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Noah Howard: The Black Ark

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Noah Howard's 1969 album The Black Ark has, in an unintended way, lived up to its name in recent years. It has become, to free jazz obsessives, a sort of Ark of the Covenant, a fabled and much sought after grail and jazz message boards lit up when it was announced that the British label Bo'Weavil would be putting the album out on CD.

Recent years have also shown a renewed interest in Howard's career, with new recordings on CIMP, Cadence, Ayler and Boxholder and an important reissue on Eremite pairing his 1971 album Patterns (by a sextet that included Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg) with an unreleased 18-minute track from 1979 called "Message to South Africa" (with Johnny Dyani, Kali Fasteau, Noel McGee and Chris McGregor), recorded for Mercury in France but unissued because of its perceived militancy.

The Black Ark was Howard's third record as a leader. Released by Polydor after two ESP titles, it should have been his breakthrough. Instead it broke him. Unhappy with the lack of support for free jazz in the states, within three years he had left for Paris, eventually moving again to Belgium where he still lives. Record labels at the time were scrambling to figure out what was going on in jazz as well as rock and many worthy albums didn't get the proper promotion and distribution and were lost in the shuffle.

But The Black Ark was one that should have risen to the top. It is, in a sense, the missing link between Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. Simple yet insistent melodies scream through the twin saxophones of Howard and, on his recording debut, Arthur Doyle before breaking down into strident, freeform marches. Like Ayler and Shepp, Howard here favors tunes that feel like work songs, or even nursery rhymes. With a third horn (Earl Cross on trumpet), the front line flies over the rumbling rhythms of Leslie Waldron (piano), Norris Sirone Jones (bass), Mohammed Ali (drums) and Juma (conga). Compared to the mountains of recordings released in today's market, the discography of revolutionary (politically and musically) jazz from the late '60s is rather small and it's fantastic to hear another piece of the picture.

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; Mohammed Ali: drums; Juma: conga.

Title: The Black Ark | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Bo'Weavil

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