driving cut typically gives way to something more reflective, and each cut tends to evoke some rather distinct mood or, more truthfully where music is concerned- some distinct combination of moods. As mentioned though, a general striving, epic sense is what is in common throughout the program no matter what the tempo or song form. Lots of minor keys and modes, if you dig. And in this light, and with the us Nelson’s ethereal vibes and the spacious recording quality, the record fits into the rough category of “Cosmic Jazz”, e.g. music by Coltrane, Pharoah, Tyner, and others that opt to use music to evoke feelings and moods more of the striving, epic kind. Furthermore- which are often based around mystical themes like Egyptian mythology or astrology. The titles here tend to give this away: “Sirius System”, “Osyris Returns.”, etc.
As said, there is really no bad cut on this record- the opening “Rhythm of the Earth” is a fifteen minute affair that seems raw in spots, but maybe this is part of its appeal because it is undeniably memorable. As another sort of conceptual McLean set piece like Love and Hate was in the 60s, it’s a pretty gritty piece, and the foil provided by McPherson’s constant chatter on his closed high-hat leads to some pretty gutsy solos. McLean, appropriately, sets a tone with his solo that is hard to match.
“The Explorers” and “Sirius System” are prime, up-tempo cuts here. On both pieces, everyone seems to lay it out and build on the intensity of the solo which came before, in almost chain-reaction fashion. Play these cuts loud- you’ll be rewarded.
“Osyris Returns” is a three-part composition which features a march bridge leading into an “up” swing section; it’s probably the most well-conceived composition of the bunch, and the band really sounds together on this one. Nelson delivers a thematic solo that is as perfectly brilliant as it is concise. Palmer also digs in amd illustrates well why he is a revelation on piano and needs to be heard from more. He's not a real chops-oriented cat but his playing, while clearly modern and influenced by Tyner and Monk, has an earthy overtone and reserved power to it that puts him in the unique company of someone like Joe Bonner, a modal-oriented player who doesn't try to overwhelm you but prefers to spin out didactic, reflective solos. James Hurt is perhaps another of this breed. But Palmer moreover contributed half of the compositions heard here, and one wonders if this concept was perhaps equally owed to him as Mr. McLean. His writing certainly addresses the themes in a spirited way.
Finally, it would remiss not to mention two cuts here show Jackie Mac at his tender finest; “For Hofsa” and “Oh Children Rise” are ballads that showcase McLean in a very sensitive repose. “Oh Children Rise” is a wistful melody sung alternately by J-Mac (on alto) and a small choir, and the hope for children’s futures in a forbidding world is tangible through the sober tone of his playing throughout.
Some have observed this record sounds quite a bit like a Blue Note record- namely, something J-Mac would have recorded in the mid-late 60s. The reviewer would like to note however that if anyone has avoided this record because they believe it may be pure re-hash of any “Blue Note” sound, they are missing something quite worthwhile. This is by no means a classic in the ranks of “Destination Out” or “One Step Beyond”, but it is a valuable addition to the McLean discography as yet another conceptual venture he has undertaken and largely succeeded by. It is also a can’t-miss record for anyone who likes their jazz to elicit the kind of epic, striving sensibility a la Coltrane or McCoy Tyner's Blue Note sides, that was mentioned. Actually, McCoy Tyner's "Expansions" is a very similar record in some ways. Lastly, one note: "Fire and Love", on the Blue Note label from 1997, was effectively a follow-up to this record if you dig the sound here (it's still in print.) A lot of holdover cast from "Rhythm..." and plenty more strong themes by McLean and Palmer.