Recordings

-- Curtis Bonney

Ghostface Killah
Ironman
(Epic Street/ERG/
Sony Music Entertainment)

Despite being as hard to hate as they are to love, Wu-Tang Clan is one of hip hop's most aggressive rap families. Their sonic tenor -- a gritty earful of baleful breaks, hard-boiled beats, brusque rhymes, and vintage-to-obscure kung fu and gangster flick samples -- sounds like nothing else on urban radio (although more and more of urban radio sounds like it).

Three years ago, their debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was designated the SUV (sport utility vehicle) of choice for part-time listeners eager to cross the wasteland separating hip pop from hip hop. And for die-hards committed to rap music and its culture, Enter was a sure-footed step in a new direction for an underground street art stymied by parasites from within and without.

Six albums later (one group and five solos), innovation and adoration continue to follow the Clan around like a pair of groupies. But while the Wu-Tang sound, engineered almost exclusively by Prince Rakeem (the Rza), remains the most "distinct" (used here in the pejorative) in rap, it's beginning to smell like status quo. Like solo albums two through five, Ironman spotlights the rhyme skills of one particular member (Ghostface Killah) and features cameos from other members of the 10-man unit. Or said another way, if you've heard one Wu-Tang record, you've heard them all.

A long album (17 tracks) that feels long, Ghost's debut is rarely playful, always ambitious, and painfully earnest. Kind of like De Palma's Scarface, minus the Hollywood morality play and given a spunkier cast of characters. To be sure, Ghostface Killah is a better than average MC with integrity and intensity to spare. And his rhymes stick to Rza's beats like red beans to sticky rice. But so do Raekwon's and Cappadonna's. And with all that sticking going on, the three of them together seem like a pretty solid package, until you introduce a constant like Method Man into the equation ("Box in Hand"). Suddenly, it becomes obvious that many of the tracks -- "Assassination Day," "Winter Warz," "Motherless Child" -- don't need Ghost to intrigue us.

And while Rza's production alone is reason to take note of the new album, it is also reason for concern. Every single Wu-Tang member save one (Masta Killah) has his own record deal, whether he really needs one or not, and Rza doesn't believe in taking breaks. After producing successful albums for Meth, ODB, Raekwon, the Genius, and Ghostface Killah, you'd think the brother would be ready for a trip to Disneyland, but solo albums from Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, and U-God are slated for release in '97 along with the group's follow-up. Sooner or later, something's got to give. And when it does, the Wu-Tang sound will deteriorate into a parody of itself.

-- Victor Haseman

Muhal Richard Abrams
Young at Heart/Wise in Time

Roscoe Mitchell Sextet
Sound

Joseph Jarman
As If It Were the Seasons

Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre
Forces and Feelings
(Delmark)

Pianist/composer/bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams and his cohorts in Chicago's South Side started the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965. Foremost, the organization provided ostracized jazz players with amenable showcases for their noncommercial works. It also offered free music workshops for the city's poor and endeavored "to stimulate spiritual growth in creative artists."

Present-day guru and wind instrumentalist Joseph Jarman has said that he was "like all the rest of the 'hip' ghetto niggers" before he joined Abrams' Experimental Band. With Abrams he "found something with meaning/reason for doing." In years to come, when the history of this period is reconsidered, Abrams' inestimable role in shaping the performers and philosophies of post-Ornette Coleman jazz will come to the fore.

Out of the quartet of early AACM records recently reissued by Delmark on disc, Abrams' Young at Heart/Wise in Time is by far the most accomplished. This 1969 album features the pianist in an extraordinary half-hour solo where silence and space share equal time with chord clusters, unannounced crescendos, and furious quickness. Abrams' virtuosic grace stands out above all. He evokes boogie-burning Earl Hines and two-fisted Cecil Taylor within the same logical lyricism, always wending his way back to the original theme with an occasional drama that's never cloying. The disc also documents saxophonist Henry Threadgill's monumental recording debut with power players Leo Smith (trumpet), Lester Lashley (bass), and Thurman Barker (percussion).

Roscoe Mitchell's Sound of 1966, the inaugural offering from the AACM and a seminal moment in the jazz evolution, exemplifies the collective's conceptual mission to seek out new and unusual ways to make the instruments sing. The tune "Ornette" is a worthy homage to the man responsible for jump-starting the "free jazz" movement of the time. By using offbeat instrumentation like recorder and harmonica, Mitchell and Lester Bowie demonstrate a visionary use of color on "The Little Suite." The magnum opus, "Sound," presented in two unedited versions on this reissue, underscores the range and vitality of the unaccompanied soloist (an AACM innovation) within the context of extended improvisation.

Joseph Jarman's As If It Were the Seasons of 1968 and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre's Forces and Feelings of 1970 point out the shortcomings of self-consciously "spiritual" music-making and strident, full-ensemble blowing in the inchoate days of free jazz. There are moments: Fred Hopkins' burly bass solos on the McIntyre disc and Jarman's African evocations on fife. But the minimally developed, multihorn blasts on Seasons are superfluous and obnoxious. Same goes for Rita Omolokun's post-gospel hippie vocals ("Wahoooo ...") on McIntyre's "Behold! God's Sunshine!"

Spiritual growth is often an essential factor in the creative musician's maturation. And it's the artist's responsibility to channel the power, lest the "spirited" moments overwhelm his or her judgment.

-- Sam Prestianni

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