Human Arts Ensemble (james Marshall)

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 and Oasis 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. Invocation: 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. Oasis: 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. Autonomous Oblast: “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! from

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