This atypical music typifies the "old school" free-blowin' free jazz of the times, replete with references. During this period ('74-'79) The Human Arts Ensemble, nominally led by James Marshall, often performed as a "Big Band" of 8 to 12 pieces heavily weighted with horns, drums & percussion. Performance-poetry was a matter of fact & often part of the mix long before it became a fashion & acquired a name. Concerts were usually self-promoted, occasionally with a modicum of institutional support, and media recognition was virtually non-existent. Playing in clubs was rare and always a special event. Amazing how times have changed! In spite of being under the underground, the music scene viewed from the perspective of music itself was a vibrant stew of energy, creativity & personalities. For years playing was an almost daily or nightly affair often at Marshall's crib. The roster was unpredictable and former members were always welcome. Some of those passing through this swinging door went on to a degree of fame if not fortune; most recall an atmosphere that fostered a pure & honest freedom in music making and an abiding reverence for the source of all creativity.
The nine-piece band heard here on Invocation
was a studio date dream team, a gathering of the players "on the scene" in late summer '75 & were collectively the musicians Marshall and Zelenka were playing with in various contexts over the previous year. By this time there were no strangers in town. Arzinia, Luther, Thurman & 'Reece (as he was known then) had a musical association going back to the late '60s and The St. Louis Black Artist Group (BAG)
. And beyond. Everyone had played together in various creative contexts including Marshall's Human Arts Ensemble. Rick Saffron, a regular at informal sessions and among the usual suspects in HAE concerts of the mid '70s had joined with Maurice King & Thurman Thomas in Zelenka's Thunderbolt Quartet
playing some local college concerts and club dates over the previous year.
Jim Miller was hosting his own free-music jams and had already played with most everyone else by the time of this session. Miller, in his early '20s here, is heard as an empathetic and energetic free drummer whose technique was already a powerful asset. Miller went on to a career as a work-horse drummer in the St. Louis club scene playing in a variety of musical situations with jazz singers, R&B & Blues Artists, & rock bands; near-famous, famous, infamous and unknown for 20 years until his untimely death. At one time he was referred to as "The Man Of A Thousand Bands". This session is the only known recorded example of his free playing.
Maurice Malik King was a major contributor to the St. Louis creative music scene. Through the '70s & '80s Malik built a multifaceted reputation first as a member of The St. Louis Black Artist Group, later playing in The Human Arts Ensemble and leading his own various Emerging Forces Ensembles
. These ranged from trios to 8 or 9 musicians and are remembered for their strong line-up of horn players, scorching rhythm sections, and Malik's superb directorial and compositional skills. Later incarnations of this group dealt increasingly with improvisations based on King's written structures. Working extensively with poets & writers, he was a member of Shirley LeFlore’s ensemble Free 'N Concert
; and served as music director of the Creative Arts & Expression Lab
, the African People’s Continuum
, the Black Arts Alliance
and the Warrior Poets
. Known for his powerful alto playing (& a whole lot more), Malik played tenor & soprano saxophones as well.
: Structurally open-ended and guided by the rapport of long association, few things were predetermined. I wanted Malik to handle a major part of the playing on this piece and to take a long opening solo. It was decided that the "rhythm section" would open, the piano entering immediately with a bed of rolling chords followed almost immediately by Malik in the first of a series of specifically designated solos (Malik, Marshall, Thurman, Luther) followed by ensemble playing of unspecified duration & character. We would stop playing when the music ended(.....!) This is pretty much what happens except the order of solos succumbs somewhat to the music. Malik opens on alto firing the other players up with a boiling roister of sound-in-motion followed by the contrasting graceful ice skater entrance of Marshall's lopping horn lines. Marshall's poignant poetics are followed by Thurman's sermon implicating the deep source and the reemergence of Malik screaming work shouts into a transcendent collective uprising. Arzinia's bass is alternately anchoring diverging energies and conversing with the guiding movement of the musical moment. In sync with Miller's solid & omnipresent free-pulse drumming, the bass provides a harmonic anchor throughout and counter-point to the Zelenka-Saffron-Miller free-wheeling pyrotechnics. Ms. Carol is heard adding pure voice as other-worldly instrumental commentary elucidates the invisible syntax. Interspersed gospels of holy fire by Luther T. & Thurman T. move the music in whirlwinds igniting and perfectly preluding Saffrons' passionate piano assaults and ultimately breaking on lyric and delicate shores: The moment is a frozen still point, a silence on which the world turns spiraling into an extended coda featuring some gorgeously lyrical blues-inflected playing by Luther, Thurman, Jim & Malik who re-enters with an uplifting surge as the half hour recording tape runs out and the musicians continue to play until the music ends.
