Black Renaissance - Body, Mind, & Spirit (2002)Released on Luv 'n' Haight
Added Sunday, January 31, 2010
Like all grails of record collecting, Harry Whittaker’s “Black Renaissance” has built a reputation based on obscurity and quality. Recorded on Martin Luther King Day in 1976, it was only released in a terrifying small edition by a diminutive Japanese label. The album was so poorly-distributed in the US, Whittaker himself jests, “I’ve told enough people about it over the years! Now they can actually hear it”. Whittaker wasn’t even paid for the album, making this its first legitimate release. The mere roster is guaranteed to get the rare groove collectors salivating: Buster Williams mans the bass, Billy Hart and Mtume bring the percussion, and Woody Shaw takes trumpet. Though Whittaker was Roy Ayers’ keyboard player, this album is not fusion in the disco/funk sense of “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” (also released in 76). Instead of being on the smooth and overproduced jazz tip, it swims in much more raw and spiritual waters. In this sense, its release date is a little deceptive, for it sounds more like it belongs in the earlier half of the decade than the latter.
If you are fond of the Strata-east label or the sprawling modal songs of Alice Coltrane, you’re in for a treat, because all hype of rarity aside, the album is a genuine soul-jazz stunner. Its two long, powerful compositions meander, swell, and fade away only to return stronger, making it hard to believe that they were recorded in one take per track with no editing or effects. With the range of instruments used, one is reminded of the unorthodox, experimental jazz such as the Human Arts Ensemble. But there’s a stronger presence here, giving stabilization where similarly large groups like BAG or AACM became too unwieldy and unfocused. Whittaker’s piano is this anchor: Soulful, spearheading this transportive journey, intermingling with hand percussion and particularly strong solos by Shaw and Azer Lawrence. The group overall also has an exceptional intuition for the ebb and flow that makes listening to this music interesting, as well as a blistering enthusiasm and exceptionally diverse sound that was not often found then, and even more rarely found now.
“Funk” isn’t the best description for this album, and beat junkies may be disappointed at the lack of 4/4 drum breaks. But “Black Renaissance” rises above these concerns with its afro-centric message. Still, they will no doubt be satiated by the strong 6/8 drum backing of “Magic Ritual”, which is more blistering and raw than the spiritually focused title track. Spoken word poetry and dashes of singing deepens the mix with a black power undercurrent, though sometimes at the expense of sounding as dated as the bongo drums and beat culture of the Last Poets. Ubiquity’s claims of “Black Renaissance” as “one of the earliest examples of rap on LP” are truly strained, given the relatively late date, but mostly these interjections work well within the fluid structure of the songs. Clusters of vocals follow the lead of saxophone and piano, but never take center stage as much as Gary Bartz’s rather forthright crooning on his Harlem Bush music LPs.
With their usual perception, Ubiquity has managed to find yet another fantastic album to add to their fine catalog of repressings. Open up the windows of your mind to experience a fine vintage serving of hope that’s been brewing for almost 30 years, the renaissance that nearly remained virtually unheard!