|photo by Juma Sultan|
John Fordham's obituary can be found here, and for those who still only own bloggity files of "The Black Ark", the LP reissue is still available from BoWeavil - I finally put in an order. The CD version is gone already.
The quote below is from The Wire (Jan 2006, pp. 26-33), the story was
based on a lenghty interview and was done by Phil Freeman (typos are
entirely mine, though).
Howard grew up surrounded by music. "If you're a child and you grow up in New Orleans - and I was a child in the 50s - the music was just there," he explains, sitting in New York's Cornelia Street Cafe. "My people came out of the Baptist church, so I was introduced right away to gospel music. When I was a little kid, I was singing in the junior choir, the medium choir and then the high choir." His background wasn't purely creative though - a fact that would have a substantial impact on the course of his later life as a professional musician. "My people in New Orleans were business people," he says. "I grew up understanding how you do business and have fun. You can do both and be creative. It's not contradictory. Now, it's becoming more and more a reality. At that time, I think I was a little bit ahead of the game."
Howard wasn't always a saxophonist. His first instrument was the trumpet, but he found it difficult to master and packed it in. "I admire people like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and all the rest of them who play that instrument. I just couldn't deal. I think you have to be basically crazy to go into trumpet, because you've only got three valves anyway and there's a lot of blowing - it's a whole story. Talk about hard times. So I moved on to saxophone."
When he arrived in New York in the early 1960s, the free jazz scene was already in full creative flower. The revolution that had begun with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman was slowly but surely becoming impossible to ignore. But rather than imitate other, better known players and thus doom himself to eternal second-tier status, or arrange quickie blowing sessions with the prevailing big names, he gathered a working band of similarly unknown and hungry player, and began gigging whenever he could get a spot. "Slug's Saloon wouldn't give me a week, they would only let me play on Sunday afternoons, and then both Sunday and Mondays, and gradually moving up the ranks like that," he says. "The other guys were a little bit older than me, like Pharoah and all those guys, so they got the big slots." Howard's quartet featured British trumpeter Ric Colbeck, bassist Scotty Holt and drummer Dave Grant - all virtual unknowns. "We were doing our own little thing," Howard says of that group. "Later, a lot of people that came out of my bands ended up playing with everybody else. But I brought them into the scene, which gave me my own identity."
Just as John Coltrane is credited with getting Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders signed to Impulse!, Ayler got Noah Howard his ESP deal. "Me and Albert Ayler were very good friends," Howard recalls. "And Albert was the star at ESP at that time... [he] was like the Sonny Rollins of this new label that was putting everybody out. So he said, 'Listen, call this guy and go see him.' Bernard [Stollman] was living on Riverside Drive in the upper 90s. Albert told me to send him a tape, so we recorded some stuff from a rehearsal. He put it on and sat there and listened and after about 60 seconds, he said 'So when do you want to record?' I said, 'Excuse me?' This was on a Saturday, and he said, 'Is Monday OK? Are you available on Monday at 10am to go in the studio?' So I said yes, and went out shaking. This guy had just offered me a recording contract! We had been rehearsing, the band was together, but it just hit me in the face because I didn't know it was coming down."
Howard was part of the great 1969 mass migration to France that engulfed Archie Shepp, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sunny Murray and dozens of others. "There was supposed to be a Paris jazz festival," Howard says, recalling the now legendary summer, when French security forces, still jumpy a yaer after the May 68 riots, and fearing that a festival of avant garde music might fan the flames of insurrection all over again, kicked it out of the city. "The authorities moved the thing to the Belgian/French border, to a little village called Amougies - a farm, really, like Woodstock. 30,000 people, I'll never forget that." This festival was the fanfare that began the great (if short) life of BYG Actuel Records, for which dozens of incredible albums by Shepp, Murray, The Art Ensemble, Alan Silva, Jacques Coursil, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Sonny Sharrock, Grachan Moncur III, Clifford Thornton and many others were recorded over a period of two years, but mostly in a series of marathon sessions in August 1969. [...]
So with all this high quality studio work going on, why didn't Howard record any albums for BYG? "The problem was," he says, "I negotiated with them that we'd come in, play the festival and do two record deals, one for me and one for Frank [Wright]. So they did the Frank thing first and they didn't pay him."
