Friday, December 18, 2015

The Ensemble Al-Salaam - 1974 - The Sojourner

The Ensemble Al-Salaam 
The Sojourner


01. Music Is Nothing but a Prayer 7:58
02. Ecstacy 3:08
03. The Sojourner 5:15
04. Circles 2:18
05. Traces of Trane 3:26
06. Vibration Love Call 4:49
07. Malika 6:55
08. Optimystical 3:28
09. Peace 8:08

Khaliq Abdul Al Rouf (flute, piccolo flute, saxophone)
Mashujaa Aliye Salamu (guitar)
Fred Kwaku Crawley (agogô, bells, claves, maracas, percussion, tambourine, vocals, wind chimes)
Beatrice Parker (vocals)
Leroy Seals (bass, vocals)
Andrei Strobert (drums)
Bevin Turnbull (electric piano, piano, vocals)

This record is a lot like Leon Thomas's work from around the same part - equal parts spiritual and funky, with their most striking aspect being the soaring vocals flying atop the band. Unfortunately, Beatrice Parker is not as talented or unique a vocalist as Thomas - but then, who is?

Since I've already started negative, I'll list off my only other gripe with this record before getting to the good stuff: Parker and the band seem to have contrasting talents, and seem ill-suited for each other, honestly. The slower numbers Parker sings over are more well-suited to the warmth and honey of her voice, but the band is at its best when guitar, keys, bass and drums are all locked in a very funky groove like on "Circles," allowing leader Khaliq Abdul Al-Rouf to improvise in the spaces between their heavy funk. Unfortunately, Parker's not really charismatic enough to pull off faster vocal numbers with the same aplomb as her instrumental backing.

Okay, glad we got all of that out of the way, because there is plenty to like about this album. This sort of spiritual, soulful, and free sound was pretty unique to the Strata-East Records label, and when it's executed as well as it is on tracks like "Malika" it's easy to see why collectors go ga-ga for this stuff: it feels as heady and transcendent as the furthest out psychedelia, but it keeps your foot-tapping by remaining rooted in funk. Al-rouf is a very interesting musician - he sounds best to me on the flute, prone to fits of technically furious flight; however, his tone on the saxophone has a muted, tinny quality that gives this record a really unique sound, and this album really soars when it brings him to the forefront. Likewise, Mashujaa Aliye Salamu is a thrilling guitarist, capable of playing funky rhythm or going on extended lead runs - it's a shame he didn't record more.

Because the sound here is so singular, it can take a while to get on the band's exact wavelength, and maybe that's why it feels like they really hit their stride with the last two tracks. "Optimystical" introduces bassist Leroy Seals as a vocalist, and while his voice isn't nearly as strong as Beatrice Parker's, he seems more cool and relaxed on the song's up-tempo beat, while Parker provides some positively angelic backing, wordless runs of her own. Then the rhythm shifts to something solo and Parker takes over - a short coda that lifts the song structurally above anything else on this album. Tempo shifts and time signature changes are also all over the final track, "Peace," which lets the band get in a few final punches but is by and large about establishing a low-key, funky mood via the interplay between Seals and drummer Andrei Strobert. It's a shame we didn't get more from this band; the group (minus Parker) cut an album under the name Khaliq Al-rouf & Salaam five years later, then disappeared into obscurity. There's a lot of promise on this album, it's just too bad it was never fulfilled on record.

If you like soaring vocals then The Sojourner will be right up your street. It's with these kind of deep spiritual vocal albums that I think the Strata-East label really excelled; A Spirit Speaks and Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks - Live at the East being two other fine examples. I find albums like this so musically nourishing that they almost feel like they're doing you good, rather like eating greens. And by making these exceptional soaring vocal albums, bands like Sons and Daughters of Lite, The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe and these guys really manage to get their message across without sounding preachy and forcefully imposing with their opinions. Cost me a small fortune to get this puppy, but it was worth every single penny as I'll be returning to this stunning slice of life affirming stuff on a very regular basis. So recommended it's off the scale.



  2. I like a lot how you write about each record. Even I'm not english speaker, I enjoy to read you. Nice Blog Man! Thanks!!