IN THE LATE '60s, free jazz threw melody and funkiness out the window--sort of. After yawling his way to notoriety on John Coltrane's free-form grail, Ascension, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders experimented his way into virtual obscurity. Traditionalists dissed the dog-eared spirituality of his gorgeous post-Coltrane album, 1966's Tauhid. And by 1971, when he took a group of little-known players and some strange global instruments into the studio to record an album that he hoped would convey his "sincere and deepest feeling of the need for Black Unity in the world today," almost no one was listening.
But beauty will out, and the resulting work (just released on CD) comes across today as an astonishing merger of Coltrane's free experimentalism and Sly Stone's dread-ridden political funk. For one 37-minute track, Pharoah and Co. blow with love and rage, while workhorse bassist Cecil McBee and pianist Joe Bonner provide an incisive, chaotic groove and some loose lyricism. Pharoah himself is surprisingly elusive, showing up only occasionally for cacophonous brass-fucks with trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson and auxiliary tenor-sax player Carlos Garnett. As the players' confluence wanders, a sitar, balaphones, koto, thumb piano, bells, shakers, and myriad Caribbean percussive devices add shape and color to a blessed mess. What emerges is a musical conversation about human compatibility, friendship, love, and harmony, speaking to and for everything that being free and feeling funk are all about.
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