Thursday, December 19, 2013

Onaje Allan Gumbs' "Blood Life"

An anomalous release in Ronald Shannon Jackson's discography was his 1984 album Pulse, which consisted of drum solos, spoken word pieces by Jackson and others, and a Jackson composition, "Lullabye for Mothers," recorded on solo piano by Onaje Allan Gumbs.

Gumbs, who played keyboards in Jackson's Decoding Society on 1985's Decode Yourself, had a friendship with the monumental composer-drummer dating back to the early 1970's. It was he who introduced Jackson to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism (after Jackson heard Gumbs chanting "Nam myoho renge kyo" during a frenetic drive through Brooklyn), and the two men studied the religion under the tutelage of bassist Buster Williams. Jackson subsequently met his wife Natalie while performing in a trio with Gumbs and Williams at a Nichiren Buddhist convention in Hawaii. In his notes to the 2000 Knitting Factory re-release of Pulse (as Puttin' On Dog), Jackson called Gumbs "my mentor." The keyboardist's variegated career also includes stints with jazzy R&B purveyors Norman Connors and Phyllis Hyman, post-bop trumpeter Woody Shaw, pioneering rapper Kurtis Blow, and free-jazz bass legend Henry Grimes.

In 1985, at the behest of producer David Breskin, Gumbs recorded an album of solo piano renderings of nine melodies composed by Jackson, along with a couple of his own compositions. Since Jackson composed on the flute, Gumbs added harmonies to flesh out the pieces, giving them a lushness and spiritual warmth only hinted at in the notated versions. The master tapes were shelved for 24 years until Gumbs was able to purchase them from Breskin, and now the pianist is releasing them under his own Ejano Music imprint via CD Baby.

Gumbs' interpretations give the listener a new way to hear Jackson's music, and provide a new insight into the composer's melodic gifts. On his last visit to New York, Jackson heard the tapes and told Gumbs, "You have taken something great and made it magnificent." Highlights include the two takes of "Lullabye for Mothers" that bookend the album (subtitled "Good Morning" and "Good Night"); the title track, which unfolds relentlessly (and was the last piece performed at Jackson's final live performance in 2012); the delicately ethereal "Dialogue of Angels;" the gracefully flowing "Lydia" (inspired by a dancer Jackson knew); and "Theme for a Prince," which Jackson recorded on the Decoding Society's 1980 debut Eye On You. Two takes of Gumbs' own "Rising To the Occasion" give an idea of the interpreter's grounding in gospel, blues, and bebop. A fitting tribute, which one hopes will be only the first of more explorations of the Jackson canon by others.


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