The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | No Business Records

Ahmed Abdullah – trumpet and flugelhorn | Marion Brown – alto saxophone | Billy Bang – violin | Sirone – bass | Fred Hopkins – bass | Andrew Cyrille – drums

Recorded 13th September, 1986 at the Jazz Center of New York, 380 Lafayette Street, NYC. Photographs: Desdemone Bardin, except Sirone by Gérard Rouy.Liner notes: Ahmed Abdullah. Mastered by Arūnas Zujus at MAMAstudios. Booklet layout: Jeff Diperna, tabula rasa design. Design by Oskaras Anosovas. Produced by Danas Mikailionis. Co-producer – Ed Hazell and Valerij Anosov

Tracklist LP: Side A: 1. JOANN’S GREEN SATIN DRESS (Butch Morris, arr. Billy Bang) 2. GOODBYE PORK PIE HAT (Charlie Mingus, arr. Marion Brown) Side B: 1. AMANPONDO (Miriam Makeba, arr. Ahmed Abdullah)

Tracklist CD:  1. Joann’s Green Satin Dress (Butch Morris, arr. Billy Bang) 8’39” 2. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Charlie Mingus, arr. Marion Brown) 18’20” 3. La Placita (Marion Brown) 18’26” 4. Shift Below (Billy Bang) 6’00” 5. Amanpondo (Miriam Makeba, arr. Ahmed Abdullah) 25’16”

The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | no business records

The Group “Live” Booklet – Change and Continuity

Although The Group was ended as a working band, the lives of all its members would continue to intertwine over the years.

For me 1987 ended with the recording of The Solomonic Quintet for Silkheart Records in December. It featured David S. Ware on woodwinds, guitarist Masujaa, bassist Fred Hopkins and the great drummer Charles Moffett. I would work this band, with varying personnel, for nine years (with the exception of Mr. Moffett, who was a constant). Marion, who had become a really brilliant visual artist, gave me a painting that I used for the cover.

1988 was the year I moved back to Brooklyn at 17 North Elliot Place. My relationship with dancer Mickey Davidson had ended and I was a bachelor for the first time in years. I had some different issues I had to deal with. There was trauma attached to ending that relationship which made me very comfortable in going back to the Sun Ra Arkestra, where I didn’t have to organize anything. In fact, I didn’t have to do anything but play my horn, sing those space songs, and follow orders. At that point in my life even with my fourth recording coming out, I was very comfortable being a part of the Sun Ra family again. I could hide out there in plain sight.

My work with the Sun Ra Arkestra from 1988 on was significant. After a point I understood that it wasn’t just hiding out (if I ever was), because I had realized that I was back in the band to learn some profound lessons. I realized that Sun Ra was one of my major teachers—a mentor for life, in fact. I would officially start practicing the Buddhism of Nam myoho renge kyo in 1990 and that would allow me to see things much more clearly. This period of time with Sun Ra would be characterized by long conversations with the master and a more complete understanding of my relationship with him.

At some point in 1988, I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse. The World Music Institute offered me a concert at the Merkin Concert Hall, near Lincoln Center, in June 1988 with both The Group and The Solomonic Quintet. If I wanted to hide, this was obviously not the time. It has to be said that even though there was not any activity happening in terms of The Group, Marion Brown and I had developed a very genuine relationship and friendship. I would go by his apartment and we would rehearse songs together long after the band’s last concert. Of the earlier members of The Group, only Marion and Fred Hopkins were available. We did it with a quartet and asked the great Charli Persip to make it with us. The Solomonic Quintet had changed a little since our recording. Masujaa and Moffett remained, but the sax player was Carlos Ward. For this performance the great Reggie Workman played bass. It was an interesting juxtaposition because Fred Hopkins had played in both ensembles.

Separate Ways

In the 1990s, the founding members of The Group went their own ways. Billy and Sirone, at different times and for different reasons, moved to Berlin, Germany, where they performed together on occasion. Sirone moved because his wife Veronika Nowag- Jones, an actor and a Buddhist, had a home there. Eventually Sirone would also practice the Buddhism of Nam myoho renge kyo. Andrew Cyrille became a founding member of another collective known as Trio 3 featuring Reggie Workman and Oliver Lake. That band is still together today.

In the early 90s Marion Brown moved to a nursing home because of a brain aneurism. He was first placed at a facility in Brooklyn on Avenue D, so I got to see him a couple of times. He was later moved to the Bronx and eventually down to West Hollywood, Florida. That location was not far from a Buddhist cultural center that his old friend saxophonist Benny Maupin frequented. Marion Brown became a Buddhist of Nam myoho renge kyo, too.