: Recorded earlier that evening. Jim Marshall suggested a short piece built around his playing the "mijwiss"-- a pre-technological double-reed open-hole bamboo instrument, distant near-eastern ancient ancestor (maybe) of the oboe. Marshall would sometimes suggest verbally an image as a starting point, a seed crystal and guide for the seed's evolvement.... On this occasion he said something about "sunset at the oasis". The piece unfolds as Marshall's repetitive lonesome lament provides a foil for Malik's serpentine alto lines soon joined by other voices, a gathering of unnamed mythic birds & beasts around the Oasis to sing down the sun, light fading into silence....
Remembrances of the Present
: Greg Mills was "the other keyboard man on the scene" and here offers a piano voice quite different from Saffron's. Mills brings a jazzy McCoyesque feel to his playing in the melodic dialogue with Marshall's lilting alto abstractions. At the same time, he struts sufficient classical chops to articulate more expressionistic excursions into Cecil Tayloresque vulcanisms during his explosive interactions with percussionist Zelenka and drummer Papa Glenn Wright. Marshall's energetic inventions offer a dynamic symmetry to Mills playing as their conversations build a series of free-form variations. Rob Beckner, usually heard on upright bass, was a regular in HAE events from '76 to '78. Here, on fretless electric bass, his urgent playing works with Papa's rolling drums to create a relentless propelling pulse. Papa, one of the many Human Arts Ensemble members associated with BAG, was already known as a solid jazz/R&B drummer in the St. Louis club scene and has since continued to build his reputation as a percussionist, expanding his arsenal to mallet instruments and pursuing his interest in creative music as an artist, working musician & music educator.
: "A semi-independent city-state in the old Soviet Republic," reads the dictionary....here meaning the ideal "pirate utopia". The Free State. Where the National Anthem is free improv and nobody knows the words. Da!
Accolades for Autonomous Oblast
I find great pleasure in listening to "big bands" playing free jazz, adding sound upon sound upon sound. Very often it does not work though. You need this lucky moment when all instruments are in sync and focused around a central vision. This is one of those albums. It does not have the ambition to create complex interaction, nor does it have the ambition to create clarity in melody and rhythm. It just flows in a quite organic or natural fashion, like waves, or the wind blowing through leaves, or it has something tribal, with a cacophony of pure sound just there to accompany moments of deep emotional value : rites of passage, weddings, funerals. The pleasure is in the spontaneous creation, the deeply felt unity of the musicians playing without boundaries and restrictions, yet fully respectful to each other and to the musical end result. You can describe this end result as twelve musicians soloing at the same time, over/under/through/against each other, but it's rather the opposite : there are no solos, it's just one gigantic spontaneous musical movement, a sound evolving following its own inherent dynamical logic and emotional dynamics, unsteered and unplanned, a wild tidal wave of sound alternated with slow and subdued moments and with musicians joining in to add shades and color, depth and emotional accents. You need great musicians to accomplish that, and that's what this band was, when it recorded this phenomenal piece of music in the mid-70s. The band was considered to be led by saxophonist James Marshall, but in reality it was a loose gathering of like-minded musicians with shifting line-ups depending on availabilities. The first two tracks are pure gold in their uncompromising spiritual adventurousness, the third is more rhythmic, with a more prominent piano and more distinctive soloing, but it remains powerful throughout. Kudos for Jay Zelenka of Freedonia Music for having re-released this gem. It falls in the same category of great free jazz re-issues as "Thing" on Re-release.com or Norman Howard's "Burn, Baby Burn" (I actually heard later that this is not a re-issue : it's a first issue of tapes which had never been used before, so even more appreciation for its release!). It is wild, fierce and yet controlled. Awesome.
-- Free Jazz Blog: Stef Gijssels, August 15, 2008
Early Goodies From Freedonia Music
"An underrated (…ignored?) label that has consistently been releasing electrifying records. Do yourself a favour and check them out. These are serious artists who work outside the disgraceful circles of "officially sanctioned" improvisation, expressing fun, excitement and huge heart.
"After having listened to this abundant hour of dazzling "big band free jazz"" without looking at the cover, and being convinced that it sounded pretty current, I was gobsmacked to learn that the material was instead recorded in 1975 and 1976. The Human Arts Ensemble – a nonet and a quintet in separate takes – was nominally led by reedist Marshall but there's no real boss here. It's just a thick heap of screaming 'n' rumbling instrumental voices enriched by several bizarre contributions (got to dig those bicycle bells). The attentive listener will have some fun in following strategies, seeing where a certain player goes amidst the mayhem, understanding if the phrases are completely off-centre or there are quotes of famous materials… you get the picture. At any rate the music is mainly turbulent, with rare moments of respite. Poor Carol Marshall is heard straining the voice beyond the clangourous mass, her effort admirable and also desperate in a way: this is a hell of a loud din, containing so many factors that it almost becomes a hypnotizing kaleidoscope if played at low volume, believe it or not. The set is dedicated to the memory of saxophonist Maurice Malik King and drummer Jim Miller, both present in the 31-minute marathon "Invocation". If you happen to like the most unruly sections of Centipede's Septober Energy, this might be right up your alley. A straightforwardly unswerving album."
--Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes, February 23, 2011