Once Upon A Time in Africa

The John Carter Octet
Black Saint : 1982

JC, clarinet; Bobby Bradford, cornet; Red Callender, tuba; James Newton, flute; Charles Owens, reeds (soprano sax, clarinet, oboe); Roberto Miguel Miranda, bass; William Jeffrey, drums; Luis Peralta, percussion.

Of all the musicians discussed in the context of the 73/90 Jazz Reclamation Project, perhaps none was more deserving of resurrection than altoist and clarinettist John Carter. Certainly, few were provided with more convincing and eloquent support than was Carter, at Steve Smith’s site. The album Dauwhe was the first of a five-album series from Carter, the overall title for which is the somewhat onerous Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. Wrote Smith, “For the boldness of its ambition, the breadth of its accomplishment, the unity of its vision and the unbridled strength of each individual musician’s contribution, ‘Roots and Folklore’ demands to be recognized as one of the greatest achievements in the history of not just jazz, but American music, period.”

Carter has another booster in Gary Giddins, whose essay on Carter, called “American Echoes,” appears in his canonical Visions of Jazz collection. It offers a wonderful review of Carter’s career, a bit on Carter’s running buddies (particularly Bradford, Don Cherry to his Ornette Coleman), and a whole lot on the number four entry in the series, Fields. Giddins, like Smith, indirectly points to one possible reason why Carter’s profile is so lamentably low: “It is as patently silly to label Carter a jazz musician as it is to call every American of color black…. He came out of jazz, but his vision was neither limited nor compromised by it.” In Reagan-era America, during a period of conservative retrenchment in jazz, such eclecticism was the kiss of death, and a guaranteed ticket to Oblivion.

So anyway, the music. With this octet we get a mix of African folk melodies and jazz improv, modern counterpoint and avant textures. Despite Carter’s Fort Worth roots, there are elements of the AACM sound here in the attention to group dynamics and the shifting sonic palette, though with more rhythmic dynamism and drive than is often encountered in larger AACM groups (thinking particularly of the Muhal Abrams big band).

“Dauwhe” begins with a series of indeterminate sounds – wheezes and an echoing drone. The band begins to emerge from these sounds, as a castle slowly appears from the thick mists in any given samurai film. At first the castle seems insignificant, but it’s only as you get closer that you realize how formidable the structure really is.Â

The band unfurls a stately fanfare. We’ve entered the castle courtyard and are being welcomed – or warned; it’s hard to say. The interactions are growing more complex. There are strong hints of palace intrigue, swirling rumors, plots and counterplots, but just when we think we’ve figured out the story. something shifts, another element is added, the main theme subtracted. It’s alluring. You want to find out more. Appropriately for the first song on the album, there is no end, no solid conclusion, just an invitation to explore deeper.

“Flower Maiden” is a lovely ballad; an ode to the women whose dark eyes peek out along the grassy savannah, who kneel in the shadows beside jungle streams, whose delicate footprints line the paths of the deep recesses of the forest. The band coos behind the sighs and swoops of the clarinet. At first this sounds like a pleasant fantasty, a lovely but benign daydream. But there’s something lurking beneath the conjured images of perfurmed gardens and verdant meadows. A troubling twitter of unease that’s woven into the texture of the tune. Maybe it’s the remoteness of these flower maidens – the distance in time between them and the composer who is conjuring their image? Or maybe these women insist on keeping their mysteries to themselves. You can never really know them, only glimpse their outlines from afar.

Giddins again, on Carter: “Jazz fans are luckier than we realize.” If ever a motto could be applied to the 73/90 confab, that is it. If you like what you’ve heard here, you might get lucky yourself, over at the OmniTone store.

$ $ $

Only one post this week. Back to regular strength on Monday.