In 1991 I would meet my mate for life, Monique Ngozi Nri, while playing with Sun Ra at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. In six months we would marry twice: once in New York, in a civil ceremony on April 17, 1992; and once in the UK, at Taplow Court, the Buddhist Center in Maidenhead, on September 27. Interestingly enough, by some strange quake of fate both of my parents would also leave the planet in 1992, within six months of each other. My mother passed in March while I was in Europe working with Sun Ra and my father left the planet in October. I eulogized him one day and the next day I was on a plane heading for the Leverkrusen Jazz Festival where I would lead The Solomonic Sextet, this time featuring Douglass Ewart on woodwinds, Billy Bang on violin, Masujaa on guitar, Fred Hopkins on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. It was a great performance that we did on German TV.

Sistas’ Place

Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, and in 1997 I began to write a memoir about my relationship with him, Traveling the Spaceways: A Strange Celestial Road (still awaiting a publisher). The great poet Amiri Baraka helped me to identify another great poet, Louis Reyes Rivera, who would help me to complete this assignment. Louis and I worked on this project for four years, from 1997 to 2001, at a café called Sistas’ Place in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. My daughter Tara Abdullah Nri was born on September 12, 2001—the day after 9/11. The people who ran Sistas’ Place were community and political activists whom I had known about for many years before I came there to work with Louis. They were known by various names, some called them the New York 8, others knew them as the Harriet Tubman/Sojourner Truth Collective.

One of the by-products of working with Louis on the book was that he drafted me into his ensemble called the Jazzoets. On the first and third Sundays of every month, we would perform at Sistas’ Place. At the end of one of those Sundays, the leader of the Collective, Viola Plummer, asked me if I would be interested in being the music director for Sistas’ Place. That was 1998. The Brooklyn I moved back to in 1988 was very different from the Brooklyn I had come to when MOBI was in existence. Without MOBI, Brooklyn reverted back to the ’50s. There were no progressive venues to perform at or organizations supporting progressive arts. I had been living in Brooklyn for 10 years and couldn’t, for the life of me, find any music remotely progressive or interesting to me besides what we did with Jazzoetry on those Sundays. I welcomed the idea of programming cutting-edge music in the Bedford Stuyvesant community. Sistas’ Place would be the venue for a reunion of members of the Group in 2010.

In 1999 I did a performance in Washington, DC, with my band called Diaspora (Dispersions of the Sprit of Ra). I was now doing Sun Ra’s music in my performances. At this concert I was re-introduced to Paxton K. Baker, who had produced The Group at Temple University 12 years before. Of course Paxton and I had other interactions because he was also a person who loved and appreciated Sun Ra. At this point in his life, Paxton was the senior vice president of BET On Jazz (later BET Jazz, a cable TV network specializing in jazz). When I told him about Sistas’ Place, he offered to help us out financially in exchange for some publicity. The network needed to be able to get into the very large black community of Brooklyn and Sistas’ Place happened to be located right in the midst of that community. Through Paxton and BET we were able to subsidize operations at Sistas’ Place for many years.

1999 was also the year that the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium (CBJC) planned meetings to help, once again, place the spotlight on Brooklyn as an area of creative expression in the arts. The communal idea of sharing information for survival purposes was as vital in 1999 as it had been in previous decades. Coming some 14 years after MOBI, CBJC re-invented the wheel to a certain extent. The major difference was that in 1999 there were quite a few small venues operating in Brooklyn, most of them in the Bedford Stuyvesant community, that catered to jazz. I became the Sistas’ Place representative and attempted to move the organization in the direction of more progressive music because that’s certainly what we were doing at Sistas’ Place.

The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | no business records

Bang Comes Back

When Billy Bang returned to the States in 2000, I got to play with him, Frank Lowe, and William Parker and a drummer named Abby Rader, at the Knitting Factory. Throughout the time he was in Germany, I would call him just to check in, especially around his birthday. When he came back to the states he came with the serious intention of using his music to come to a better understanding of his Vietnam experience. It was a very courageous act. By bravely looking at the poison of war and turning it into the medicinal force of music, Billy did exactly what is expected of those who are Buddhist, although he never practiced the Buddhism of Nam myoho renge kyo. Billy was quite successful in doing Vietnam: The Aftermath in 2001 and Vietnam: Reflections in 2005. He also went back to Vietnam and worked on a documentary. This is going to be a substantial part of Billy Bang’s legacy.

