Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Thursday, 12 January 2012


If, like me, you saw this record in a second hand shop you might have thought "What's this?" But look, the cover tells you all you need to know. Not only does it have the always great Henderson (his Blue Note recordings are simply essential) but it also has such great musicians as Charlie Haden on bass, Michael White on violin and Alice Coltrane on piano, harp, tamboura and harmonium. Joined by Babu Duru Oshun, Ndugu and Kenneth Nash on drums and percussion its a completely killer ensemble.
Recorded in LA in 1973 it doesn't sound quite like anything Henderson had previously recorded or would record again. If anything it is most closely aligned with his work on Alice Coltrane's Ptah the El Daoud recorded three years previously but thankfully without Pharaoh Sanders. Using a array of unusual percussion, the various instruments of Alice Coltrane and some fine playing from Michael White on violin the whole record has a vaguely eastern and spiritual feel to it. It also helps that Henderson's tenor has been given some serious echo, which only highlights the purity of Coltrane's harp work. The whole thing is underpinned by some funky and imaginative bass work from Charlie Haden.  

The set is, as the album title suggests, based on the four elements, fire, air, water and earth. We open with fire which is for the me the best song on the record. Haden's fluid bass and Leon Chancler (Ndugu) open up setting the funky tone. Henderson comes in, heavily echoed, skipping and dancing like tongues of fire. The fire/music becomes hotter as Coltrane starts to vamp on piano and the percussion crackles. White's violin is scratchy and jagged, as though the flames were licking outwards and seeking new fuel to burn. Coltrane comes in on harp which adds a wonderfully cool and calm feel to the hot proceedings. She is, however, just as funky as her band mates. Its a truly wonderful song that I can't get enough of.

After the funky, hot, crackling Fire, Air is to my ears something of a disappointment. I think that Henderson is reaching for John Coltrane but not quite getting there. He plays some short sharp, attacking lines, at times over blowing in a 'sheets of sound'-like manner. His playing is fluid and rapid, constantly moving upwards in the register and he is completely in command, as you would expect. I just don't feel it. To me there is something slightly inauthentic about his playing here.
Once more Haden's work is incredible and the percussion, whether by Nash, Ndugu or Oshun, is also great. If you can push the bass up when listening to this I recommend it. Unfortunately, although the song tries to move and achieve lightness but just doesn't quite take off and is instead somewhat ponderous. What do you think?

Over on the B-side Henderson brings us Water. Opening with Coltrane's tamboura, Henderson plays some eastern sounding licks which are again drenched in echo. It doesn't so much evoke water as a dessert. Slowly, tentatively the rest of the band join in over the drone of the table and underneath Henderson's horn which progressively sounds more and more like a call to prayer. The effect is slightly ominous and I can never listen to it without waiting for the moment of release, which does not come. Despite the echo and eastern feel, Henderson remains funky and warm. His playing snaking and flicking, seemingly exploring a new terrain over the tabla drone. Its an amazing song that draws you into an almost panoramic and exotic world. A seven and half minutes it seems to finish all too quickly.

To closing track, Earth continues in the slow, funky, eastern way of its predecessors. Opening with some fine drumming before Haden's deep insistent bass comes in, Earth seems to be about the solid immovable nature of the world under our feet. Henderson has overdubbed his tenor and he seems to be playing off himself. Meanwhile Coltrane's harmonium touches add to the funky atmosphere. Slowly the band fade out leaving Haden to solo. Coltrane returns on the harp and Henderson plays a gorgeous flute while Nash intones "Time, Time, Time".  Spiritual, funky, deep and uplifting. All in all a really remarkable record.

1 comment:

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