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Noah Howard: The Black Ark

Chris May By

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Like "rarely performed" operas, "hard to find" recordings are often obscure for a prosaic reason: they're no good. Here's a monumental exception to the rule. The Black Ark—released in small numbers on the Freedom label in 1969, out of print almost overnight, and a holy grail for collectors practically ever since—is forty minutes of passionate and thrilling music, new-thing free jazz as great as practically any that came out of the late 1960s without saxophonist John Coltrane's name on it.

Seventeen years younger than Coltrane, alto saxophonist Noah Howard arrived in New York in 1965, aged 22. He formed a quartet, made a couple of albums for ESP, and—before moving to Europe in 1970—put together the septet which made The Black Ark. By 1969, Howard was terrifyingly good: as a player, composer and bandleader.

The four originals which make up The Black Ark—a mutant blues, a free jive samba, a cod-Japanese "ying-tong" melody and a wonderfully lyrical ballad—are catchy and hummable, at a time when most free jazz rejected tunes and structures (or was too untutored to create them). Howard brings a similar degree of form to his band: theme statements bookend each track, solos are taken individually ("Mount Fuji" contains the only section of extended collective improvisation), and the length of each player's solo is precisely pre-determined, with Howard taking the longest spots.

As an alto player, Howard is often tagged with Ornette Coleman. In fact, he sounds more like a tenor saxophonist, bringing to his smaller instrument much of the tenor's weight and booting force. He's a hefty player. The closest contemporary comparison is perhaps with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, another musician balancing ferocity with trippy melodicism, to their mutual advantage.

For unrelenting screaming banshee saxophone, the septet includes tenor player Arthur Doyle. As the original album's liner notes have it, in words that can't be bettered, Doyle is "propelled throughout by an almost incoherent rage, a chaotic and murderous sound." Howard's deft trick as leader is to keep Doyle's eruptions strictly time-constrained—a couple of choruses of sonic excess per solo, and out. Trumpeter Earl Cross, another furiously intense soloist, though a less tonally monolithic one, is similarly under manners. The result: neither player outstays his welcome and you don't have to be a smack head to enjoy them.

The rest of the band is a blast too, particularly the agile, powerhouse bassist Norris Jones and drummer Muhammad Ali (the younger brother of Coltrane's post-Elvin Jones drummer Rashied). Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock conga player, Juma, doesn't just add color, but working with Ali brings real propulsion to the music (the duo's interaction on "Mount Fuji" is a delight).

Almost forty years after its original release, undimmed by familiarity, this reissue is like a really, really late, really, really exciting birthday present.

Track Listing: Domiabra; Ole Negro; Mount Fuji; Queen Anne.

Personnel: Noah Howard: alto saxophone; Arthur Doyle: tenor saxophone; Earl Cross: trumpet; Leslie Waldron: piano; Norris Jones: bass; Muhammad Ali: drums; Juma: congas.

Title: The Black Ark | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Bo'Weavil

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