Billy would be a part of each band I created in the next few years. In 2001 I was offered a position at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, teaching the music and philosophy of Sun Ra. During 2004, I also managed to make a recording of Sun Ra’s music, Traveling the Spaceways. It was originally conceived to be released at the same time as the book but while I found a recording outlet, I had no publisher for the book. I used Billy on violin and some other musicians who had played with Sun Ra like Craig Harris, Radu, and Masujaa, and some who hadn’t, like Miles Griffith, Louis Reyes Rivera, Salim Washington, Alex Harding, Cody Moffett, and Monique Ngozi Nri.

In 2002 I created a band I called Ebonic Tones in which Billy performed. The band also included Alex Harding on baritone saxophone, Alex Blake on bass, and Andrei Strobert on drums. If that instrumentation sounds familiar, it’s because it was. Through my involvement with the CBJC, Ebonic Tones performed at the Up Over Jazz Café, a club run by a friend named Bob Myers. We also recorded an album for TUM Records called Tara’s Song. Billy takes a beautiful solo on the title piece, which was written for my daughter who has been playing violin since she was five. I would imagine Billy Bang’s playing had something to do with that.

Ebonic Tones played another, non-musical, role in Billy’s life. In 2005 Ebonic Tones performed at the International African Arts Festival (IAAF) in Commodore Barry Park, across the street from where Monique and I were raising our family. One of Monique’s longtime friends, Maria Arias, happened to be hanging out with us and after the performance Billy came by and met Maria in our kitchen. They stayed together for the next six years, which were very important years for the both of them. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | no business records

The Group–Redone

The first of our founding members to leave the planet was Sirone, on October 21, 2009. (Fred Hopkins, who was not a founding member, but had played many gigs with The Group, left the planet earlier, on January 7, 1999, at the young age of 52.) Andrew, Billy, and I were supposed to play at Sirone’s memorial at St. Peter’s Church on February 25, 2010. On that night one of the worst blizzards in decades hit the New York area, which prevented both Andrew and Billy from showing up. I actually was able to make it with a trio of Reggie Nicholson and bass player Hilliard Greene (who was in Billy’s last group). It took us nearly two hours to get home from 54th Street and Lexington Avenue to Fort Greene, Brooklyn—a trip that usually takes 20 minutes, tops. Out of the sadness of the memorial, however, a positive emerged: it got me thinking about The Group again.

At the memorial for Sirone, I talked about the band and played one of my compositions, “Eternal Spiraling Spirit,” in his honor. The people seemed to be receptive. Shortly after the event, I started working on a 25th reunion concert with those of us who were still present. As the music director of Sistas’ Place, I work on booking the season to come during the summer months of July and August. This season I wanted to include a slot for the 25th anniversary celebration of The Group with Andrew and Billy. I contacted Andrew and Billy and they were both cool to do something on December 4. We needed a bass player, but rather than replace Fred or Sirone, we agreed to go in a different direction and get Bob Stewart to play that incredible tuba he does. We also sought to add the piano playing of D. D. Jackson. The inclusion of those musicians had the ring of a unique sound and once again we were dealing with people we had played with or had some working relationship with, which was the original approach of the band.

Billy was in a particularly sensitive place. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer that was threatening to move throughout his entire body. From where he was at, he felt we should reach out to Marion Brown to see if we could get him to come up on December 4th. I thought it was an excellent idea, so I called the nursing home in West Hollywood, Florida, where Marion was living. Marion’s son, Djinji, returned my call. He didn’t think Marion would be able to make it because of his condition. However, Djinji, who loved The Group as a teenager and remembered it as one of his favorite bands he had heard his Pops in, would definitely try to make it.

On the morning of October 18, 2010, Djinji called me to say that Marion Brown had left the planet. In a very strange way, given the fact that we had built The Group around him, it was fitting that we should honor his memory if we were to come together for a reunion. Djinji also told me that there was going to be a memorial service for Marion on Sunday, November 28th, at the Buddhist Cultural Center on 15th Street in Manhattan, organized by saxophonist Benny Maupin and bassist Buster Williams, two very prominent and longtime Buddhists and friends of Marion. The event was very beautiful. Many people I had not seen in years, like Hettie Jones, Dorothy White, Jorge Sylvester, Dick Griffin, and Bill Saxton, were there. I met Marion’s daughter, Anais St. John, whom he had often talked about. She has an amazing voice and did a wonderful song in tribute to her dad.

