B-Y-G, Repeat After Me…

UNITY
Sunny Murray
Hommage to Africa
BYG : 1969

SM, drums; Roscoe Mitchell, alto sax, flute; Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Archie Shepp, tenor sax; Kenneth Terroade, tenor sax, flute; Clifford Thornton, cornet; Lester Bowie, trumpet; Dave Burrell, piano; Alan Silva, bass; Malachi Favors, balafon, bells; Earl Freeman, tympani, bells; Arthur Jones, gong, tambourine; Jeanne Lee, vocals.

In the progression from casual music fan to sound-collecting obsessive, one of the key stages is label awareness. You move beyond a wide understanding of who’s who and begin to explore the seemingly deeper classifications of visionary labels like FactoryRough TradeBlue Note; Douglas; Stax; Homestead. Jazz history is littered with its fair share of here-today, gone-tomorrow record labels, the impermanence and small-shop focus only adding to the luster of primo insidery esoterica that sticks to such out-there sounds.

Among three-letter labeldom (ECM, FMP, ESP, etc.), BYG sticks out for its notably short shelf life, and delicious mix of Euro-styling, Pan-African luster, and American gut-bucket skronk. It’s a label many jazz-ophiles of a certain stripe get to eventually. Our BYG awareness was raised considerably by the Thurston Moore/Byron Coley-curated Jazz Actuel box set from several years ago. They likened the label’s remarkably potent discography to a can-opener for your head, peeling off the top to reveal a host of previously unsuspected possibilities.

We’re hoping the Stop Smiling article by Patrick Sisson on BYG will alert a whole new crew of listeners to this amazing cache of albums.

The Parisian label was a spin-off of Actuel magazine, founded in 1968 by editor, producer and occasional drummer Claude Delcloo. Born out of the student movement, the edgy arts publication attracted the attention of photographer Jacques Bisceglia, Jean-Luc Young and Jean Georgakarakos (later just Karakos), hence the label’s title, BYG (though Bisceglia maintains the ‘B’ comes from an investor named Boroseau).

His initial or not, Bisceglia, a veteran jazz fan, was crucial in assembling talent. During a July 1969 trip to the Pan-African Festival in Algiers — where Nina Simone and Stokely Carmichael crossed orbits — Bisceglia recorded a transcendent performance featuring nomadic native drummers jamming with Archie Shepp and an all-star American ensemble. All soon traveled to Paris. Bisceglia contacted Chicagoan Steve McCall, a drummer and member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Some of McCall’s friends and fellow musicians — a theatrical, groundbreaking group label-ed the Art Ensemble of Chicago by a French promoter — recorded three discs for BYG.

‘People said we were recording artists people didn’t want to hear,’ says Bisceglia. ‘We didn’t realize we were making historical records.’

To highlight this great bit of semi-forgotten and occasionally ill-recorded history, we’re throwing some classic Sunny Murray atcha. Much of the stellar BYG catalog has been reissued — however briefly — but Hommage to Africa remains one of its unsung and hard-to-hear gems. Rather than showcase the swelling, repetitive rising tones of the first two-thirds of the album, we present here the disc’s closing moment, a levelling slice of mixed-use collage work that allows everyone some clear space in which to make a statement. We also wish to point you to the personnel list, which includes many of BYG’s main movers. It tells a stunning story in itself, and works as a good guide to further research.

Lastly, we’re spinning “Unity” in spirit of election season in the U.S. and the aftermath of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. For its title, the African vibe, the collectivist performance aesthetic. A gift from the ex-patriots who created this track in self-imposed exile, but still imbued their playing with a longing for a better type of home.

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Last year, the blog Surreal Documents wrote some extensive posts on the BYG series. Those seeking more information and links to wider vistas should be sure to check out the first post, on the Jazz Actuel box set; the second post, on the Pan-African Festival held in Algiers in 1969, and Archie Shepp’s BYG output; and the third post, on Grachan Moncur and the festival that ultimately broke the label.

Category Sunny Murray