A Darker Shade Of Blue
To start the new system here at A Different Shade of Blue what better way to celebrate than to begin with one of our favorite musicians – John Carter.
Back in January Uri posted the first installment in John Carter’s “Roots & Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music” – Dawwhe. Someone in the comments asked if we could post one of the other segments. To start off the new “A Darker Shade Of Blue” here are the other four! So here we go…
Night After Night
An overview of the five parts of John Carter’s “Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music”
“A performer, composer and educator born in Fort Worth, Texas and based for most of his career in Los Angeles, the late John Carter (1929-1991) spent the ’80s crafting his magnum opus: “Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music,” a five-suite (or five-disc, if you prefer) cycle that encompasses the whole of the African-American musical experience, from its roots in tribal Africa through slavery, rural folk and blues traditions, gospel music and the birth of jazz. It’s admittedly uneven, but majestic in both scope and achievement. Pressed to think of artists who attempted to create anything of similar scope, the only names that come readily to mind are Ellington and Mingus…and Wynton Marsalis, much later.
The first disc, Dauwhe, was recorded in Los Angeles in 1982, and issued on Black Saint that year. By this point, Carter had laid down his alto saxophone to devote himself to clarinet, at a time when it was still unusual to do so — Don Byron had yet to emerge. At Carter’s side, then and always, was Bobby Bradford — a sterling cornetist and, like Carter himself, a musician in the Ornette Coleman circle. (Bradford appears on Coleman’s often-cited Science Fiction, and Carter and Bradford recorded a number of valuable Coleman-esque quartet records for Flying Dutchman in the ’60s.) The rest of the band included Red Callender on tuba, flutist James Newton, reedist Charles Owens (on soprano sax, clarinet and oboe), bassist Roberto Miranda, drummer William Jeffrey and percussionist Luis Peralta.
Nowadays, Dauwhe is pretty much the only release in the cycle that turns up regularly. The rest, recorded for the Gramavision label — indisputably one of the foremost centers of progressive-jazz activity during its lamentably brief existence — is long out of print. (What a reversal from the period in which these discs were actually being released, when Dauwhe, on an Italian label, was the toughest one to locate!) That’s a tragedy, because the next two records in the series were the stone-cold classics, and the final two are also fascinating.
Castles of Ghana was commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival’s “New Jazz at the Public” series; Carter and Bradford recorded it in New York City in 1985; Gramavision issued it in 1986. The band that appeared here — Marty Ehrlich on bass clarinet, Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Benny Powell on trombone, Terry Jenoure on violin and vocals, Richard Davis on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums — would remain more or less consistent for the remainder of the cycle, with a few significant tweaks.
While it’s flip and dismissive to put it this way, if you only own one John Carter record, Castles of Ghana is it. The music pulses and throbs with a dark gravity and passion suited to its titular inspiration: the coastal castles along Ghana’s coast, which were originally used for commercial trade in the 4th through 11th centuries. By the 16th century, tribal chiefs put those structures to a new purpose: they were used as holding pens for Africans who were sold into slavery.
Recorded in 1986 and issued the following year, Dance of the Love Ghosts describes the harrowing Middle Passage. Richard Davis is gone, replaced by the great Fred Hopkins, who will see the journey through to its end. Baikida Carroll is gone, as well; in his place is a an unexpected and unconventional inclusion, former Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston. It’s an inspired choice: Preston is a formidable player, and the way his lines occasionally bend out of correct pitch provides a suitably ungrounded element to this particular leg of the voyage. It’s hard to convey in words the sheer impact of compositions such as “The Silent Drum,” in which percussion group the Ashanti Drummers is added to chant pleas to the Creator, and “The Captain’s Dilemma,” a harrowing ballad concerning the slave-ships officers’ abuse of female captives.
Rural folk music and agrarian life are the focuses of Fields, recorded in 1988 by the same band that made Dance of the Love Ghosts. Carter describes this one best in his liner notes: “The field life that was witness to the labor, grief and pain that harnessed production unseen in the world before also cradled the beginnings of national music that would grow to be respected and admired the world over.” Tracks like “Ballad to Po’ Ben,” “Bootyreba at the Big House” and “Juba’s Run” obviously cover the same territory as Wynton Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields, but in a less portentous manner. The title suite, more than 20 minutes long, ranges from modernist abstraction to full-blown swing. Carter’s grandchildren sing game-songs in the melancholy “Children of the Fields,” and in the haunting final track, “On a Country Road,” Carter blows a darkly warbling clarinet leitmotif that has been present throughout the entire cycle. Here, it accompanies the recorded voice of Uncle John, Carter’s paternal great uncle and the family historian. An dirty-growling Ellingtonian episode is followed by a gritty harmonica solo from guest musician Frederick Phineas.
Carter’s cycle concluded with Shadows on a Wall, recorded and issued in 1989. Here, his subject is the migration of African-Americans to the major northern cities, and the way they adapted their rural idioms to the new and different kinds of struggles with which they were now faced. Despite his historical topic, Carter’s idiom remains as advanced as ever: I’m especially struck by the slow-moving chorale patterns that back a fiery Bradford solo on the opening track, “Sippi Strut.” The next track, “Spats,” celebrates the rise of tap dancing, with an especially delectable shuffle beat provided by Cyrille. “City Streets” digs into the blues; Jenoure’s dramatic recitation on “And I Saw Them” is reminiscent of Jeanne Lee’s work with Archie Shepp. “52nd Street Stomp” conjures the harried bustle of New York City, and the boisterous finale, “Hymn to Freedom,” is like Mingus unhinged, all bustling war rhythms and Preston’s dizzying swoops set against a gospel-organ background.
For the boldness of its ambition, the breadth of its accomplishment, the unity of its vision and the unbridled strength of each individual musician’s contribution, “Roots and Folklore” demands to be recognized as one of the greatest achievements in the history of not just jazz, but American music, period. With no disrespect to Wynton Marsalis intended, this should have earned jazz’s first Pulitzer Prize. It needs to be remembered, celebrated and even revived.”
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