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Catalyst: The Funkiest Band You Never Heard

Douglas Payne By

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Catalyst is one of those groups more talked about than heard. But most jazz listeners have heard the mighty tenor of Odean Pope as an integral part of Max Roach's great 1980s bands (Catalyst bassist Tyrone Brown eventually joined him there too) and through his recent and well-regarded Saxophone Choir. The underrated and under-recorded keyboardist Eddie Green has played with Pat Martino as well as Philly once-toppers, MSFB and Three Degrees. And redoubtable drummer Sherman Ferguson has since been heard to great advantage with Bud Shank, Kenny Burrell and Pharoah Sanders, among others too.

The Funkiest Band You Never Heard collects all four of Catalyst's 1972-75 Muse recordings (the entirety of its output) on this very well-packaged double-disc package on 32 Groove.

However, the funk and groove misnomers give short shrift to the high level of energy, interaction and creativity among these four. This two-disc set offers superior "electric jazz" from a period awash in fusion, fuzak and speed jazz. The collective, much like early versions of Weather Report, does not acknowledge any individual as group leader (though Pope tends to dominate); choosing, instead, to rely on each other's differing inspirations and temperaments to fuel the group chemistry.

The six tunes that form the band's debut, Catalyst (1972), offer an exceptional sort of electric post-bop jazz that consistently recalls John Coltrane's Atlantic quartets of the early 1960s. That's largely due to Pope, who surprisingly composed none of the tunes here. Brown contributes one tune, but no bass to this session. Highlights include the Pope-less melodic funk of Eddie Green's "Ain't It The Truth" and "New-Found Truths" (a certified dancehall favorite).

The five tunes that make up the band's second release, Perception, offer, perhaps, the best viewpoint of this interesting group. Overall, the music here is a bit quieter, certainly not funky. But using familiar modal and r & b motifs, the quartet breaks from riffs and vamps to freely explore from within - sort of suggesting an electric avant-gardism. Pope's nine minute "Celestial Bodies" and "Green's 15-minute "Perception" are highlights, equally sptolighting each of the four quartet members.

The more kosmigroovy Unity (1974) follows and adds Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson and Mwandishi drummer Billy Hart to the mix. Both signal what can be expected from this spacier (but still very boppish) session. It's also reminiscent of producer Skip Drinkwater's other production gig with Eddie Henderson at the time. Again, it is Green's playing and compositions ("Little Miss Lady," "Maze," and "Shorter Street") that capture attention here.

The band's final outing, A Tear And A Smile (1975), enhances the quartet with synthesizers, Charles Ellerbee's guitar, vocals ("The Demon Pt. 2," "A Prayer Dance") and strings/woodwinds for Brown's superb "Suite for Albeniz" (Catalyst's "Olé"). Drummer Ferguson has a large hand in most of the seven tunes here and his "A Tear and A Smile" and "Bahia," both sterling features for Pope's flute, offer its best moments.

Don't be misled by the gimmicky title. This excellent, well-packaged and reasonably priced set is a tribute to these fine musicians (all still active today) during a lost period when they were recording notable sounds.

Songs:Ain't It The Truth; East; Catalyst is Coming; Jabali; New-Found Truths; Salaam; A Country Song; Little Miss Lady; Maze; Athene; Mail Order; Shorter Street; The Demon Pt. 1; The Demon Pt. 2; A Tear And A Smile; Fifty Second Street Boogie Down; Suite For Albeniz; A Prayer Dance; Bahia; Perception; Uzuri; Celestial Bodies; Ile Ife; Got To Be There.

Players:Eddie Green: piano, Fender Rhodes, electric piano, keyboards, percussion; Odean Pope: tenor sax, flute, alto flute, glute, oboe; Tyrone Brown: acoustic bass, electric bass; Sherman Ferguson: drums, marimba, percussion; Pat Gleason: ARP synthesizer; Skip Drinkwater: poppy pod; Norman Harris: guitar; Farel Johnson: chant, conga, misc. percussion; Billy Hart: misc. percussion; Larry Washington: conga; Anthony Jackson, Alphonso Johnson, Ron Baker: bass; Charles Ellerbee, Norman Harris: electric guitar; Morris Bailey, Sharon Scott: vocals; George Taylor: clarinet, flute; Steve Tanzer: alto flute, flute, piccolo; Connie Hamilton, Shirley Byrne Brown: flute; Aliza Appel: viola; Michael Peebles: cello; John Blake, Gail Murdaugh: violin.

Title: The Funkiest Band You Never Heard | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: 32 Records

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