A1 Spirit Dance A2 The Tenth Pyramid A3 John Coltrane Was Here A4 Ballad For Mother Frankie White B1 Samba B2 Unlocking The Twelfth House B3 Praise Innocence
Bass – Ray Drummond
Percussion, Flute [Bamboo], Vocals – Baba Omson Piano – Ed Kelly Producer, Photography – Ed Michel Violin, Vocals – Michael White Vocals – Makeda , Wanika King
Engineers – Ken Hopkins, Rick Stanley Mixed By – Baker Bigsby
Artwork and Photography – Philip Melnick
PNEUMA Impulse! AS-9221
Pneuma (Part 1) 5:16 Pneuma (Part 2) 4:57 Pneuma (Part 3) 4:11 Pneuma (Part 4) 4:13 Pneuma (Part 5) 1:52 Ebony Plaza 9:18 Journey Of The Black Star 2:53 The Blessing Song 6:25
Bass – Ray Drummond Engineer – Baker Bigsby Percussion – Kenneth Nash Piano – Edwin Kelly Producer – Ed Michel Violin – Michael White (2) Vocals – D. Jean Skinner, Faye Kelly, Joyce Walker, Leola Sharp
If you are a person for whom jazz violin is an acquired taste, then the notion of "free jazz violin" will probably send you running or at least reaching for the earplugs. I confess that I am personally still grappling with the finer nuances of Leroy Jenkins and occasionally undergo a self-imposed "music appreciation course" at my house featuring his recordings. So you could say I appreciate the fact that Michael White's music is not nearly as abrasive as Jenkins and in fact often crosses over into the downright accessible and melodic. White has a lengthy resume that includes sideman gigs with people as diverse as John Handy and Sun Ra, but it was his electric proto-jazz-rock band The Fourth Way that led me to seek out these two albums. Well neither "Spirit Dance" or "Pneuma" sound anything like The Fourth Way but if I felt any disappointment at that discovery, it didn't last long. These are both excellent records.
Initially the listener is likely to be struck by what the records lack as opposed to what they offer - the absence of any horns whatsoever, as well as a traditional trap drum kit. The versatile percussionists (Baba Omsun for "Spirit Dance," Ken Nash for "Pneuma") manage to let you hardly miss the drums, and as for lack of reed or brass instruments.. well you'll just have to deal with it, because the tonal palette is a bit thin in the upper register at times. The upside is that when he lost the horn charts, White gained not only a unique sound but also the flexibility that makes his avant-garde and free jazz flourishes more focused. Considering the technical designation of the piano as a percussion instrument, Michael White is often the only voice here that isn't in the rhythm section, which liberates him to switch between riffing on melodies and freaking out at will. The stuff stays grounded, though - there are quite a few shortish compositions with audible roots in blues and gospel, and the group often leans more towards modal jazz than free jazz. Note the very brief use of an overdubbed violin at the end of the first track "Spirit Dance" here, too. The turgid tabla of The Tenth Pyramid reminds me of the few months that I took tabla lessons - is this in tintal? - but it only lasts for four minutes so if sloppy faux-Indian jazz annoys you then at least your suffering will be brief. "John Coltrane Was Here," besides having a great smile-inducing title for a tribute to the late deity, is a lovely modal piece with the almost requisite quotations from 'A Love Supreme.' It satisfies your nagging curiosity about what a violin-jazz invocation of Coltrane's spiritual vision would sound like. Now that you know, you can finally sleep at night. Again there is judicious use of overdubbing - is this cheating? I'm not keeping score so I'll let it slide. Another interesting piece here is the unimaginatively titled "Samba," which may leave you scratching your head until you hear the congas and the electric bass guitar whose notes accent the downbeat where the surdo drum would be. The abstract sandbox of "Unlocking The Twelth House" is a great closer for the album. Unfortunately it doesn't actually end the record, but since I usually just skip over the last track, that's my story and I'm sticking to it - this is a great way to end the record. However if atonal wordless vocals sung by children are your thing, by all means crank up "Praise Innocence." After all you may have been hoping to annoy your neighbors with this album, and up until now you may have not succeeded. This ought to do it.
I usually don't listen to the two records included on this disc back to back, in order to "maximize their efficacy" or something like that. While "Spirit Dance" manages to keep things fun, "Pneuma" actually ranks a bit higher for me. It may be a bit more sombre but it also seems more fully-realized, like he went into the studio with a more single-minded approach to make a statement, as opposed to recording a collection of pieces. The original first side of the LP is comprised entirely of the "Pneuma" suite. For a spiritual jazz homage to the breath of life, it actually boasts a pretty traditional jazz arrangement, with each instrument getting equal time to lead the group after the primordial swells and slow, sustained crescendos of the opening. First White's violin, then the bass (acoustic this time, which is a welcome choice), then piano, and finally percussion before wrapping the whole thing up. It's pretty brilliant and if you are only going to listen to one "side" of this two-on-one release, I would pick this one. The second half of "Pneuma" is just as impressive, with the additional textures of vocal arrangements on "Journey of the Black Star" and "The Blessing Song." The latter is just downright catchy and merits a place on a compilation of that ill-defined 'genre' referred to as "spiritual jazz." It's a beautiful and sweet resolution to the little musical journey Mr. White takes us on, which is one where his intensity is balanced by warmth that is often missing from these styles of jazz. Solid stuff. And check out The Fourth Way if you don't know them.