Friday, December 31, 2010
Legends of Black Jazz Reunite
The Black Jazz label was a pioneering jazz record label in the early 1970s. Similar to the Strata-East label, it was artist-owned, independent, and specialized in giving its roster of artists the opportunity to freely express themselves. The early 1970s was the high-water mark of post-Coltrane "spiritual" jazz, and the artists who made the music were culturally aware, political conscious, and saw themselves at the nexus of a movement to convey a sort of spiritual awakening through the artistic expression of newly empowered African-American community. Some of the Black Jazz artists, bassist Henry Franklin comes to mind, are still around and recording. Others passed on or slipped into obscurity. What I never thought is that in 2010 I would have the opportunity to hear a concert by some of the most influential and creative of the Black Jazz legends. Last night I did.
Billed as the Doug and Jean Carn Reunion Concert, a celebration for Kwanzaa, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium brought these two amazing legends back together before an audience at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. Keyboardist Doug Carn recorded three albums with his then wife Jean in the very early 1970s: Infant Eyes, Revelation and Spirit of the New Land. The music was not lost to the ages: though the original vinyl in their distinctive black-and-white sleeves commands hefty collector prices, eventually all the Black Jazz albums have been reissued on CD first in Japan and then by a reactivated Black Jazz reissue label in the U.S. The Carns specialized in putting lyrics to some of the standards of spiritual jazz: songs like John Coltrane's "Welcome," "Naima," and "A Love Supreme," or Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes," or Bobby Hutcherson's "Little B's Poem" as well as some Doug Carn originals all gained new dimension as vocal works.
Jean Carn moved on to be one of the leading voices of 1970s spiritual jazz. Singing on records by the likes of Norman Connors, Azar Lawrence and others, her multi-octave soaring voice became a trademark of the genre. She then broke out into the mainstream by singing with Philadelphia International's wiz Dexter Wansel, and then gaining a contract of her own with the label, went to disco fame with several albums including the one that spawned the massive club classic "Was That All It Was." She dropped off the radar sometime in the 1980s. Doug Carn recorded an album in the late 1970s as Abdul Rahim Ibrahim combining his new Islamic faith with the sounds of jazz-funk. He recently made it back on the scene recording for independent jazz labels.
But here in Brooklyn last night Doug and Jean Carn were back, singing the songs of those three classic Black Jazz albums. Doug Carn played piano, and was joined by Stacy Dillard on sax, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, and two brothers named Carter on stand-up bass and drums. They played two Doug Carn instrumental originals before Jean Carn made her entrance. At sixty-three, she was in incredible form. Dancing around the stage in the apparent body of a twenty-something, her voice has lost none of its power and range.
The band performed an extended set, covering many, many of the songs from Doug and Jean Carn's three Black Jazz albums. Opening with strains of "Welcome," and then into "Little B's Poem," they soon performed "Time Is Running Out," Horace Silver's "Peace," and "Power and Glory." Ms. Carn left the stage for the band to perform an instrumental tribute to the late Dr. Billy Taylor who just died; a song I couldn't quite identify but was one of the highpoints of the evening. The saxophonist Stacy Dillard really impressed me -- and the audience; he had them shouting and whistling -- with some incredible playing. Jean Carn returned and the they played "Moon Child," "Revelation," and the absolute highpoint of the evening, "Infant Eyes," dedicated to their daughter, now grown, a lawyer, and in the audience. Jean Carn's range and soulful feeling, from her soaring heights to her trademark gospel growl were simply extraordinary. The audience was on its feet. They continued on playing "Naima," "Acknowledgement" from "A Love Supreme," and their vocal version of Miles Davis' "Blue in Green."
I felt like it took a moment for the band to coalesce and get into the swing of things, but when they got going the music became quite amazing. The harmonies between trumpet and sax evoked the classic modal Blue Note sound, and the almost apocalyptic religion-tinged lyrics evoked the moment of consciousness nearly forty years ago that gave birth to them. There was a righteous positivity about them that is the extension of gospel music into jazz. Straight-ahead instrumental jazz with extended bass solos can leave me a little cold sometimes, and it's the spiritual edge or the oomph of a thrilling vocalist like Ms. Carn that makes it accessible to me: the concert was all that, exciting to witness. To hear Jean Carn still able to vocalize this music was really inspiring.
It was a great audience. Because of the snow lingering on the ground from our "snowpocalypse" this week, the auditorium took a while to fill up. The show started late, opened by an extraordinary dance and drumming troupe let by a charismatic dancer from Cote D'Ivoire. But the show ran long and nobody was complaining ending at 11:30 pm on a cold winter night. I'm so impressed at the overwhelmingly African-American community that's so appreciative of this art form and working so hard to keep it alive and appreciated. And it was a treat to see incredibly well-behaved little kids air-drumming along in their seats.
I don't know if this was a one-time thing or if the Carns are planning on taking this show on the road, but if you get a chance to see these two veteran musicians, don't miss it. The original Black Jazz albums are now available at Dustygroove; hopefully the bad relationship between the label's new owners and the best record store on the internet having been patched up.
(Top photo shows Doug and Jean Carn together; the middle photo shows Ms. Carn between the Carter brothers. Bottom photo shows saxophonist Stacy Dillard next to Doug Carn at the piano. All photos by me; if you snag these please credit The Cahokian and link back here.)