Here’s an artifact rescued from the mists of time and largely unknown to or forgotten by even the most learned of ‘New Thing’ aficionados. A look at the lineup reveals some familiar and enticing names including Rashied Ali and Ronnie Boykins, but who the hell is Joe Lee Wilson? The concise notes that accompany the disc reveal him as an advocate for creative expression in New York City who often worked in tandem with Rashied Ali to foster and sustain a musical community there during the 70s. Originally issued on Ali’s self-owned and operated Survival label, it’s no surprise given it’s grass roots distribution that it quickly disappeared from sight.
Wilson’s approach to song is more akin to that of his Soul music brethren than to the polished deliveries favored by most jazz vocalists. He belts out roughly improvised lyrics with the same passion he affords a tune’s precomposed words. Witness his impromptu song sheet for Coltrane’s “Blue Train” for a sample of what I’m talking about. A typical chorus set to the melody reads “You’re diggin’ Coltrane, you’re diggin’ Blue Train, you’re diggin’ Soul Trane, his sheets of sound, they are still around, you’re diggin’ Coltrane,” not a particularly imaginative string of phrases, but delivered with Wilson’s obvious gusto and verve they somehow work.
Another component in Wilson’s success is the stellar band of musicians he convened for the disc. The tracks are long enough to also afford the players room to improvise and Boykins and Waters in particular take advantage of the space. Boykin’s bowed solo on the earlier mentioned reading of “Blue Train” is saturated in his signature high-pitched harmonics. “Crucificado” adopts a loping Bossa beat buoyed by Kawasaki’s sharp chordal fills and Ali’s mean conga breaks. Wilson digs in and soulfully shouts out the esoteric sentiments of song. On “The Lady” his delivery is far more reserved and the band shifts smoothly into languid ballad mode that carries over into the concluding “Nice and Easy.” These last two numbers go along way toward demonstrating that Wilson can do more than simply bark his way through a tune. Listeners looking at the personnel of this disc and expecting some fervently played free jazz will find themselves disappointed. But those who welcome the opportunity to hear these legends in a decidedly different setting will find Wilson’s disc much to their liking.
Track Listing: What Would It Be Without You/ Blue Train/ Crucificado/ Parting/ The Lady/ Nice and Easy- Such a Lovely Lady.
Recorded: August 31, 1975, 77 Greene Street, NYC.
Personnel: Joe Lee Wilson- vocals; Monty Waters- alto & tenor saxophones; Ryo Kawasaki- guitar; Ronnie Boykins- bass; George Avaloz- drums; Rashied Ali- congas.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.