THE 5TH POWER
THREE IN ONE
The 5th Power
Black Saint : 1978
LB, trumpet; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Amina Myers, piano; Malachi Favors, bass; Phillip Wilson, drums.
“All’s fair in love and war – and music is both. So use anything, as long as it works.” –Lester Bowie
The trumpeter with the self-described sound somewhere “between Miles Davis and Donald Duck.” The lab-coat wearing Art Ensemble and AACM figurehead. The studious instrumentalist who could trace brass-playing relatives in his family back to the 19th century. The searching musician who spent time in Nigeria living and playing with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. The bandleaderÂ whose Brass FantasyÂ repertoire included the Howdy Doody theme,Â The Spice Girls, Marilyn Manson, Notorious B.I.G., and even Puccini. The clown who knew that seriousnessÂ in life is bestÂ measured by the good jokes you can tell. Lester Bowie was all that, and many other things besides.
As if the Art Ensemble didn’t cut enough impressive albums in the 1970s, Bowie himself waxed a number of killer sidesÂ during the decade: FastÂ Last!, Rope-A-Dope, and our selection here… The 5th Power.Â Recorded after his group with Julius Hemphill and before the formation of Brass Fantasy, it finds Lester perched – as usual – between trad and avant, serious and sarcastic,Â expansive and tightly coiled.Â And ready to leap in all directions at once.
The esteemed original Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide (the yellow one, edited by John Swenson) awards The 5th Power one of its rare five star ratings. And even goes so far as to cite this quintet with Arthur Blythe and Amina Claudine Myers as “one of the best groups of the 1970s.” That’s a tall order, but the band is certainly one of the great overlooked units of an overlooked period.Â Their music isn’t as eclectic or freewheeling as the ArtÂ Ensemble, but the relatively straight-faced playing is never less than thrilling, oftenÂ brimming withÂ strange, subtle,Â and brilliant asides. They gallop gamely ahead through each tune and every time they approach a fork in the road, theyÂ gladly take it. Â Â
The compact title track storms out of the gate,Â erupting into section where Bowie and Blythe stuff themselves withÂ red hotsÂ and then blow fire at each other. It all sets up a fierceÂ Myers piano solo that manages to sound simultaneously harshly angular and unstoppably fluid. Nice trick. (Anyone out there have any of her 70s and 80s solo work we could borrow?)Â Bowie and Blythe return and begin to fall away from each other, finally leaving some breathing room for the rhythm section. Just enough to add some different textures but not enough to stop everything for a solo. This ain’t that type of tune.
More leisurely and lengthy, “Three in One” takes its time building up a head of steam. This is a road trip where the detours are more compelling than any final destination. The group is reduced to a trio here and they make use of the space. Dig Malachi Favor’s spidery bass and Lester’s gassy mouthpiece malaprops, braying calls, and burring lyricism.Â Philip Wilson’s drumming is more feltÂ than heard, but he gets the job done,Â playing tour guide one moment and bus driver the next.Â Wondering who’s got their eyes on the wheel? That’s your job.