History Sifter :: Black Unity

Pharoah Sanders is legendary, so it seems odd to discuss him as 'overlooked'. I would argue, though, that his solo career (even its peaks) are overshadowed by his work with both John and Alice Coltrane. His place in the pantheon is eclipsed by the twin pillars of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. In the solar system of free jazz, he is a moon.

Which is a shame, since I personally consider his Black Unity one of the greatest statements of its era. Recorded late in 1971, it's situated shortly after Albert Ayler's passing and well into Miles' fusion expeditions. On it, he seamlessly yolks multiple strains of advanced jazz under one banner—deftly combining both the afro-spiritual and political strains of free jazz with a punchy melody and nearly funky rhythm.

As much this album means to me, I didn't want it on vinyl. Black Unity is a single continuous piece, with such an immersive flow, it seems criminal to interrupt it to flip the record. Perhaps, that fact hurt it when originally released, contributing to it's neglected status—usually taking a back seat even to Sanders' other recordings, like Tauhid or Karma.

Black Unity's ecstatic performances are buttressed by reed drones from North African instruments, lending it an afro-mystical character infused with middle eastern flavors. There is a double rhythm section: Cecil McBee (Pharoah's bassist at the time) is augmented by soon-to-be-fusion-star Stanly Clarke, who's funky vamping turns the proceedings from a protest into a truly wild party.

Somehow, Sanders avoids most of the free jazz, blow-out clichés . Black Unity is not a constant barrage, with everybody wailing, all the time. Neither does it feel like a simple sequence of tag-team soloing. It's episodic, but feels of a whole. It tells a complete story. All the players are dedicated to the spirit of the work. (Compare Black Unity to John Coltrane's Om, where Sanders' and Coltrane's solos are so obviously of a different mind than McCoy Tyner's. It's as if his piano solo were dubbed in from another song.)

Pharoah Sanders has an unassailable and enviable resume: he played with the many of the most pivotal names in jazz history, and is on more than a few landmark records. It's consistently surprises me that Black Unity isn't regularly considered one of them.

History Sifter :: Child and Magic

I fully appreciate history's absolute need to reduce movements and entire eras to a sort of short-hand. Popular music is already in danger of suffering from too much history (especially overly reverent remembrances). Still, I think it's important to go back and visit some of the bits the fall through the cracks—not with the intention of adding anything to the canon but simply to remember the full breadth and color of things; to give history a sense of nuance. Not everything has to be remembered, but neither does it have to be completely forgotten.

Nobukazu Takemura remains too peripheral to go down in the annals of electronic music. He'll show up as remixer on the more important techno labels, but most of his material was released in the US by the likes of Thrill Jockey (more known for the indie-rock than electronica). 

On a whim, the other day, I gave  Nobukazu Takemura's Child and Magic a new listen. I quickly found myself overwhelmed, fighting the urge to rush to the internet and declare it a 'lost classic' from my digital hilltop. Of course, it isn't classic in the strictest sense of the word, but it is a rare gem waiting to be rediscovered. Even in its time, it was overlooked and undervalued, but might well be the best album in Takemura's surprisingly diverse career. 

Child and Magic was never available domestically except as an expensive import at specialty shops (which sounds weird to say in the age of amazon, discogs and torrents, but this was a pre-Google 1997). Even though it's out-of-print, it doesn't demand steep prices—it's not collectible, just a curio. Give it some time, though, and it's hard not to notice just how curious it is. 

Takemura's discography runs a wide gamut: from breakbeats to chamber suites; glitch-symphonics to auto-tuned song-cycles of warped lullabies. Somehow, Child and Magic ties it all together; makes everything sound cohesive despite obvious contradictions. The album is technologically advanced but filled with a naive wonder.   

Child and Magic ought to be an utter mess. Even though every style Takemura turns to is fully realized, he'll often switch gears mid-stream. At first blush the only constant is constant change. The more I listen to it, though, the more I feel the presence of a narrative. It's not a concept album, or literal narrative, but a sonic one. The album moves with a symphonic sense of scale and pacing. Takemura's stylistic hairpins might seem sudden and chaotic, but they're carefully placed for specific results.

Our history of the first decade-or-so of electronica has begun to take shape. There's no chance Nobukazu Takemura will be included. He will remain, instead, a treasure of sonic delight to those audio archeologists among us. I can readily imagine, a limited-edition reissue of Child and Magic a decade from now causing a stir with erudite collectors.