Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bayeté's World

In 1974, Santana released a sprawling live album, Lotus, recorded in Japan and only available there. Somewhere near the middle of the three album set was a song called Free Angela, credited to Bayeté. The Angela of the title was of course Angela Davis, the civil rights activist who had spent time in jail on murder charges in 1972. Several songs were written about her, including Sweet Black Angel by the Rolling Stones, and Angela by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Now, by the time Santana put out Lotus, Davis had been out of jail for over a year, but a good groove is a good groove and the tune was tailor-made for the guitar and rhythm pyrotechnics of Carlos and crew.

By the time Lotus became more widely available, it's likely few people knew who Bayeté was or where Free Angela had come from. Turns out Bayeté was a name adopted by the pianist Todd Cochran and Free Angela was on his debut album as a leader, Worlds Around The Sun, which came out in 1972. Cochran only made one other album, but even a busy career as a sideman in the worlds of jazz, fusion, rock - he's on Peter Gabriel's first album - and r&b (not to mention being sampled by De La Soul, etc.) failed to keep him prominent enough to maintain Worlds Around The Sun in the catalog. Now thanks to Omnivore Recordings, we have the first CD reissue and can hear the original Free Angela in context.

1972 was the same year Bobby Hutcherson's Head On came out. An expansive classic with touches of fusion and Latin jazz, much of the album was written and arranged by Cochran, then a 19-year old phenom. Hutcherson returned the favor and his sparkling vibes are all over Bayeté's record but never overshadowing Cochran himself. It Ain't, the first track on Worlds Around The Sun, showcases his arranging, with a sweet, swinging woodwind intro reminiscent of Eric Dolphy or Charles Mingus. It also serves to introduce some of the players, moving through muscular solos from Cochran, bassist James Leary and drummer Thabo Vincar. Somewhat strangely for a jazz cut, the song fades out as the theme is being reintroduced, lending a sense of impatience: let's get on with it.

And so they do, with the radically different sound of a funky backbeat, wah-wah driven clavinet and a few choruses of "Free Angela!" For anyone interested in the early days of fusion, it's an intoxicating sound and over all too soon. About two thirds of the way through, the funk recedes and is replaced by a lyrical clavinet riff, quickly superseded by a wistful arrangement led by flutes and wordless vocals. It's a bit of a patchwork affair, but also quietly impressive when you consider the protean young mind behind it all. Njeir follows, coming in softly on vibes, piano and wind instruments. There's beautiful playing by Hadley Caliman (another figure worthy of investigation) on flute, Cochran and Hutcherson. It's questing music, melancholy but also lighter than air.

I'm On It brings the funk back, with crisp drumming, more wah wah and some group vocals. Caliman shines again with a knotty free jazz blast from his tenor sax, but at under 3:00, it's also over all too soon. One could begin to wonder if the classically-trained Cochran was slightly ambivalent about the inherently repetitive nature of groove-based music. It's easy to contrast it with Herbie Hancock's astonishing Sextant from around the same time, where he had no problem filling a whole side of the record with a hard jam called Hornets.

Next up is the true centerpiece of the album, a 12 minute piece called Bayeté, which originally led off side two of Worlds Around The Sun. Over a bed of percussion, Cochran solos on Fender Rhodes at length, exploring the sustained textures of the instrument. Terrific solos from Oscar Brashear (trumpet), Dave Johnson (soprano sax) stretch out the driving track, which is reminiscent of Filles De Kilimanjaro, when Miles Davis was on the cusp of going fully electric. It has much of the same excitement and is worth the price of admission.

Eurus slows things down with some questing winds and exploratory drums. The Rhodes shimmers through it all, creating a sumptuous jazz tone painting. Phoebe is tightly arranged and briskly swinging, Brashear blowing hard, while Leary and Johnson are also given their heads. Cochran is once again on Rhodes, employing a nicely distorted sound and comping with big chords before taking a fleet solo of his own. Good stuff.

The last track is Shine The Knock, another lengthy piece with extended soloing from Cochran and busy rhythm work. His arranging skills keep things interesting with alternating sections and well-deployed contributions from the ensemble. Leary's electric bass is churning, goading everyone on. Brashear dazzles with 16th note runs and loud fanfares, invoking Freddie Hubbard's hard bop. The tempo picks up nearing the 12 minute mark and the urgency feels genuine. Cochrane then brings back the opening theme and moves into a much more satisfying fade than the one on It Ain't.

Though it topped Miles Davis on the Downbeat poll in 1972, Worlds Around The Sun is not an epochal album; it often has the feel of a portfolio: let me show you what I can do. But it is an excellent, engaging listen, one that deserved far better than to become buried treasure for crate diggers. It seemed to herald a major talent and Cochran quickly followed it up later in 1972 with the much more funked-out Seeking Other Beauty, also worthy of reissue. However, that was it for Cochran as a leader and, as successful as he was in the future, it would be hard to be convinced that he lived up to the potential shown on Worlds Around The Sun - although he still has his chopsMuch kudos to Omnivore for bringing the best of Bayeté back into the fold.

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