The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra: s/t (JCOA 1)

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Jazz Composer’s Orchestra

Don Cherry cornet
Gato Barbieri tenor saxophone
Larry Coryell guitar
Roswell Rudd trombone
Pharoah Sanders tenor saxophone
Cecil Taylor piano
The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra
Michael Mantler
conductor
Recorded on 3M 8-track tape recorders in RCA Victor’s Studio B, New York City
Recording engineer: Paul Goodman
Produced by Michael Mantler

It has been 52 years since the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra dropped its weighty stone into the pond of music history. And yet, its ripples are still rocking the boats of listeners today. Count me among them. Despite having first gotten to know Michael Mantler through his intersections with ECM Records (a personal favorite being The School of Understanding), and having been given a taste of this watershed double LP on Review, I was humbled by the intensity herein. The vital link to that latter compilation is “Preview” (recorded May 8, 1968), which compresses the album’s full magnitude into 3-1/2 minutes via a gut-wrenching solo from Pharoah Sanders on tenor. Over a punctuated ensemble, he gives us much to ponder on the altar of our listening, as if it were the living amalgamation of many deaths before it (if not the dying amalgamation of many lives before it). Not out of any grand level of abstraction or concept but only through a sheer embodiment of execution does it succeed to carry a charge.

While soloists tend to dominate the foreground at any given moment throughout this project, the orchestra itself isn’t something to bat a flaccid eyelash at, either. Sheltering such greats as Steve Lacy, Randy Brecker, Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Andrew Cyrille, Ron Carter, and Eddie Gomez, it blisters to the touch, and perhaps nowhere no more so than on “Communications #8” (recorded January 24, 1968). Hitting us where it counts with a solar flare, it lights the continents of Don Cherry’s cornet and Gato Barbieri’s tenor with killer instinct. Theirs is a power to be reckoned with. Every breath matters. “Communications #9” (recorded May 8, 1968) is an ember by contrast. But Larry Coryell ensures that the air itself is flammable, and that his guitar is the only logical path toward its combustion. Beneath it all, Bley’s piano chops away at the spine to make way for nerve impulses while droning reeds and five bassists level the earth. Coryell twists his strings until they adhere to inner turmoil. “Communications #10” (recorded May 8, 1968) features a rare introduction from Steve Swallow on upright bass, abstract yet flexible, and for that reason alone lends it archival vitality. So begins a morose and strangely unbreakable chain of inward glances. Trombonist Roswell Rudd is the extroverted soloist moving through viscous oceans before reaching a deserted island where, in dialogue with drummer Beaver Harris, he unravels the stuff of fantasy as if it were his only viable companion. The orchestra swoops in until there’s nothing left but smoke to show for their existence.

All of this leads to the massive diptych “Communications #11.” Spanning nearly 34 minutes, it’s another unrelenting communique. Pianist Cecil Taylor solos the you-know-what out of it like someone on fire in frantic in search for water. His interactions with Cyrille’s percussive details is worth the dive in and of itself. If Part 1 is the freefall, then Part 2 illustrates the landing in gruesome detail. Cyrille and Taylor continue their banter, turning starlight knives, each intent on drawing blood. The energy of their flight is sustained so steadfastly as to bring a tear to the eye, only to dry it with a punch in the cheek. This is where insanity goes for respite. Let it keep you sane.

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