The Black Ark
Back in the halcyon days of college DJ luxury, some either well-meaning or devious soul turned me on to free jazz, and it took hold with religious fervor. The station had an amazing record collection, one that makes me cry to this day when I think about its contents being callously dumpstered when the place went computerized in 2000, and I wallowed like a dog in its spindly, cantankerous treasures. I only knew a couple names (this was pre-internet, when cultural secrets were hidden away safely in books) so I muddled through finding what I would find. One day, another devious soul pointed a Jewish grad student from New York in my direction. Among the frighteningly stereotypical aspects of this kid lay a box of records that some Virgil had bestowed on him, this box containing the likes of Arthur Doyle, Albert Ayler, Charles Gayle, Marion Brown and most importantly ex-patriot witch doctor Noah Howard, all titans of "The New Thing," jazz's fiery cousin from the late 60s. I had already dug a hole with what little knowledge I had, but Noah Howard's 1969 Polydor release The Black Ark opened up the ground below, and down I fell. It wasn't until the recent reissue by Bo'weavil was this can of worms opened for me again.
The Black Ark is manned by a motley crew: Howard and Doyle handing their serpentine explosive saxophones, Earl Cross on trumpet, Leslie Waldron on piano, Muhammad Ali (not the boxer but a formidable skin hitter in his own right) on drums and a conga player named Juma Sultan that later went on to play alongside Jimi Hendrix at his legendary Woodstock appearance. Now, a lot of free jazz I liked involved dense, thorny thickets of sound, the cuts and scrapes you receive are badges of honor, and The Black Ark has its share of skronk, but is operating on a higher level. The opening track "Domiabra" opens on a funky piano and percussion sidewalk groove on which the three horn player appear, weaving and bobbing in close ranks like a street gang. Here you don't get the unbearable heaviness of being that Coltrane was squeezing into his veins and out through his horn, nor the space-age daydreams of Sun Ra, but something vivid, urban, alive. Skirmishes arise, escalating into wails and the piano and drums keep the situation lubricated. The track is named for a city in Ghana, which had just seen their government overtaken in a coup three years earlier and was seeing their first parliamentary elections as this record came out, and you get a feel of revolution by force from here. It doesn't have the funk-soul shtick of a lot of Black Power music from that time, opting for double the power, working itself into a Coltrane orgasm at the end.
"Ole Negro" is downright comical by comparison, with its siren sway to the hips and vaguely Latin outbursts, but what it contains is whispers and nudges hidden in the dense thickets of cymbals. Noah Howard is no slouch on the horn, but its Arthur Doyle who growls out the finer points in this number, almost blurting "WHAT?" through that tangle of brass and Waldron's piano creates a discordant almost metallic din in the background. It grows more nervous, twitchy as it progresses while never really losing its groove. "Mt Fuji" takes 'Ole Negro's" armchair travel to a higher/lower level, opening with a Chinese restaurant-grade "oriental motif that quickly descends into a maelstrom. Nothing on this record sits still for long, but continually changes shape seamlessly. The siren blasts and trills on "Mt. Fuji" are matched with howls and shrieks, like lions just showed up at the watering hole. It must be noted that while Juma has the least expressive instrument of the group, his conga provides the nervous system for this strange beast contorting way back in the troubled late 60s. Waldron is given his moment to shine in the latter half, and Sirone finds room to shine on the bass as well.
Finally, "Queen Anne" takes us out with A Love Supreme style majesty. This track, maybe better than the others, highlights the value of having two saxes and a trumpet in the group: at one point a sax is growling out the atmosphere, the trumpet is creating the clouds above and the lead is tearing through it all like a bird of prey. I'm tempted to say The Black Ark is comparable to John Coltrane's aforementioned classic issued five years earlier in 1964. It cannot be ignored that Coltrane's death in 1967 must have informed this record in some palpable way. But comparing it to that albatross of a classic is as useless a hyperbole as saying some guitarist is as good as Hendrix. What I'm saying is: if you are looking to cut a trail into the free jazz jungle, Noah Howard is holding a good machete.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com