Category John Carter

6 Responses to Once Upon A Time in Africa

  1. Great blog! Nice selection. Stop by mine sometime.


  2. I was lucky to catch Carter at one of the Mainline colleges outside Philadelphia (Haverford, I think) in the later ’80s. I think the personnel was Fred Hopkins, Andrew Cyrille, Bobby Bradford and Carter. It was an absolutely gorgeous performance. It was startling to find out that Carter had had a collapsed lung for a long time. As Cyrille said to me, “Can you believe he was playing all that with one lung?”


  3. listened to these with great interest last night, and i’m listening again now… my man don preston has spoken very highly of john carter (and, of course, joined carter’s band a couple of albums on from this one) but i’m struggling to think whether i’ve ever actually heard of any of his music before. i think not. of course it was only a matter of time but still, after hearing this i shall definitely make it sth of a priority to hear the whole series :) jc’s clarinet playing is fucking fierce, too, really something to behold…

  4. This is the only album in the series with an all-West Coast line-up. I’ve seen most of these musicians numerous times (including Carter, I’m not sure how many, but the 2 I clearly remember are an octet performance of Castles of Ghana [out of order, for some reason] and a duet concert with Bradford.

    I wanted to say that it seems to me that any perception of this as largely “classical” is mainly a reaction to the chamber music-like instrumentation. Anyway, every one of the wind players here is a heavy blues player.

    I’d also like to give some special props to the great Charles Owens. I did 3 posts in a row about him a while back in my blog, which I’ve disappeared for the sake of my sanity, or maybe as part of the process of losing it; whatever, I’m going to copy and paste them below:

    I hadn’t yet mentioned that I went to the Watts Towers Jazz Festival the weekend before last, but, among other things, it provided a great demonstration of the versatility of sax master Charles Owens, who played utterly sho’ ’nuff blues with Mickey Champion‘s band (the great lady was mysteriously absent, but band member Ray Bailey ably handled the vocals on top of his usual audaciously virtuosic blues guitar), and immediately afterwards did his transcendent Coltrane thing with South Central’s reigning great man, singer Dwight Trible (I’m sorry about the encomiastic raving, but truth is truth – these performers are rightly considered towering figures in this city).

    From Owen’s artistdirect bio:

    A brilliant saxophonist with an adventurous style…He toured with the Buddy Rich Orchestra from 1967-68 and was with Mongo Santarmaria for the following two years. Settling in Los Angeles, Owens became a busy studio musician; he played virtually all the reed instruments, including oboe and English horn. Among his more significant jazz associations since moving to L.A. have been Bobby Bryant, Henry Franklin, Patrice Rushen, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, James Newton, John Carter, Horace Tapscott, the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and his own groups. Owens, who has original sounds on each of his horns, should have been famous in the jazz world a long time ago but thus far he has only led two albums of his own, both cut for Discovery (in 1978 and 1980) and long out of print. ~ Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

    In fact Amazon has a 2004 Charles Owens CD, Eternal Balance (oops, this is apparently by a different tenor player named Charles Owens).

    Here is a (rather antique) audio interview exerpt, together with a brief, thrilling clip of his playing.

    I’ll also mention again Owens’ participation in ambitious composer David Ornette Cherry’s Ensemble for Improvisers, where he plays alongside L.A.’s finest Latin jazz sax player, Justo Almario (as yet this lineup is unrecorded; however here’s an interview with Cherry from just before their first performance), as well as his long association with the ever-humble Art Davis.

    And one final comment: after attending a score or two of events like this over the years, I’m feeling a growing desire for someone to teach me the Electric Slide…
    The L.A. Weekly‘s annual Best of L.A. doorstop came out today, and, from what I’ve read so far, the best “Best” article is Don’t Sell the Soul: The best of Leimert Park, by Greg Burk and Brick Wahl, which ends with some reflections on the house that Higgins built, and a saxophonist who rocked it recently:

    Greg: Sorry I couldnâ??t stick around. World Stage (4344 Degnan Blvd., 323-293-2451) brings back a lot of memories for me â?? shows with Horace Tapscott, Billy Higgins, Jackie Kelso. Henry Grimesâ?? first public show in 30 years was there. And you remember Black/Note, that younger band that came up in the â??90s? Their first album was called 43rd & Degnan.Brick: Black/Noteâ??s original trumpeter, Richard Grant, was playing with Charles Owens at the Stage on our Saturday. Beautiful musician.Greg: And Owens, yeah, incredible wind player â?? used to play with Tapscott a lot.Brick: Inside, itâ??s just a tiny storefront with folding chairs, really, and it was stifling. Nedra Wheeler was squeezing her double bass behind an unused drum kit. Derf Reklaw, up front by his three congas, was tearing the folks up with an outrageous story about some African gig where he was yelled at by the bandleader for not dressing African enough. â??What you mean, man? These clothes are from Senegal! I bought â??em there!â? Owens walked in â?? matching powder-green shirt and slacks and a big white Stetson. Absolutely incongruous; someone cracked wise about the hat. A guitar player, whom I did not know, took one edge of the stage as Owens busied himself taking away that house kit a piece at a time, giving the band some breathing room. A local loony took a seat in back, chortling a little too intensely, and the doorman hushed her â?? for the first of several times. Outside on the street, a trumpeter was blowing loud, flat, cracked notes. Someone went out and shushed him too. Owens was doing mostly Joe Henderson tunes. Reklaw laid out some Elvin Jones rhythms that kicked up the energy â?? certainly got the loony going; she was squirming in her seat and shouting like Moms Mabley on bad acid. In the second set, Owensâ?? â??Shake Your Bootyâ? was genuinely funky; he took his solo from the back of the room, and the whole place seemed filled with the music; the loon was going even more nuts. Owens took his solo outside â?? literally, out onto the sidewalk, playing for all the folks out there â?? came back in, dropped out, and Wheeler took over, laying down a swimmy groove. The encore on Joe Hendersonâ??s â??Jinrikishaâ? was the best, Grant blowing like Freddie Hubbard, Owens filling the air with flurries and screams, Wheeler and Reklaw locked in a monster groove, the guitar player darting around all of them. After most of the folks had wandered out, it still wasnâ??t over. Don Littleton came up, started messing around on the congas, Reklaw picked up his bongos, and suddenly there was a new jam, with Owens playing â??Cherokeeâ? at bop tempo over the manic hand drumming, crazier and crazier till, just like that, it ended. Reklaw, shaking his stinging hands, sat down. Littleton started up again, and Owens jumped in even madder, freer than before. When it stopped, the dozen people remaining burst into applause. Theyâ??d seen the most dangerous jazz created anywhere in L.A. that night.Greg: I wish you hadnâ??t told me that.

    This Saturday Owens is guest conducting the Luckman Jazz Orchestra (normally formerly under the direction of James Newton) in a tribute to Oliver Nelson.

    Update: Fabulous concert! To be honest, I was a little doubtful going in, despite my great admiration for Owens and some of the other musicians involved (the Orchestra’s current lineup includes more names that were unfamiliar to me than did earlier editions), but I think everybody in the diverse audience would agree that it was a blast. Ensemble playing as well as solos were masterful, and it certainly increased my appreciation for Nelson as a composer. Maybe I’ll write more about it later…

    Update the 2nd: the Projects page on Newton’s site explains that his various projects (mostly in Europe – I’m inferring [wrongly – see comments] that it actually is Newton and not the Orchestra’s tuba player who’s in Bavaria composing a work for solo flute, among other things) leave him too busy to continue as director of the LJO, so he is stepping down (I’d link the specific page on Newton’s site and/or copy/paste the quote, but it uses some kind of fancy code that won’t let me do either).

  5. wow, long, eh. ok I’ll stop doing that

  6. No problem, godoggo. It’s just that the number of links in your comment looked like spam to our filter, and it was held, “awaiting moderation,” which we just noticed.

    Anyway, many thanks for the extended overview. Owens is certainly someone we’ll have to check out.