This doesn't mean Howard sat idle during the summer of 1969 - far from it. It just means that, in typical fashion, he chose not to move with the herd, preferring to stick close to the confederates and collaborators with whom he had arrived - Cleveland-born saxophonist Frank Wright, pianist Bobby Few and drummer Muhammad Ali, brother of Rashied. "Being away from home, [the other American expatriates] sort of bonded together," he recalls. "When they were in the studios, they all worked with people that they knew. Whereas I went off into a real strange thing, because when I got there, there was Kenny Clarke and Art Taylor, who had been longtime residents. They had been there almost ten years before I arrived. The first person I got together with was Art Taylor. I called him for a session, because we used to hang out together. So I said, 'Look, I got this session tomorrow morning. You wanna hit it? We'll go in, we'll rehearse for five hours, then we'll tell 'em to turn on the machines and we'll do it.' I wrote the music out, and we just did it. That was the Uhura thing that just came out. It's got Frank's name, but that's my session. I did two sessions, Uhura and Space Dimension. I wrote all the songs." Indeed the question of why Uhura Na Umoja, recently reissued by Universal, was released under Frank Wright's name, when Howard wrote all the music, is an interesting one. In any case, the facts of its creation provide some clues as to why it sounds the way it does. The stripped-down ensemble - Howard on alto sax, Wright on tenor, Few on piano and Art Taylor on drums, no bassist - turns each composition into a pummelling gospelised workout. The melodies are slow and delicate; that's where Howard's influence is most readily apparent. But when things actually get rolling, Uhura Na Umoja really is a Frank Wright record. It's unfettered, more concerned with power than poetry - Fire music at its most paradigmatic and breathtaking. Theres a passage near the end of "Aurora Borealis" when Few and Taylor drop almost entirely away, leaving Wright and Howard blowing long spirals of notes at each other, that's one of the mos beautiful in all of post-Coltrane free jazz. In fact, it's very reminiscent of similar Coltrane-Sanders exchanges on Meditations or various live recordings from 1966 and 1967.
In free jazz circles, The Black Ark is a legend, an album that simply must be heard to be ranked among the truly knowledgeable - and if you actually own one, you're a god amongst men. Out of print since its first pressing, its rarity burnishes its reputation, but once one actually hears it (the tracks are out there in Filesharingland, and two of them appear on Howard's self-released Eye of the Improviser compilation), the inescapable judgment is that it measures up to the hype. Each of the four tracks marries a hard bopper's love of bluesy hooks to raucous, gospelised free blowing and a hint of Asian melody. The group are on tremendous form: trumpeter Earl Cross, pianist Leslie Waldron, bassist Sirone, drummer Muhammad Ali, percussionist Jumma Santos (who had a very good year in 1969, working with Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix) and saxophonist Arthur Doyle making his professional debut.
Doyle's playing on The Black Ark is arguably the best of his career. As part of a unified ensemble, he's an accent rather than a dominant voice. He's been the same 'technique is for the weak' berserker since day one, but Howard's compositions limit his time in the spotlight - the pianist and even the rhythm player get as much solo space as he does. Furthermore, the spacious mix frequently places him off to the right, so he's sputtering in the corner rather than screaming in the listener's face. "Doyle was going in the direction of Frank [Wright], of Pharoah, of Trane, and he was a young guy," says Howard. "I said, well, fuck it, I'll put him inside my compositions and just let him express himself and do his thing." And it's precisely that containment, keeping him firmly within the limits of The Black Ark's four artfully constructed compositions, that makes it such a powerful debut. Doyle has always needed an editor; The Black Ark is one of the rare occasions where he had one.
For a first share, going chronologically, here's a 1972 set with quite a band... hope you'll enjoy!
Village Vanguard, NYC, NY (USA)
Noah Howard - alto sax
Frank Lowe - tenor sax
Richard Dunbar - french horn
Robert Bruno - piano
Earl Freeman - bass
Art Lewis - drums, percussion
Mustapha Rahim - percussion*
1. unknown (27:28)
2. Greensleaves (trad) 19:30 [glitch/duplication at end? cuts out]