Long-Absent Free-Jazz Gem Reappears

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Marzette Watts: Marzette Watts & Company (ESP-Disk')

In the brief period when I did a little work for ESP-Disk', this was the album the most people (especially record store owners and musicians) enthusiastically nominated for reissue. And now, here it is!

This album is distinguished by a number of factors, not least the fact that this is its first issue on CD in the U.S. (a few European reissues are in inferior sound). Recorded on December 8, 1966, it was Watts's first session as a leader (though, not released until 1971, it was his second album to appear, following a now-rare Savoy LP). Watts (1938-1998) never made any more albums after those two, alas, nor did he record as a sideman, though he appears in the credits on some albums from the free jazz scene as the engineer.

Watts is heard here on tenor and soprano saxophones and on bass clarinet; Byard Lancaster (b. 1942) plays alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet, and I know this is just a matter of personal taste, but hearing this much bass clarinet on an album is a real treat. All the players on this album are notable, but connoisseurs have long prized this album for the presence of guitarist Sonny Sharrock. This was just his second session (as a guitarist -- back in his teen years, there was a doo-wop single on which he sang), a mere three weeks after his first, Pharoah Sanders's Tauhid. But Marzette Watts & Company is one of the most free, unfettered recordings he plays on, matched in its freedom only by a recently released club recording with Frank Wright (reviewed here).

The other players are all familiar to fans of the time and place, so pivotal in the development of avant-garde jazz. Clifford Thornton (1939-1989), on trombone and cornet, was a constant presence on the scene, with five under-heard albums under his own name and sideman credits on albums by Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Dave Burrell, Sam Rivers, Joe McPhee, and Sunny Murray. His brassy tones play a crucial role in the sound of this album. Vibraphonist Karl Berger (b. 1935) adds a timbre not often heard in free jazz recordings -- except for the many he's on, of course -- and is still going strong leading his Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, with frequent forays to N.Y.C. on Monday nights at The Stone leading his Stone Workshop Orchestra. Bassist Henry Grimes (b. 1935) went from ubiquity to obscurity, then reappeared in 2003, gladdening the hearts of fans and musicians alike with a much-heralded and quite productive comeback. He is joined on the third, last, and mightiest track here, "Backdrop for Urban Revolution," by fellow bassist Juni Booth (b. 1948), who held down the bottom on some of my favorite McCoy Tyner albums. Holding it all together on drums is the great J.C. Moses (1936-1977) of pioneering collective ensemble The New York Contemporary Five; there is often a sense that, though it's not his session (he never made an album as leader, in fact), he is guiding the flow of the music more than any of the other players, superbly so.

The first track, "Ia," opens with a short, somewhat Aylerish head that's half fanfare, half mournful rumination, and then Watts sprays a short, wild tenor solo that includes interjections from the other horns. He drops out, leaving space for a nearly Impressionist wash of timbres -- trombone, flute, vibes, guitar, bass, light drums -- to be heard, then re-enters, again briefly, with vibes and guitar interacting with him. Then it becomes more of a collective improvisation. This is the modus operandus returned to many times on this record: rarely does any player dominate the sound for long, in the manner of a "traditional" jazz solo. Some frenetic scrabbling from Sharrock, alternating a lower, rubbery sound with a higher, brighter tone, is one of the longer features, but even there, the horns interject a bit and there is other nearly equal interaction. This doesn't mean the textures are uniformly thick, however; this is not a constant-energy, everybody-blow-loudly kind of improvisation, more like a kaleidoscopic shuffling of timbres that changes with great frequency.

By the way, around the 7-minute mark, it sounds like there are two basses, one bowing a high tremolo, the other pizzicato, and the same thing happens near the beginning of "Geno," so the album credits may be slightly off. Is Booth present on all tracks? Is it a different stringed instrument, uncredited, rather than another bass? Or is Grimes really able to do both at once?

"Geno" is even more of an equal collective improvisation; even the head seems spontaneous much of the time, though there's definitely some planning in the melody/harmony of the horns at times. After the head, Berger is featured, though nearly in duet with Moses; then Sharrock comes to the fore, but with the basses -- I can distinctly hear one bassist in each channel, both pizzicato – just as present. Then it's back to collectivism as the piece winds down quietly, though with one more fiercely strummed statement from Sharrock before a nearly fugal coda.

"Backdrop for Urban Revolution" opens quietly, with both Watts and Lancaster on bass clarinets. At first they both rumble in their low registers, but as things heat up, one of them -- Watts, I think -- soars into his upper register with great fervor, with Thornton chipping in on cornet. Lancaster switches to alto sax and joins the high frequencies as Moses drops bombs all over the place. When Thornton moves to the fore, Moses is right with him, and as usual, after the brief spotlight, more players join in, producing one of the most exciting patches of spontaneous interaction on the album. A play-by-play of the tracks full 19 minutes would be overkill; suffice it to say that Sharrock fans get to hear their hero go "outside" quite energetically on multiple occasions, Berger unleashes some of his most effectively embroidering passages, and Moses even gets to lay down a steady beat for a while that really seems to stoke everyone's creativity (and, just before the close, takes the only true solo on the record). This is the sort of free-wheeling sound sculpting that devotees of this style live for, and there are some sonic effects from this particular combination of players that are truly unique, so it's great to have this album back in circulation. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.