Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Pharoah Sanders - 1970 - Summun, Bukmun, Umyun

Pharoah Sanders
Summun, Bukmun, Umyun

01. Summun Bukmun Umyun (Deaf Dumb Blind)
02. Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord

Alto Saxophone, Bells, Cowbell, Shaker, Percussion – Gary Bartz
Bass – Cecil McBee
Congas, Percussion – Anthony Wiles
Drums – Clifford Jarvis
Piano, Cowbell, Idiophone, Percussion – Lonnie Liston Smith
Saxophone, Horns, Bells, Whistle, Cowbell, Flute, Idiophone, Percussion – Pharoah Sanders
Trumpet, Maracas, Yodeling, Percussion – Woody Shaw
Xylophone, Yodeling, Percussion – Nathaniel Bettis

Recorded at A&R Studios, New York City, July 1, 1970

On June 28, 1965, four months after the assassination of Malcolm X and just a few weeks before the Voting Rights Act became law, John Coltrane assembled his largest-ever ensemble to record Ascension. A beautiful and harrowing listen, the album’s sole piece extends across 40 minutes of thundering, screaming, and meandering free jazz, radically breaking from the formal elegance and tight group interplay he had epitomized with his “classic quartet” on A Love Supreme, released earlier that year. The album also marked a changing of the guard, with Coltrane welcoming into the spotlight a scrappy, untested generation of iconoclastic players, many of whom were beginning to embrace emergent strains of black-power philosophy in their music. Among them were such soon-to-be luminaries as Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, John Tchicai, and a young, unknown tenor saxophonist named Pharoah Sanders.

Sanders had arrived in New York a few years prior, struggling to get work and often living on the streets. Early collaborations with Sun Ra and Don Cherry helped him find his footing in the burgeoning free-jazz community; it was Sun Ra that suggested changing his name from Farrell to Pharoah. But it was his work alongside Coltrane that set him on the course he would follow for the rest of his career. Starting with Ascension, Sanders became an invaluable foil for Coltrane’s virtuosic, divisive deconstructions. “Sometimes I didn’t know whether Pharoah was doing the growling or John,” said Frank Lowe, a contemporary of Sanders who played alongside Alice Coltrane. “You know, you don’t stand next to a man and copy him—so Pharoah was pushed into other areas.”

Despite the prestigious alliance, with Coltrane publically praising him as a man of “tremendous spiritual reservoir,” many critics balked at the viscera of Sanders’ solos. Whitney Balliett, writing for The New Yorker, decried his playing as “elephant shrieks... [which] appeared to have little in common with music,” while the San Francisco Chronicle dismissed him as “primitive.” As the 1960s wore on, with the Vietnam War entering its second decade, the Black Panther Party forming in 1966, and the rise of a “turn on, tune in, drop out” youth culture, the beloved post-bop of only a few years prior seemed trampled underfoot by a disorderly new generation of squawking, honking interlopers.

What’s astonishing is how rapidly Sanders developed from a wildcard sideman into a confident bandleader after his mentor’s untimely passing, in 1967. Albert Ayler famously declared, “‘Trane was the father. Pharoah was the son. I was the holy ghost”; Sanders’ seven-year, 11-album run for Impulse! Records directly builds on the core premise of Ascension, stretching Coltrane’s templates across a string of masterpieces. This invaluable release showcases the young Sanders confidently guiding a steadily growing panoply of “fire music” MVPs, uniting their disparate voices and egos to create a powerfully cohesive group sound: elegant, adventurous, warm, and ferocious all at once.

His fourth release for Impulse!, Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) may be Sanders’ finest work from this era. The album is split into two side-long sessions, and the group, now an octet, breathes as one like never before. Coming off of a busy touring schedule, the players were locked in, often building songs out of loose ideas or hints of an arrangement. If the title track finds the players in a joyous, near-telepathic groove, “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord” is simply spiritual jazz of the highest order. Aching with emotion, it stands alongside Alice Coltrane’s “Prema” and Albert Ayler’s “Our Prayer” as a devotional masterpiece and a fulfillment of free jazz’s promise. Many of the same musicians from Jewels of Thought remain, and you can hear how subsumed they are in the music. They play on top of, around, and in between each other without ever making a wrong move. The song’s title couldn’t be more apt; the music exudes so much sorrow, hope, compassion, joy, and humanity it seems to truly reach for a home beyond our world.

