The Group - "Shift Below" (Live)

Danas Mikailionis of the Lithuanian No Business imprint has made it his business to direct much needed attention to audio artifacts from the Loft jazz and post-Loft era in New York. Under his stewardship, box sets by Jemeel Moondoc and William Parker are now cornerstones of scholarship documenting this vibrant period of jazz history. Live provides another edifying piece of the mosaic by unearthing part of a two-night stand by the enigmatic and egalitarian group at a performance space in the fall of 1986. The individuals behind the intentionally generic stage name reveal the unusual significance of the roster as each member could be considered star in the scene's firmament in his own right. Violinist Billy Bang shares a frontline with altoist Marion Brown and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, also doubling on flugelhorn. The rhythm section includes both Sirone and Fred Hopkins on basses and Andrew Cyrille handling drums. All-Star becomes an easy assignation once the music starts.

Sound is surprisingly free of debris though amplification of both Hopkins and Sirone doesn't always equate with optimal clarity of their contributions. Bang is amplified too, but his lighter strings work as a cleaner conduit for the juice. The set list contains an effective mix of originals by band members and friends along with a classic kindred piece that ends up the highlight of the performance. Butch Morris' "Joann's Green Satin Dress" tips to Mingus in its title and contains galvanizing solos by Bang and Brown that are a quick study in contrasts, the former trading in plentiful, gregarious bow strokes while the latter goes a more measured and somber route. That reliable tendency to "go for broke" in nearly every solo was part of Bang's indelible charm and showmanship though there were critics over the years who opted instead to pillory him with pejoratives like "bombastic" and "overblown". Whatever one's mileage, it's hard to dismiss without ample equivocation the blend of skill and soul Bang brought to his electric instrument.

Mingus gets a more overt ovation as Brown and Cyrille open an epic arrangement of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' in tandem, the altoist intoning the refrain from of "Wade in the Water", which soon morphs into the Mingusian theme as the rest of the band enters. Hopkins gets in a few choice moments of rubber band bass wizardry before Abdullah leads with a brass statement riddled with thrilling extended techniques that reach from Bubber Miley to Bill Dixon. Bang follows, raising the bar yet again with a slicing and sawing array of his signature string-rending gesticulations. A nimble bowed to plucked solo from Hopkins rife with spidery cello-register ornamentations, a brief, but engrossing bass duet, and a raucous ensemble finish signify the other major episodes in the piece and the audience goes understandably ecstatic at the end.

The dancing rhythms of Brown's Caribbean-colored "La Placita" are more straightforward by design and the piece winds out largely as a blowing vehicle for the altoist who builds a solo with numerous friendly nods to Ornette and Abdullah's cool-toned flugelhorn, which turns more fevered in the final minutes of his improvisation. Bang and Cyrille close it out, the former with another serrated statement steeped in rapid hummingbird strokes. The violinist's strings-centric "Shift Below" serves as a densely-packed interstitial piece, priming both band and audience for the expansive closer, South African songstress Miriam Makeba's "Amanpondo" which builds and breathes over nearly half-an-hour, traversing much of that span on the steam of an insistent and often crazily resilient Township-tinged groove. Hopkins, in particular, has a field day reeling off ricocheting variations on the self-regenerating rhythm with unflagging dexterity.

Annotation-wise, a fat booklet barely fits within the confines of the jewel case and is bursting with a wealth of anecdotes and reminiscences (some of them pointed) by Abdullah along with photos and flyers. Despite glowing press, a decent string of gigs and a strongly shared commitment to collaboration, the band wasn't destined to last and broke up after just two years. The music that survives makes that sad fact all the sadder, but the proof of The Group's greatness is ripe for reconsideration and commendation however belatedly.

Derek Taylor --Dusted

Vision Festival 16

Over 16 years and thousands of sets, the Vision Festival has never been "ordinary," yet this time around it has truly stepped up its game. Perhaps the formidable competition from the new Undead and the Blue Note festivals has inspired the Visionaries to pull out all the stops. Friday night's line-up features three of the few superstars of postmodern jazz, in various combinations: saxophonist David Ware, guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Henry Grimes. Saturday is an all-day affair, and in the afternoon the accent is on youth. Where most Vision headliners are venerated veterans, we'll hear various school-age combinations, culminating with an 80-piece ensemble conducted by bassist William Parker. V16 wraps up Saturday night with Lennie Tristano-ite Connie Crothers, trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist Sonny Simmons and the climactic event, "Billy Bang's Mystery of the Mekong," as essayed by 25 violinists.

