Sunday, February 26, 2012

Performance/CD review - Cal Massey Tribute

The ‘60s Jazz Revolutionary Who’s Time Has Finally Come
Performance and CD review by John Pietaro

Performance: February 22, 2012, the Red Rooster, New York City
Compact Disc:  Mutable Music, NY. Produced by Fred Ho and Quincy Saul, Scientific Soul Sessions –

Harlem’s historic Red Rooster was a house afire as the music of radical jazz composer Cal Massey commanded the space within. In honor of Black History Month and coinciding with the birth anniversary of Malcolm X, the outspokenly dissident musician Fred Ho feted the music that leapt off of the manuscript through the fifteen hand-picked musicians under his direction. The walls appeared to almost quake under the weight of this band, driven not only by the expansive vision of Massey’s composition but the deft improvisatory ear of the leader who included free sections within the already post-modernist score. Ho demonstrated a form of conduction that appeared much like upper-torso modern dance as he waved in cues and embraced the sheets of sound about him.
Though the music being presented was written more than forty years ago, it remained urgent, immediate. Cal Massey was a trumpeter and composer who worked with a who’s who of jazz greats including Coltrane, Parker, Monk, Billie Holiday, Carmen McCrae, McCoy Tyner, Jay McShann, and most notably Archie Shepp who recorded the greatest number of Massey’s pieces. But the composer’s name will not be known to most jazz connoisseurs as he, like other militant African American artists before him, has largely been erased from music history.  He was a leader of the Black Arts Movement and a close associate of the Black Panther Party who had come of age in the heat of the 1960s’ political conscience. Largely blacklisted by the jazz industry and major labels, he embarked on a career based in the concept of Black self-determination, producing concerts independently.

As is the case with much of Massey’s work, it was written in conjunction with Romulus Franceschini, a socialist musician who specialized in chamber jazz composition. Both worked with artists such as Shepp and Coltrane and their bond was a testament of the progressive scope, Black Nationalist and Italian-American radical standing together. Franceschini is another marginalized figure in jazz history, most noted for conducting Coltrane’s Africa Brass recording. He worked closely with Massey, usually in the role of orchestrator but their collaboration also involved co-writing credits and the two led the RoMas Orchestra together. Unfortunately they would have little chance to continue this relevant work as Massey died in 1972, a mere 44 years of age. Franceschini updated the arrangements in 1986 in preparation for an earlier series of concerts Ho produced in honor of Massey.

THE CONCERT AT THE RED ROOSTER was not only about the welcome resurfacing of Massey, but of his work The Black Liberation Movement Suite, commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver in 1969. Massey wrote this 9-movement work for expanded jazz ensemble of reeds, brass, strings and rhythm as a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party. It has rarely been heard beyond the tumult of those times and only segments of it have been recorded—by Shepp--before this project undertaken by Ho and two younger musicians, the baritone saxophonist Ben Barson and clarinetist Quincy Saul (who does not perform in this piece as the arrangements were kept true to the original, but acted as a producer). As explosive as it is introspective, The Black Liberation Movement Suite stands out as a sonic tour through the African American revolutionary experience, brandishing movements with radical fervor:  Prayer, (Hey Goddamnit) Things Gotta Change, Man at Peace in Algiers (for Eldridge Cleaver), the Black Saint (for Malcolm X), the Peaceful Warrior (for Martin Luther King Jr), the Damned Don’t Cry (for Huey P Newton), Reminiscing About Dear John (for John Coltrane), Babylon, and Back to Africa (for Marcus Garvey). Appropriately so, the Suite includes various sounds evoking jazz history with points of defined free jazz, be-bop, swing, New Orleans and ‘third-stream’ jazz which incorporated contemporary classical traditions. 

As Fred Ho stood before them, the musicians played with an intensity that spoke of the piece’s inherent activism. The ensemble passages and solos, swinging, cruising the airspace, exploded with passion and rage. The music not only reflected 1969 but the radicalism of now, from anti-war and labor struggles to Wisconsin to the Occupy Movement and the ongoing fight against racism. Among the primary soloists of the evening were tenor saxophonists Bhinda Keidal, who brought an almost Dexter Gordon-like quality to the proceedings with her smoky, searching instrumental voice, and Salim Washington (who doubled on flute), noted free jazz musician and scholar who offered a point of chaotic intensity that slowly rounded out into a haunting melody and then disappeared into a whisper. However, the first solo of the evening was deftly executed by alto saxophonist Darius Jones whose fingers raced over his instrument’s keys, soaring over the orchestral mass each time he stood to play. Ben Barson’s baritone saxophone offered a fresh voice, pulled from the lower depths of his horn and then upward. The brass section included Nabate Isles, Satish Robertson and James Zollar’s trumpets as well as Aaron Johnson’s trombone and David Talyor’s bass trombone. Each offered masterful solos, ranging from the growl trumpet sound with plunger mute to Gillespie-ish flights to gutbucket bursts. Charles Burnham, violin, and Adam Fisher, cello, comprised the string section. Both were visionary soloists whose ensemble parts emphasized the textural possibilities, blending into and then leaping out from the winds.

The rhythm section of Arthur Hirahara, electric piano, Julian Litwack, electric guitar, Wayne Batchelor, upright bass and Royal Hartigan, drums and percussion functioned as much more than support. One moment laying it down, the next kicking it up over the heads of the house, they were equally comfortable in every mode. Special attention must be paid to Hartigan, a learned percussion master who embarks in world music explorations each time he sits down at his drumkit, which includes temple and wood blocks and other ‘traps’ including a talking drum and a gong. Of note to percussionists (including this writer), Hartigan can often be heard playing his gong like a ride cymbal for a ‘kerr-ang’ that no cymbal can supply. Ever the traditionalist in a setting comprised of musical emulsion, Hartigan said that he often feels a sense of guilt playing ethnic instruments apart from their tradition. But this evening was about the amalgamation of sounds that spoke to the people at large.

The compact disc, ‘The Music of Cal Massey: a Tribute’, was officially released at the Harlem concert. This disc is the first complete recording of Massey’s monumental Suite and thereby stands as historic unto itself. But Ho, who produced this recording with Quincy Saul, took the tribute further still. He also arranged a series of shorter Massey compositions for the CD, Goodbye Sweet Pops (for Louis Armstrong), The Cry of My People and Quiet Dawn, which was originally composed for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. These works together with the Suite serve now as the ultimate Massey compilation. For the recording, Ho brought in conductor Whitney George and much of the band heard at the Red Rooster, but for the record, the disc line-up is: along with Bobby Zankel (alto saxophone), Binda Keidel and Salim Washington (tenor saxophones), Ben Barson (baritone saxophone); Jackie Coleman, Nabate Isles and James Chandler (trumpets), Frank Kuumba Lacy and Aaron Johnson (trombones), Art Hirahara (piano), Wes Brown (bass), Royal Hartigan (drums and African percussion), Melanie Dyer (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello). A revolutionary artist like Massey, lost to time and by the hand of the reactionaries, is in need of rediscovery by a new generation hungry for the culture of dissent. Add this CD to your collection and file it along with your ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’, collection of Langston Hughes poetry, your favorite old Woody Guthrie records and DVD of ‘Salt of the Earth’. 

Here’s a recording that will stand the test of our time and place…..and as you read of the latest hateful, divisive rhetoric of a Rick Santorum, a Newt Gingrich or an Eric Cantor, it will remind you of the need for real social change in our current society. Speak to us Cal Massey, speak. 

-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from Brooklyn NY. His website is This piece was originally published on The Cultural Worker blog


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