In 1969 Sanders released Karma, a highly accesible album that brought him widespread praise and commercial success. This was in no small part helped along by the presence of vocalist Leon Thomas, who certainly helped the recording find an audience with the hippie culture of the late 1960's who were accustomed to lyrical content in their music. Summun Bukmun Umyun (Deaf Dumb Blind) was not nearly as accessible to non-jazz fans - even many jazz fans must have been puzzled by it - and as such it is not nearly as well known. Just check out the difference in the number of reviews on Amazon, only 8 for Summun Bukmun Umyun versus 38 for Karma. This must be partly due to the fact that the long title track is essentially an exploration of what rhythm can bring to a jazz track, especially in the context of the spirituality that Sanders was seeking through his music at this time.

The two other brass players present at the session, Woody Shaw and Gary Bartz, are both personal favorites of mine - especially their early 1970's output, which was also very spiritual in nature. Their playing is rather subdues on most of this record, especially compared with what we would come to expect from them, but they are still an important part of the proceedings. The rhythm section is also particularly strong, with the great Lonnie Liston Smith joined by Cecil McBee and Clifford Jarvis, all of whom are up to the task of this open-ended music,

The album only has two tracks, both of which take up an entire side (clocking in at over 21 minutes and 18 minutes, respectively), but neither drag on or become tedious as could have easily been the case. The title track is, to borrow a phrase, an orgy of rhythm with layer upon layer of all sorts of percussion permeating the tune. Six of the eight players find themselves simultaneously playing all manner of percussion (cowbells, shakers, maracas, and so on) and as the recording begins to open up Lonnie Liston Smith comes in to add some gorgeous melody lines on the piano. Smith had been Sanders' cohort on his previous few records, and there is little doubt that their influence on each other helped shape those LPs. Smith's playing on Summun Bukmun Umyun is nothing short of amazing, as he helps both tracks rise above simply coming off as noisy percussion experiments and adds the spiritual presence we can only assume Sanders was seeking. As Smith's piano vamps continue, the horns come up slowly in the mix and soon begin a beautifully improvised dance with each other. Nothing too avant-garde or free here, just some great late 1960's post-bop jazz playing.

"Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord" is the mellower of the two tunes, with some very light percussion (mostly bells, maracas and shakers) pushed to the front of the mix while the keys and horns are buried deeper adding to the mystical feel of the composition. Notable is McBee's bass solo where he bows his bass nearly unaccompanied by the other players. It is spacey, heavenly and beautiful. Maybe, this is why I like this record more than similar ones from this time - this is not an in-your-face record, the improvisational playing is generally subdued and gentle.  

As Jameelah Ali says in the liner notes:

"Summun, Bukmun, Umyun, which means deaf, dumb and blind, was taken from the Surah Bakara from The Holy Quran. (A surah is similar to a chapter, as compared to the Bible.) Deaf, dumb and blind as used here does not refer to the physical state, but, instead, to the spiritually handicapped. In other words, Listen but do not hear, Around but not aware, Look but do not see."

There is little doubt in my mind that all involved in the making of Summun Bukmun Umyun took these words to heart, and - this being the late 1960's - truly felt they were on a quest to pass on their spiritual views to the lost souls of the world. Whatever your personal beliefs may be, the music contained within is not just a wonderful example of communicating a message through music, but very simply a great jazz recording to be enjoyed without any pretense or preconception.

The decades that followed saw Sanders’ career take different turns, never quite reaching the ecstatic highs of this era, and much of his early work fell out of print. What’s remarkable about the first four albums on Impulse! is not only how timeless the music is, but how relevant it feels today. Many of his contemporaries seemed to be pushing forward to see how far out they could go and who could get there fastest. Sanders went straight for the source. By pursuing a spiritual approach, he created a body of work that responded to its own historical moment without being time-stamped by it. Shortly after Coltrane and his group recorded Ascension, LA was engulfed in the flames of the Watts riots; by the time Jewels was released, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been murdered. This turmoil and anguish is clearly audible in Sanders’ playing, and today, as the nation once again feels like it’s splitting at the seams, Sanders’ agonized cries resonate, as expressive and important as ever.

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