As with other forms of jazz, the music heard in 16 years of weeklong Vision events can't be contained under a single verbal umbrella: Ornette Coleman called this music "free jazz" 50 years ago, but even he stopped using that phrase. Other terms don't really fit the bill, either—that is, something can't be "avant-garde," "experimental" or even "postmodern" forever. Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Charlie Parker were all avant-garde in their day. Most Vision artists aren't trying to change the course of music, they just want to find their own unique ways of expressing themselves.

It occurred to me, as I listened to saxophonist Tony Malaby and his trio close the opening night of Vision 16, that perhaps this music is best titled "Extreme Jazz." Five different ensembles played that night (including the quartet of female voices who harmonized, after a fashion, during the traditional Opening Invocation), and the one thing they all had in common was that they could be described as extreme. Certainly the term fits Mr. Malaby's performance, which consisted of an hourlong tenor solo (backed by drummer Tom Rainey and bassist and festival co-producer William Parker). He did everything except play conventional melody or chord changes: spontaneous riffs and licks, a show of extra "secret" notes above and below the instrument's usual range, primal screams.

The first full set had been by another tenor-bass-drums trio, starring saxist Sabir Mateen, who played in a much more meandering, roundabout way —he seemed to be coming at you from the sides, as distinct from Mr. Malaby's full frontal attack.

Yet it was two superb sextets who made up the main order of business on the first night. The 75-year-old Danish saxophonist and composer John Tchicai led a set billed as "Ascension Unending: In the Footsteps of John Coltrane," in honor of Coltrane's breakthrough 1965 album "Ascension," in which Mr. Tchicai himself played a key role. The music that Mr. Tchicai's sextet actually played had nothing to do with either Coltrane or "Ascension," but was a very well-turned sequence of tightly arranged chamber works (for two saxes, violin, guitar, bass and drums) in which the inner content was free jazz. The tension between the formal exterior and the loose, explosive solos contained therein made for a highly compelling set.

Yet the prize of the evening, and quite possibly the most enjoyable set I've ever experienced at Vision, was the Group, led by trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. Offered as a tribute to two recently fallen heroes of the festival, Billy Bang and Marion Brown, the Group consisted of six longtime associates, including pianist D.D. Jackson, drummer Andrew Cyrille and violinist Charles Burnham filling Mr. Bang's shoes. Their upbeat, happy sound was a product of Mr. Abdullah's bright, jubilant trumpet lead (which carried the high end), Bob Stewart's bass role on tuba and Hamiet Bluiett's charging, aggressive baritone sax and clarinet. The Group, which made brilliant use of Caribbean rhythms (calypsos and sambas), played nothing but extreme joy.

Will Friedwald --Wall Street Journal Online

Travelling the Spaceways, and Tara's Song Review (.pdf)
Fred Bouchard, Downbeat

Tara's Song
"The downtown New York loft jazz of the early '70s, with its blend of free jazz and hard bop, was a great moment in time, and the musical spirit it nurtured endures. Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah was a part of that scene, as was violinist Billy Bang, whose sound right now is the hottest thing in improvised music. Merely having him in the lineup makes Abdullah's Ebonic Tones a supergroup, like when Eric Clapton played with Stevie Winwood in Blind Faith. Bang handles the notes on the upper end, Abdullah takes the middle, and baritone sax man Alex Harding locks it down from below, giving the Ebonic Tones a uniquely balanced approach and plenty of options.

"Beautifully packaged in colorful, sturdy cardboard with an attached booklet of photos, producer's notes, musician bios, and commentary on the songs from Abdullah, Tara's Song is marvelous. Bang's arrangement of Ornette's "Lonely Woman" is a revelation. Bang's plinking violin, Alex Blake's driving, reverberating bass, and Andrei Strobert's rolling drums suggest that this woman isn't so much lonely as on the prowl. Abdullah, Bang and Harding (who blows as if he's trying to shake off a memory before shouting "enough!") solo like the hellhounds are on their trail.

