The International Phonograph project (with only two releases, it’s hard to know whether to call it a full-fledged label just yet) is quixotic and paradoxical, but brilliant. The imprint is run by Jonathan Horwich, who’s spent the last 40 years producing and mastering albums and currently also puts together online radio shows which can be heard or downloaded at hydeparkjazz.com. Earlier this year, International Phonograph Inc. put out the first-ever CD edition of Bill Dixon‘s Intents and Purposes. Beautifully remastered from the original tapes, and packaged in a glossy gatefold mini-LP cover that reproduced the original album art, it’s easily one of the best (and most important) reissues of 2011, the joy at its arrival only tempered by the sad fact that Dixon himself didn’t live to see it. Gazing upon such a marvelous and unexpected artifact, the obvious question that occurred to many an out-jazz fan was, What next? So many reissue programs have come and gone—the repackaging of BYG/Actuel discs a few years ago, Universal France’s culling of the America label’s output some time after that, Atavistic’s apparently now-defunct Unheard Music Series…what would Horwich and International Phonograph do for an encore?
Well, now we have our answer. Julius Hemphill‘s Dogon A.D. is a landmark in early ’70s avant-jazz. Originally released on the saxophonist’s own Mbari label in 1972, it was picked up five years later by Arista/Freedom, right around the same time they were tossing bags of money Anthony Braxton‘s way (see the totally-essential-to-a-full-and-rewarding-life Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton box for more details). Hemphill, a saxophonist and member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group, was combining avant-garde blowing with deep funk grooves, albeit in a much less overtly ass-on-the-floor way than, say, Luther Thomas (whose Funky Donkey was released in 1973, and reissued as part of the aforementioned Unheard Music Series in 2001). The opening title track is a 14-minute march with a kind of repeated ostinato played on cello by Abdul Wadud, in place of a bass line. Philip Wilson (a member of both BAG and the Chicago-based AACM) keeps the band rattling along in a steady, but almost threatening manner. Up front, Hemphill (on alto) and Baikida E.J. Carroll (on trumpet) cry out, trading lines like they’re staggering blind through a field, each man seeking out the other. The second piece, “Rites,” is more blaring and less groove-oriented, and the final track on the original album, “The Painter,” is the most abstract of the three. Hemphill plays the flute and occasionally whoops through it; Carroll’s trumpet is muted and scrowly in a Bill Dixon-ish, wet-kitten style, only occasionally erupting into rippling ribbons of open notes; Wilson plays with brushes, never setting up any kind of driving rhythm, choosing instead to skitter around the snare like a mouse trapped in a bag; and Wadud strums the strings of his cello somewhat in the manner of bassist Jimmy Garrison.
Interestingly, this reissue doesn’t limit itself to reproducing the Arista/Freedom vinyl edition, the way Intents and Purposes was a perfect miniature of the original RCA LP. (Side note: I call International Phonograph “paradoxical” because they don’t make vinyl editions of their reissues, only CDs, despite going to exhaustive length to reproduce the vinyl packaging in miniature.) A fourth track has been appended—the 20-minute “Hard Blues,” which was recorded at the same sessions but originally appeared on Hemphill’s 1975 album, ‘Coon Bid’ness. This piece, on which baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett joins the group, has the flavor of a piece by Charles Mingus—it combines the church and the barroom, tight ensemble playing and fierce solos. It’s a terrific addition to the album, its rock-steady groove matching that heard on the title track and bringing the CD to a sort of circular conclusion.
It’s also worth noting that the master tapes must have been in a substantially rougher condition than the Intents and Purposes tapes, as there are ripples and dropouts (minuscule, but noticeable) throughout, and as Horwich states in a liner-note insert, “the last few minutes of ‘Rites’ are missing from the master analog tape. To remedy this omission, the missing section has been digitally copied and spliced from the 1977 vinyl release.” Whatever vinyl version was used is in remarkably pristine condition, as crackle is kept to an absolute minimum. And the reproduction of the Arista/Freedom vinyl art (including liner notes by critic Robert Palmer) is fantastic. The minimal art that adorned the original Mbari edition has been reproduced, too, as an insert. Minor sonic flaws aside, this is a must-own for any fan of jazz’s rougher edges. Basically, if you’re coming to this site on any kind of regular basis, you need to own this album.
UPDATE: Jonathan Horwich emails with comments:
“The master tapes had some dropouts due to the fact that one of the tracks on the original recording machine was intermittent. Hence this dropout phenomenon can be heard if one listens closely.
“Next project is under review right now. And should/may be a bit more mainstream. A few choices present themselves and I’m making the decision next week.”