The Black Ark
Polydor/Freedom : 1969
NH, alto sax; Arthur Doyle, tenor sax; Earl Cross, trumpet; Leslie Waldron, piano; Sirone, bass; Muhammad Ali, drums; Juma Sultan, percussion.
In outline, Noah Howard’s career follows a fairly common path for the searching jazz musician of the 1960s: there’s the upbringing in a musical town in the center of America, the move out west in the early part of the decade, followed by arrival in New York. Cut a few sides for ESP, then head out for the Old World — touching down in Paris, record with BYG, then Africa, then….
But while the trajectory may be familiar, the tone and tunes are an utterly unique extension of the man, tightly linked to Howard’s hometown of New Orleans. However fervid Howard’s excursions, they’re always grounded in the Baptist gospel of his youth, and the unshakable musicality that appears to be bred in the bone down there. Howard, from a recent interview:
If you’ve ever been in a black Baptist gospel church, and the choirs cut loose, you have this incredible harmony, and then you have the soloists, and the soloists go all the way out. And most of the preachers can sing too, and they’ll go all the way out. But always within the context of gospel harmony.
Though Howard’s ESP work is [digitally] in print, and though he maintains his own label in AltSax, his 1969 disk, The Black Ark, remains a lost masterpiece. It’s notable as Arthur Doyle’s debut, but even more so for its stunning combination of sweet and sour sounds, woolly spontaneity and soulful structure.
“Ole Negro” opens with a sinuous piano vamp — almost something out of film noir. The horns make their entrance and add a Latin feel. We’re still in noir territory, but now the movie is more like Our Man in Havana. As Howard begins his solo, the rhythm section immediately starts drifting from shore. Howard initially hews to the coast, but quickly tacks toward deeper waters.
Once the bells start shaking, and Doyle shreds his way in, the movie morphs into I Walked With a Zombie. Serious voodoo action. Earl Cross rides in over Doyle and makes way for Waldron. And then out of some fairly high seas, the vamp magically returns. We pause for a bass solo, and we’re back where we started. Only those same notes sound different now. Graham Greene has washed up on the beach, a knife in his back. Cue end credits.
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Howard was the subject of a Wire profile, by Phil Freeman, that ran in the January 2006 issue (#263). The unexpurgated interview text is online at the Wire site, here [link now defunct, sadly][link now back!]. It’s worth your full attention:
I moved to trumpet, and I loved trumpet. I think it’s a great instrument, but I couldn’t make it. 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 onto saxophone, and I was listening to – I went through the whole ranks. First, I went way back to a guy who wasn’t from New Orleans, but a little up north, named Pony Poindexter. A Creole guy, monster alto player. Then I used to hear these things on the radio, Symphony Sid’s broadcasts. Down in New Orleans, we were hearing Charlie Parker, and Johnny Hodges with the Ellington Orchestra. But I grew up in a neighborhood with kids who listened to rhythm and blues – rock came later – and we were sitting around listening to jazz, too. One of the greatest moments in my life was when I was about thirteen years old, and Paul Gonsalves played at Newport and did a twenty-some chorus solo. We had never heard anything like that, a saxophone player doing twenty-some choruses, this extended thing, just gone. And that was before John Coltrane had really opened up.