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Jazz artists reach for transcendence in a variety of ways.
Spirituality and variations on “soul music” appear in many forms and incarnations in all music, but particularly in the inherently probing expressions under the jazz umbrella. A handful of recent releases embodies the undercurrent of spirit-based music-making, from the explorations of free improvisation to aspects of so-called “world music,” ambient adventurism and hybrids with no binding category. The spirit continues to call.
A cleanly recorded document of a 2002 concert in the long-defunct, forward-thinking venue Roulette in TriBeCa, William Parker’s Universal Tonality (Centering) captures a historic convergence of venturesome jazz players. Under the dogmatically liberal “guidance” of the bassist, who supplied an optional score for the occasion, the performance also serves as a tribute to the spirit of the venue and its lingering, communal influence.
Parker's ensemble, comprising many free thinkers, lends multiple colors to an ever-morphing sonic palette. Non-western instruments are welcomed into this special inner circle, from the Asian influences of Korean Jin Hi Kim and Japanese Miya Masaoka to the presence of the West African balafon. Strong voices in the ranks include pianist Dave Burrell, drummer Gerald Cleaver, trombonist Grachan Moncur III and violinist Billy Bang. Vocalist Leena Conquest serves a critical function, intoning poetics and melodic fragments adapted from Parker’s texts, lending form and focus to the leader’s freewheeling structure. Beneath and above it all, the sagely bassist-leader controls music whose goal is to lose control — but with conversational poise, taste, inner vision and artfulness.
On I Survived, It’s Over (Third Man), genre-splitting keyboardist and soundscaper Rich Ruth makes a peaceable proposition, validating the notion of a successful marriage between ambient music values and free jazz abandon. Is it an attraction of opposites or a subversive disproof of stubborn cultural assumptions that so beguiles? Probably both.
After a grating, off-putting guitar solo on the opener, “Taken Back,” it's all smooth (and appealingly rough) aural sailing, to engaging ends. Recorded and sonically woven at home in Nashville during the pandemic in 2020, the music soothes with drones and textures, over which saxophonic furies may roar, as on “Heavy and Earthbound,” then contrasting with the silken dream-tone of pedal steel on the following “Thou Mayest.” Attractive opposites meet in ways both complex and satisfying to the ear and soul.
Sun Ra is dead, long live Sun Ra. The iconoclast’s imprint lives on through his vast discography and via the Sun Ra Arkestra, continuing its healthy run with veteran Marshall Allen (now 98) in the directorial seat, as key soloist and critical link to the original mothership. Recorded in 2021, Living Sky (Omni Sound) documents the band, in all its looseness-with-purpose glory, linking back to Ra via an instrumental take on his “Somebody Else’s Idea” and Ra’s “Night of the Living Sky.” Allen originals, including “Day of the Living Sky” (replete with kora), continue Ra’s story. In decidedly nonstandard fashion, the closer is a rough-hewn, Ra-esque twist on another cosmic number, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
The venerable Luaka Bop label has been exploring examples of spiritually driven music with its “World Spirituality Classics” series, spinning archival materials into golden, refreshed listening pleasures. Following an earlier release by Alice Coltrane, and a gospel compilation, the spotlight turns to the entrancing Muslim highlife music, circa the ’70s and ’80s, of Nigerian legend Alhaji Waziri Oshoma, weaving Islamic themes and reverence into music of soulful, dance-inducing intensity. A timeless spirit pervades these vintage tracks, as captured on World Spirituality Classics 3: The Muslim Highlife of Alhaji Waziri Oshoma. Undulant textured grooves stretch out in epic proportions on “Jealousy” and the 17-minute “Alhaji Yesufu Sado Managing Director,” conveying a spiritual essence transcending language or specific religious persuasions. - Josef Woodard