CD Review: The Group (Ahmed Abdullah / Marion Brown / Billy Bang / Sirone / Fred Hopkins / Andrew Cyrille ) – Live

The Group – Live
(NoBusiness Records NBCD50. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

The Group was an exciting, all-star band that performed a few dozen times during its existence from May 1986 to November 1987.

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Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah – perhaps best-known as a long-serving member of the Sun Ra Arkestra – was central to the formation of The Group and is responsible for making available its only known recording. The music was captured at the Jazz Center of New York on 13 September 1986 and, considering its source (a cassette tape that had been in a box for a quarter of a century) the reproduction is remarkably good.

A major attraction is the presence of under-represented alto sax legend Marion Brown and violinist Billy Bang (who were also with Sun Ra); The Group is completed by Andrew Cyrille on drums and bassists Fred Hopkins and Sirone. Unlike contemporary co-operatives such as The Leaders, its players retain much of the creative zing associated with their early days in the “loft movement”.

Joann’s Green Satin Dress, by Lawrence “Butch” Morris, is a loping waltz, reminiscent in many ways of the things coming from Henry Threadgill’s band around this time. Its arranger, Bang, bursts through with tremendous élan and swings through a multitude of tremolos, double-stops and a pizzicato section; he is consistently the most impressive musician. Brown, on the other hand, seems to have lost his mojo and is uncharacteristically dull.

After a drum salvo, the altoist quotes Wade in the Water and Nostalgia in Times Square as Charles Mingus’ elegy to Lester Young, Goodbye Porkpie Hat takes shape. Bang delivers a truly breathtaking solo; Sirone and Hopkins also shine, and near the end there’s a free-for-all that includes a fragment of Work Song.

Usually a quintet, the group on this occasion – and indeed on its début four months earlier – is a sextet. Hopkins was drafted in because Sirone was thought to be unavailable. Sirone turned up, and both bassists are used to provide a solid foundation in addition to more outlandish excursions; it’s sometimes frustrating to not know who is doing what.

The shortest and most adventurous piece on the album is Bang’s Shift Below. All three string players have their say, but the focus is squarely on the violin, which swoops and scrapes, twitters and slides. Brown and Abdullah provide background harmony when the theme kicks in towards the conclusion.

There are notable exceptions, but it is rare for Americans grounded in the avant garde to take on Afro-Caribbean and South African styles. La Placita is a calypso by Brown. The altoist is tonally and rhythmically fragile, but pulls together bits of melody, accompanied by a straightforward and gorgeous bass vamp. He and Abdullah – who builds a gleaming, logical solo with a soft, burnished timbre – have their best moments on this selection. It lacks the discipline that might have been required in a studio setting, but benefits from a gentle, unhurried and uninhibited evolution.

Brown – who had an abiding interest in African music – may well have influenced the inclusion of the final piece, the 25-minute Amanpondo. Harmonic development is limited; the compensation is in the township feel, expansive soloing and collective playfulness on the trumpeter’s arrangement of Miriam Makeba’s song. Fulfilling a generally supportive role, Cyrille’s scintillating drumming is prominent throughout the set; he gets a substantial solo to finish.

In the absorbing sleevenotes, Abdullah eloquently describes the New York scene from which The Group emerged. He presents many facts about its short life, and tells captivating stories about its participants. Illustrated with photographs and concert flyers, the essay is too long to include in its entirety in the CD’s booklet, and is completed on-line HERE

After so many years, it is wonderful to have a document of this powerful band tearing through an hour and a quarter of enthralling and diverse jazz.

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