Djinji talked eloquently about his father, mentioning that because he didn’t own a copy of Marion’s memoir, Recollections, he had to get one off Ebay. Marion had published 1,000 copies of this book and very meticulously numbered each copy. Ironically, the one Djinji got was 18, the day Marion left the planet. Interestingly enough I brought my copy of Recollections to the service and when I looked in my copy I saw the number was 377. How uncanny is that? That was the number of the building on East 10 Street I was living in when I first saw Marion swagger down the street, horn case in hand, heading to Benny Maupin’s.

Our concert on December 4 was not only going to be a celebration of our 25th anniversary, but also another memorial tribute to Marion Brown. We were going to rehearse on the day of the event but my conversation with Billy led me to believe that he might not have the strength to even make the concert, let alone a combined rehearsal and performance on the same day. After talking to Andrew about my concerns about Billy, we agreed that it might be a good idea to bring in another person for the front line. We had already added Bob Stewart and D. D. Jackson to the rhythm section, so to balance the band we decided on Bluiett. Three months before, my family had gone down to Washington, DC, to celebrate Bluiett’s 70th year on the planet. It was a great celebration, too! I was cashing in the chips and asking him to help us out. Of course being the kind of person he is, Bluiett showed up and brought some music as well. We called this concert The Group-Redone, because it was.

The concert had been advertised from the beginning of our season at Sistas’ Place, and just like its debut 25 years before, The Group’s debut at Sistas’ Place had created a buzz. On the day of the concert, there wasn’t a vacant seat in the space and some people had to be turned away.

And just like 25 years before, we got a New York Times preview and an Amsterdam News review written by Herb Boyd, who also reviewed the band in 1986! I was very fortunate to have remained in contact with Jerry Greenberg, who along with his son Sebastian, had published Jazz Zooms, a book of Desdemone Bardin’s photographs. Desdemone, who had been introduced to the band by Andrew, had photographed The Group in rehearsal just before the concert heard on this recording, as well as on many other occasions during the two years of our existence. Jerry and Sebastian set up an archival table of photos and posters that helped us all to remember that period more clearly.

The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | no business records

Another Loss

Billy, Andrew, and I were very excited about coming back together again, but Billy had serious life-threatening issues that he had to deal with. We had a concert coming up in March 2011, and Andrew was negotiating with Patricia Parker for a slot at the 16th Vision Festival in June. Would Billy be around to make these gigs? In February, he had a gig with his band in Finland. He felt that he was going to need to really rest for a while after that and deal with the necessary treatments for his illness. He wouldn’t be able to play with us in March, but he was interested in doing the Vision Festival gig—after all, he had done that festival practically every year of its existence.

Since it was doubtful that Billy could make our March concert, I had to think of a possible substitute for him. On the Thanksgiving weekend of Marion’s Buddhist memorial celebration, Monique, Tara, and I went to the Stone on Houston Street and Avenue C to see Charles Burnham leading a chamber jazz string quartet opposite Marshall Allen, Henry Grimes, and Scott Robinson. I knew Charles could play, but I really wanted to hear him as a leader. I was listening to see how he might fit in with the new sound we were working on for The Group. (Andrew didn’t like the “Redone” part of it so we dropped it.) On the basis of what I heard, I later asked Charles to join us for the gig in March. Ironically, Charles Burnham had replaced Billy in the String Trio of New York, 25 years ago.

The Group’s performance on March 5 was a fundraiser for two schools. One was PS 3, a Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant elementary school with a strong arts curriculum that needed support. I was the music teacher there and Tara was a student. The other school was strictly a music school called the Noel Pointer Foundation, where Tara had been taking violin lessons for the last two years. Monique was the president of the PTA at PS 3 and Vice President of the PA at the Noel Pointer Foundation, so we were very much involved in the success of this venture. The fundraiser, which we called Synergy for the Arts, was held at PS 3’s auditorium at 50 Jefferson Avenue. The Group’s personnel was Charles Burnham, Bob Stewart, D. D. Jackson, Andrew Cyrille, and myself. Our music really got to people and we were not playing for an audience that had necessarily come to hear us. The whole event was very successful for both organizations.

We were all very happy to have Charles in The Group, but we couldn’t help wonder whether the performance at Sistas’ Place was going to be Billy’s last appearance with the band. The question was answered very soon: Billy Bang left the planet on April 11, 2011.