"The rest of the CD maintains this level of excellence. It's present in the sadly beautiful melody of Abdullah's title track, where the leader's solo combines the fragile lyricism of Sketches of Spain with the grit of "The Sidewinder"; on Frank Lowe's staggered calypso, "Nothing But Love," which features a wonderful stomping double-time Harding solo; on two homages to the Ebonic Tones' spiritual leader, Sun Ra, where there is a smile in Abdullah's voice as he delivers the loopy lyrics; and on "Blue Monk," which swings like a screen door on a windy day. The program finishes with a brief "Iko Iko," with background vocals from someone who sounds like Jerome calling out to Bo Diddley. One can only imagine how joyous this band is live."
Jeff Stockton --AllAboutJazz.com--

"Travelling the Spaceways is the fruit of the labor of long-time Sun Ra trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah's Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra-a band formed after Abdullah was visited in a dream by his former band leader. His mission? To play Sun Ra's music. Abdullah surrounded himself with some fierce musicians and set out to do justice to some of Ra's vast catalog. The result does for Sun Ra's songs what the Mingus Big Band has done for that great composer's work.

The recording features a series of re-workings and propulsions from people with the ability to take this material to new-and appropriate-heights. The title track builds gradually-a triumphant, floating marvel, erupting into a cataclysmic celebration. These are moving, breathing works-in-progress by a forward-moving band. Take the timely "21'st Century Suite," a decades-old gem, which could've been written last week (or tomorrow!). Poet (and WBAI radio host) Louis Reyes Rivera adds a paean of human possibility. Reyes and vocalist/poet Monique Ngozi Nri complement the music and ride the rhythms masterfully. Abdullah's group presents the rich, elegant Ra-almost Elingtonian in its warmth-swinging exultantly.

Abdullah and Co. have that something extra: zeal. That's something that can't be faked. Take a tune like the boppish "Dancing Shadows" and "Love in Outer Space." Check Cody Moffett's tasty drumwork on the former, or Masujaa's guitar on the latter. Trombonist Craig Harris is paired with the truly stellar likes of violinist Billy Bang, Alex Harding (baritone) and Salim Washington (tenor).

This is music that conveys a deep sincerity. Bands like this one might well be able to keep not only Sun Ra's memory-but all that is good about jazz-alive."
Rico Cleffi --AllAboutJazz.com--

"Life's Force is delightful surprise! When I saw the instrumental personnel, titles and stark black and white cover of this album,I expected a knotty ascetic avant garde offering. Nothing could be further from the truth, for this album sparkles with glimmering melodic passages and romantic, rhapsodic turns.

Abdullah is a sextet with an odd configuration of three doubled instrumental groups; Brass, percussion and strings. The music weaves the six instruments together with maximum effect. Abdullah's trumpet, the main solo voice rises over the patterns with one of the cleanest, most regal tones to come along since big bands featured lead trumpets playing ballad solos."
George Kanzler Jr. --Newark Star Ledger--May 11, 1980

"These two records Liquid Magic (Silkheart) and Ahmed Abdullah and the Solomonic Quintet featuring Charles Moffett (Silkheart) by the New York based trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and his most recent bands are well worth searching out. Abdullah was in town recently with Sun Ra and his almost 15 year tenure with that innovative master has left a very postive imprint on Abdullah's own compositions and technique.Liquid Magic features one of Sun Ra's tunes (the bop-like Mystery of Two) as well as a handful of Ahmed's own African,funk and bop inspired tunes."
Joseph Blake, Times Colonist July 29, 1989

"Abdullah’s very fine last album Liquid Magic sounded more South African than any American Jazz I’d heard, strongly
favored as it was by the music of Pukwana, Dyani, Ibrahim and company. It was a fascinating example of how musical influences crisscross the Atlantic: West Africans come to America, where their descendants invent Jazz; centuries later Jazz records seep into South Africa where a regional style develops; their music in turn influences American players.

