The Circle with a Hole in the Middle
Rare Vinyl Revisited
Black Artists Group
Unlike the AACM, the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group was a relatively short-lived organization, lasting only from 1968 to ‘72. By the time Muhal Richard Abrams and other first-wave AACM artists left for New York and other points, the Chicago-based organization had a decade’s operations under its belt, enabling a second wave of artists such as Kahil El’ Zabar to assume leadership roles relatively smoothly and sustain the organization. This was not the case with BAG. According to Benjamin Looker’s impressively detailed Point from which creation begins: The Black Artists’ Group of St. Louis (Missouri Historical Society Press; 2004), the organization was already deteriorated by the time practically every BAG musician with any current name recognition left St. Louis.
Nevertheless, BAG members created several important recordings during the organization’s relatively short life span, though not all of them have received their due. While there is now a consensus that Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. (Mbari, 1972; Arista-Freedom, 1977) is a classic, strong albums like the Human Arts Ensemble’s Whispers of Dharma (Universal Justice, it was reissued by Arista-Freedom) simply don’t make the cut in most discussions about creative music in the 1970s. And, a surprising number of enthusiasts don’t even know about In Paris, Aries 1973.
A BAG contingent consisting of trombonist Joseph Bowie, trumpeter Baikida Carroll, saxophonist Oliver Lake, trumpeter Floyd LeFlore and drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw sojourned to Paris in ’72. According to Carroll, bassist Kada Kayan was to be part of the group, but he died of encephalitis before their departure. Despite being members of a collective that had produced few LPs by that time, the BAG musicians instantly found responsive French audiences and worked constantly – performing initially, according to Carroll, as Oliver Lake BAG Ensemble. They were so frequently recorded by ORTF that the musicians no longer remember exactly when or where this concert recording took place. Carroll stayed on the longest, playing and teaching in Paris until ’75. While many of these musicians recorded together on several other occasions, In Paris, Aries 1973 is the only LP featuring this specific line-up.
“Echos” (sic) is a vehicle for Lake, who plays soprano instead of his signature alto. A percussion chorus establishes a loose, unhurried feel. Lake’s sound is noticeably pinched and astringent. More noteworthy are Lake’s sparse austere phrases, which stand in vivid contrast to the raspy-toned voice-like approach that distinguished Heavy Spirits (now a Black Lion CD), recorded less than two years later. For listeners who consider him to be one of the most voltage spike-prone saxophonists of his generation, Lake’s solo is also unusual because of its deliberate pace and the streaming lines he favors when he reaches full force.
As the piece winds down almost to a whisper, there is a sudden jump to Shaw’s “Something to Play On,” a short springy theme that gives way to racing free bop blowing. Bowie, still in his teens, tailgates with abandon, making smart use of New Orleans jazz trombone phrasing. There is an engaging stylistic contrast between the trumpeters. Carroll, who takes the first solo, has more discernable straight-ahead moorings, while LeFlore is darting, making him a good foil for Lake. Among the volleying horns, an unidentified bass player can be heard towards the end of the side. Though half-submerged in the mix, the bassist can obviously play at this level, and responds to Shaw’s flurries with forays into the high register and strummed chords. The bassist turns out to be Carroll, who obtained an instrument during their French residency.
The second side opens with Lake’s “Re-cre-a-tion,” with oddly lilting flute lines initially supported only by cymbals and bells. The staggered entrance of additional horns subverts the ethereal mood with an accumulation of edgier textures and phrases. The piece more closely resembles Lake’s music from later recordings made in New York in its juxtaposition of spaces for free improvisation with condensed ensemble passages. Where the transition from Lake’s piece to the collective “OLCSJBFLBC bag” occurs is anyone’s guess 32 years after the fact. There is a steady build-up of intensity stoked by Shaw. The four horn players go flat out, but avoid trampling over each other or creating a muddy mass of sound. Instead of drawing it out, they reach an apex and cut it off. The crowd goes wild.
Only LeFlore returned to St. Louis, where he still lives. The others landed in New York in time for the mid-decade loft jazz boom. Given the quality of In Paris, Aries 1973, it is clear they arrived ready.