Feature/Interview

52 Jazz Tracks for 2021 (11. The Gardens of Harlem, Clifford Thornton and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, 1974)

The eleventh of Jon Turney’s weekly selection (introduced HERE), a memorable excursion into Afro-American history.

Clifford Thornton playing shenai. Image from album cover

Clifford Thornton, multi-instrumentalist, composer, radical intellectual, led the final release credited to the co-operative Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, and it’s a great one. The multiple African percussion that features prominently in the early pieces here energises the music wonderfully. And as the notes made clear, that collection of sounds arises because the whole work explores West African music and how it has travelled “from West to North Africa, the Caribbean, the South Eastern United States, to Harlem”.

He evoked that history by selecting vocal melodies from the territories in question, and orchestrating them. There’s a chant from Recife, a song from Jamaica, a social dance from Dahomey via Ghana, a street vendor’s cry heard in South Carolina – you get the idea. They are fine tunes, orchestrated with great skill, and evocative in their own right. Add some great jazz soloing, and it’s a heady brew.

The 25 strong personnel allows plenty of variations in sound, Thornton himself plays cornet, valve trombone, and has a lengthy feature on shenai, the South Indian double reed instrument. This is world music, I suppose, before that unhelpful word was coined.

I imagine Thornton would have repudiated that term, but it’s hard to be sure. He left the US, where he had a university teaching post, for a job at UNESCO in Geneva and died, in his early fifties, in 1989. There’s little to document the life of someone who was clearly an intellectual and creative force to be reckoned with. But we do have this one finely realised work, which stands with anything recorded in that decade.

There isn’t a handy way to highlight a single track, but the whole thing is on YouTube.

LNKS: More on this recording on Jon’s Bristol Jazz Log
Read Jon’s introduction to the ’52 tracks’ series
Week Ten: For Harry Carney, Charles Mingus

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