Despite Abdullah’s preferred billing the quintet functions as a cooperative. Nontheless, a couple of tracks bear the same South African influences; Canto II (with chanting voices) and Abdullah’s Khaluma have the charming harmonic and melodic simplicity of township Jazz. Like some of Pukwana’s themes they sound as if the band could repeat them all day with only minor embellishments, without wearing the melodies out; this is quintessential hook music. The blend of vocally-oriented horns is plainly fetching (like the Abdullah-Charles Brackeen mix on Liquid Magic)."
Kevin Whitehead, Cadence--December 1989

"Ironically, it is Ahmed Abdullah, who probably couldn't get five minutes of the big boys time, who is extending the tradition of Navarro, Brown, Morgan and Hubbard in an adventurous and accessible manner on the impressive debut of the Solomonic Quintet. Abdullah's approach to album programming is solid. -- a mixture of refreshing Third World materials and neo-in-the-pocket-grooves with a dash of Ornette via the infectious drumming of Charles Moffett. His choice of personnel is nothing short of impeccable: Rock of Gibralter bassist Fred Hopkins. David S. Ware, a tough tenor for today and Masujaa, a tasteful electric guitarist, round out this driving band. If times were really changing the American majors would give Ahmed Abdullah a shot."
JazzTimes --October 1989

"Diaspora is a group Ahmed created after Charles Moffett left the planet. "Charles was a very good friend and mentor and he was the bed rock of the Solomonic Unit (quartet, quintet, sextet, and septet). I formed the Solomonic with him in mind and kept it for close to ten years." When Charles left Ahmed talked to Bob Rusch at CIMP records about recording a cd dedicated to Mr. Moffett. The result was: Ahmed Abdullah's Diaspora Dedication (CIMP)

This recording starts off on a happy note and keeps on going from there in a pulsating jaunt through the music of various cultures that have a common rhythmic thread. As the name of his group (Diaspora) implies, the music is a dispersion of influences from multiple sources. Abdullah creates a mood with his music and instrumentation that would have to affect all listeners. I had the wonderful opportunity of seeing him perform with the Sun Ra Arkestra in 1988 and the vision of this trumpeter parading into the room with the master troubadour and his entourage is still with me. The magic that was Ra and that affected all around him is evident on this recording."
Cadence Magazine, Frank Rubolino June 1998

"Ahmed Abdullah's various outlets, which include work with Ed Blackwell, Arthur Blythe and Billy Bang, all have that certain swing--which only a lifetime playing besides Sun Ra can give you. His Solomonic Quintet, now renamed Diaspora in honor of his fellow longtime player Charles Moffett, strolls down the boulevard like a sweet Sunday afternoon in New Orleans. Masujaa's subtle guitar hangs by the side of Abdullah's joyful and insistent trumpet. Carlos Ward's sax work carries an urgent tone that pushes the whole quartet along. While his recording as a leader are few, Abdullah can certainly handle the task."
Audio Magazine, Les Scurry

"The lasting influence of Sun Ra is infinite and it’s always a pleasure to hear testimony from the relatively small number of his regular sideman who are now leading their own group. The joy is particularly palatable in the case of Abdullah whose bright brassy trumpet powered the Arkestra brass-section on their cosmic flights of fancy for many years. Ahmed is one of those musicians who effectively shaped the lesson he learned from Ra during his stint with the band to his own devices coming up with a truly original voice both on the instrument and in his compositional approach. His NAM quartet is built around the common denominator of Harding whose shared associations with the musicians originaly brought the group together. The quartet elects a diverse songbook of tunes for the date that draw on Jazz tradition and on South African musical styles which have long been a source of erudition for Abdullah."
Derek Taylor--All About Jazz.com

"Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah has a sort of underground cult following, stemming in part from infrequent recordings. This is only his seventh recording, and it is with a group he calls NAM, which consists of the blues-drenched baritone saxophonist Alex Harding plus the truncated rhythm section of bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Jimmy Weinstein. Abdullah is not so much a radical interpreter as an individualist with an old-time approach to the trumpet applied to modern harmonics. He growls, “gets down,” and often sticks to a blues aesthetic, yet he also incorporates a style that hearkens to early Ornette. The choice of tunes is varied: an obscure Sun Ra tune, Coltrane’s Naima, Gunter Hampel’s Seranade to Marion Brown, and several pieces written or arranged by Harding or Abdullah. Much of the cd amounts to almost a highly effective blowing session, with the horns taking lengthy; solos."
All Music Guide--Steven A. Loewy

Further reviews & information on the latest NAM CD, Song of Time, Live At the Vision Festival:

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