SUMMER RE-UP #2: Interstellar Overdrive

Originally posted 11 April 2007

Larry Young
Lawrence of Newark
Perception : 1973
CD Universe / iTunes [seemingly out of print again]

LY, organ, bongos, vocals; Pharoah Sanders [credited as 'Mystery Guest'], saxophones and vocals; James Blood Ulmer, guitar; Charles Magee, electric trumpet; Dennis Mourouse, sax and electric sax; Cedric Lawson, electric piano; Deirdre Johnson, cello; Juni Booth, bass; Don Pate, bass; Art Gore, drums and electric piano; Abdul Shahid, drums; Jamma Santos, tom tom, cowbell, conga, whistle, tambourine, hi-hat; Howard T. King, drums; James Flores, drums; Stacey Edwards, conga; Umar Abdul Muizz, congas, Armen Halburian, congas, bells, percussion.

Meet Ze Monsta: For those who aren’t familiar with the stupefyingly great “Khalid of Space, Part Two,” prepare to be awestruck. It’s a roiling slab of cosmic funk that pushes into the free jazz stratosphere. A heady mix of Terry Riley’s elastic drones, Sun Ra’s mental tones, and James Brown’s sense of groove – interlaced with some serious psych rock textures. It’s a monster. One of the defining kozmigroov tracks. For those who already know, spin it again. Then tell your friends to check it out.

Not So Fast with the Underrated: While “Khalid” is the clear highlight of Lawrence of Newark, the entire album is killer. It’s status has slowly grown over the years, partly thanks to being featured in The Wire’s influential 1998 list of “100 Records that Set the World On Fire (While No One Was Listening).”

A Little Backstory: Those who know Larry Young primarily from his elegant post-bop Unity joint may wonder how the hell he ended up in the day-glo nebula of outer space. Here’s Edwin Pouncey’s astute appraisal from that Wire issue:

Jazz hepsters may have deeply dug Larry Young’s numerous vibrant Hammond organ workouts for Prestige and Blue Note, but those who longed to hear him stretch out that massive sound of his more imaginatively on record would have to wait until the early 70s. Young’s new found freedom, which took off on John McLaughlin’s Devotion and the records he made with Tony Williams’ Lifetime, soared on Lawrence of Newark, where his playing entered another creative dimension. The beating heart of the record is “Khalid Of Space Part Two” — 12 minutes of Sun Ra-inspired cosmo jam that pushes Young and his ‘Arkestra’ toppling over the edge of free jazz freakout to tear a mind-bending solo from the primal fretboard of James Blood Ulmer.

Landscape as Metaphor: The album cover sports Young decked out as a sheik. Beside the obvious Lawrence of Arabia theme, there’s also the subtle insinuation of Newark as a giant desert, a lawless terrain still to be properly mapped. After the riots of the late 60s, this wasn’t an untenable metaphor for the city. The theme also makes this something of a sister record to McCoy Tyner’s great Sahara from the previous year. Instead of the titular desert, that album cover features a rubble yard in the middle of a city.

Afro-Futurism: Then there’s the space theme of the album and the music’s clear cosmic yearnings. The conception owes a debt to Sun Ra, but Young puts his own particular stamp on the proceedings. It reminds us that there isn’t nearly enough African and African-American science fiction. “Khalid” suggests a freaky narrative you might find germinating inside Greg Tate’s long promised sci-fi novel.

Even Nick Cave Digs This Shit: In a recent interview about his Grinderman project, Nick the Knife talks up the influence: “We were doing Nocturama and it was plodding along in this gentle way and then someone downloaded Lawrence of Newark and cranked that up in the studio and it was like, fucking hell. You know, ‘Khalid of Space.’ That’s extraordinary, that piece of music. It basically changed that record. We had a long piece that was trembling on the edge of being used for Grinderman but it sounded so much like ‘Khalid’ we just couldn’t use it.”

The Fabulous Sequel: Sadly, part one of “Khalid in Space” remains missing. But this is one case where it’s hard to imagine that the original could touch the sequel.

Mysterioso: We assume Pharoah Sanders wasn’t officially listed on the album for contractual reasons. Anyone know for sure?

Sun Ra Sez: “All my musicians are drummers.” One of the silent mantras of this album.

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3 Responses to SUMMER RE-UP #2: Interstellar Overdrive

  1. This is purely awsome. That crazy organ there, sounds like an exotica record that went terribly wrong ;)

  2. I love this. A wonderful piece of music that hits my taste in improv dead on in the center.

    Having said that, I must do some petty complaining about one thing: James Blood Ulmer is the most overhyperbolized and, I have to say, overrated musician in jazz as far as I’m concerned. I respect the guy, but he’s never failed to disappoint me on record and left me bone cold the couple of times I’ve seen him play. I kept trying because I liked the IDEA of him–a free jazz guitarist with deep blues roots and middle-eastern overtones. Sounds perfect. But, to my ears, the decades of Hendrix comparisons have been puzzlingly misleading. Yes, they are both skilled at simultaneous bass-line and upper-register playing, but that’s about it. We love Hendrix for his soul-penetrating, cosmos-traveling tone and intensity (among other things). Ulmer’s tone is arid and inward. His soloing, if you can call it that, is tentative, fragmentary, never progressing into anything moving or revelatory or “mind-bending” that I’ve ever heard.

    He’s a vital part of the overall texture of this great Larry Young piece, so I suppose I can give him his due as a sideman. Maybe it’s just my ears. I’ve never been able to appreciate (one-time Ulmer boss) Ornette Coleman all that much either. Ripostes are welcome.

  3. Yes!!! although, this track almost got me a speeding ticket last night.

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