In music, all-star games generally do pretty well. One thinks of concert recordings like The Quintet at Massey Hall in Toronto, 1953 (later issued on LP by Debut), where bebop masters Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus convened on stage. Or the various outfits billed later as Jazz at the Philharmonic or Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars, bringing notable artists and repertoire together as a surefire shot. In rock music, perhaps the result of bringing together known greats is a little more predictable, but the term ‘supergroup’ still applies, whether one is talking about Cream, Blind Faith, or June of ’44. But not every such all-star lineup is as storied — witness The Group, a band of first-, second-, and third-generation avant-garde jazz musicians who came together for a series of concerts in 1986 and 1987, the results of which went unreleased until Live came out late in 2012 on Lithuania’s No Business Records. It was never the intention for The Group to pass by recorded documentation; rather, as much as the 1980s were a time of increased visibility for jazz and improvising musicians, the home court of New York still pressed conservatism ahead of even the most populist branch of creative music.
The Group was a cooperative consisting of trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, violinist Billy Bang, alto saxophonist Marion Brown, bassists Sirone and Fred Hopkins, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Brown and Cyrille were the ensemble’s veterans, both having been on the scene since the early-to-mid-60s. Sirone (given name Norris Jones) was a few years younger but also came up in the post-Coltrane avant-garde. Fred Hopkins was a Chicagoan who relocated East alongside a number of his peers in the AACM, while Abdullah and Bang were veterans of the 1970s loft jazz scene. Only Abdullah and Cyrille are still living, but both continue to contribute much to modern music. Circa 1986, all six of these figures were vibrant and crucial voices in the varied landscape of jazz from inside to outside, keeping company with collectives like Old and New Dreams, The Leaders, and the World Saxophone Quartet.
Live was recorded September 13, 1986 at the Jazz Center of New York in lower Manhattan and consists of five compositions, two by members of The Group and three from the pens of Mingus, Miriam Makeba, and cornetist Butch Morris. Programmatically, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the works of architects Morris and Mingus are placed next to one another. The cornetist’s “Joanne’s Green Satin Dress” sets a gentle calypso lilt against massive, pliant dueling pizzicato basses and Cyrille’s detailed waltzing architecture. Bang’s violin is dervish-like and electric while kaleidoscopically phrased, and Brown’s alto is imbued with a warm, throaty simplicity. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ ode to Lester Young, begins with a “Wade in the Water”-like duet between Brown and Cyrille, a hushed blues oratory that spreads out into Abdullah’s burred vocalizing and plunged wow, spurring his comrades towards incisive soli and a particularly rousing bass duet with Hopkins’ excoriating arco in play.
Brown’s “La Placita” is a Spanish-tinged tune that first appeared on his ESP-Disk’ LP Why Not? (1966, with Sirone). The tug of two bassists is reminiscent of Ronnie Boykins and Reggie Johnson on “Capricorn Moon,” another fine early Brown recorded work, and in actuality, this piece seems like an amalgam of both tunes. The saxophonist’s tone and phrasing are calmly aged, with Monkish flecks soaring on the ebb of a multi-tiered rhythm section. Cyrille’s unaccompanied solo is an Afro-Cuban drum choir pared down into particulate, matter-of-fact statements. Following the tense string trio of “Shift Below,” Abdullah’s arrangement of Makeba’s “Amanpondo” is a rousing dance of Township and Sufi rhythms, the latter in full bloom under the skittering bow of Billy Bang. Nearly a half-hour in length, “Amanpondo” is epic, groovy, and also terse when it needs to be. Like most of the tunes here, it follows a theme-and-solos structure, rather than collective improvisation, and even when the soloists take the music “out,” the music remains rooted.
With all the accolades showered on artists like Wynton Marsalis and his acolytes during the 1980s at the expense of “accessible avant-garde” players, it’s no surprise that a somewhat more obscure outfit like The Group remained a collective of musicians’ musicians rather than household names. But it’s clear from Live that free music and the tradition had a lot to say to one another, and that the results could be both complex and breathtakingly powerful. It’s better that we hear The Group a quarter-century late than never.