11. In an Afro-American garden

The Gardens of Harlem. Clifford Thornton and the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, 1975

No convenient way to embed a single track of this near masterwork, so here’s the whole thing on the Tube.

And, as often in this sequence of things I have loved, it’s really worth considering the whole thing. Clifford Thornton, multi-instrumentalist, composer, radical intellectual, is a figure it’s hard to find much about nowadays. But this suite, the final release credited to the co-operative Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, is one of the best collections of dishes served up from the ingredients that loose ensemble – along with other “new thing” players – were exploring in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

This is the most congenial interpretation of free music. The more austere variant is actually more about constraint – anything that sounds like conventional music tonally, harmonically or rhythmically is ruled out. Then there is a more expansive view – players are free to use any sounds they please, including the oldest melodies and ingredients from other cultures.

I didn’t know that when I first heard this. Only that I’d never heard the like. The multiple African percussion that features prominently in the early pieces here energises the music wonderfully. And as the notes made clear, the concept requires including that collection of sounds because the whole work is an exploration of West African music and how it has travelled “from West to North Africa, the Caribbean, the South Eastern United States, to Harlem”.

In this case, that history – about the only good thing to come out of the enforced migrations of the slave trade – was evoked by selecting vocal melodies from the territories in question, and orchestrating them. There’s a chant from Recife, a song from Jamaica, a social dance from Dahomey via Ghana, a street vendor’s cry heard in South Carolina – you get the idea. They are fine tunes, orchestrated with great skill, and evocative in their own right. Add some great jazz soloing, and it’s a heady brew.

The 25 strong personnel allows plenty of variations in sound, and there are players here whose reputations have long outshone Thornton’s. Leo Smith features on one piece, and Marvin Peterson and Ted Daniel play trumpet too. The last piece is played out by Dewey Redman.

Thornton himself plays cornet, valve trombone, and has a lengthy feature on shenai, the South Indian double reed instrument. This is world music, I suppose, before that unhelpful term was coined. And it shows why an allmusics approach can have such creative scope when it is organised by a composer of such resource who can inspire a bunch of similarly committed players.

shenai in action – from album sleeve

I had none of these thoughts back then – just knew it sounded new and old at the same time and, I think, that it came out of a musical milieu unlike anything represented by other jazz I was hearing. It’s also, and this remains part of the appeal, an unusually well-integrated work. The music was workshopped extensively, and the composer revised it at least twice. Maybe that’s why all the ingredients blend so well.

I do remember playing the LP incessantly. It gets a spin much less often now, but whenever it does it never fails to grip me. The stew of wonderfully supple, mostly mid-tempo arrays of rhythm with exciting orchestral arrangements has not, I reckon, been bettered.

Perhaps Thornton himself might have done so. But this was his last album as leader. He left the US, where he had a university teaching post, for a job at UNESCO in Geneva and died, in his early fifties, in 1989. He was politically as well as musically influential – as attested by numerous small appearances in Val Wilmer’s classic As Serious as Your Life – but there’s little else to document the life of someone who was clearly an intellectual and creative force to be reckoned with. Still we do have this one finely realised work, which stands with anything recorded in that decade.

Here’s the nice artwork on the reverse – remember when a 12 inch cardboard square could be such an excellent creative space? – and some details from Thornton’s own sleeve notes.

Why the No 11? 

This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

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