In November 2010 Monique’s father Cyril Onuora Nri, who was a chief in the Igbo culture and an engineer, left the planet from Lagos, Nigeria. Due to Christian regulations, he could not be buried until January 2011. Monique, Tara, and I made the journey to Lagos to celebrate his life. In keeping with Igbo culture, as a chief Mr. Nri had to be funeralized and memorialized for four days. There were many other revelations we were treated to during our two-week stay, but that one thing—that great people need more than one day to celebrate their lives after they leave the planet—was an important take-away for me.

Four months later, when Billy left the planet I totally understood the need to celebrate his life in as many situations as possible; he had given us so much during his stay on the planet. Fortunately his mate Maria Arias, who was there through one his most difficult periods, understood this intinctively and therefore allowed for a wake, a funeral, and a memorial to be held in Billy’s honor. At Sistas’ Place I turned my April performance of Diaspora into a memorial for Billy so he would be honored four times, just like an Igbo chief.

The wake for Billy was beautiful and the funeral the next day was a magnificent celebration of his life. Maria organized the proceedings with the grace worthy of Billy’s stature as a great musician. She had asked me to organize the musicians for a recessional using the song “The Mold of Man” from The Fire From Within. The musicians we enlisted included all the trumpeters Billy had used in his most recent bands, including James Zollar, Ted Daniel, Roy Campbell, and me, along with trombonists Dick Griffin and Craig Harris, and saxophonists Bluiett and James Spaulding. Drummer Newman Taylor Baker, who was in Billy’s last band along with pianist Andrew Bemkey and bassist Hillard Greene, had played throughout the program but I also asked him to play on the recessional.

We played out of the church onto 120th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. We must have played for about 20 glorious minutes or more. It was truly an amazing sendoff for a special human being. Besides my band Diaspora’s memorial for Billy at Sistas’ Place, Maria had also planned a memorial some time around what would have been Billy’s 64th year on the planet at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. That event was packed and some great musicians came out and generously gave of their time because we all knew that Billy lived a great life of contribution to humanity.

The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | no business records

Another Beginning

In the weeks leading up to the Vision Festival, there had been much back and forth about whether The Group would close it, as originally planned, or whether we would open it. Ultimately, for me it didn’t matter whether we were hitting on the opening day or closing the festival. It was important that we pay tribute to those members of the band—Billy Bang, Fred Hopkins, Marion Brown, and Sirone—who were no longer with us. It finally turned out that The Group closed the opening night and for the closing night Patricia and William Parker, who had been friends with Billy for years, organized one of the most majestic tributes I had ever seen or been a part of. They put together a tremendously large ensemble to close the festival in Billy’s honor. It was yet another truly magnificent presentation of love, honor, and respect and I felt very proud to have been a part of it.

Will Friedwald’s Wall Street Journal review of The Group’s concert let everyone know that even though we had changed personnel, the concept of the band that had started a quarter of a century before was still going strong. Yet the prize of the evening, and quite possibly the most enjoyable set I’ve ever experienced at Vision, was The Group … Offered as a tribute to two recently fallen heroes of the festival, Billy Bang and Marion Brown, The Group consisted of six longtime associates, including pianist D. D. Jackson, drummer Andrew Cyrille and violinist Charles Burnham filling Mr. Bang’s shoes. Their upbeat, happy sound was a product of Mr. Abdullah’s bright, jubilant trumpet lead (which carried the high end), Bob Stewart’s bass role on tuba and Hamiet Bluiett’s charging, aggressive baritone sax and clarinet. The Group, which made brilliant use of Caribbean rhythms (calypsos and sambas), played nothing but extreme joy.

Andrew and I had both worked diligently to make this band work. Andrew booked the Vision Festival and did an excellent job of taking care of the business in that capacity. I was the spokesperson and announced the compositions on stage. Everyone contributed equally to make a beautiful performance. The review begs the question: How can a band as great as The Group be buried for 25 years? We can also ask this question for the 21st Century: Is it a higher form of reality for an artist to work independently or interdependently? — Ahmed Abdullah, August 2012

The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | no business records


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9 thoughts on “The Group | Ahmed Abdullah | Marion Brown | Billy Bang | Sirone | Fred Hopkins | Andrew Cyrille | Live | No Business Records

  1. Gloriously creative and soulful 1986 live recording from dream team of first generation free jazzers

    A dream team of first generation free jazzers (altoist Marion Brown, bassist Sirone and drummer Andrew Cyrille) and 1970s avant-gardists (violist Billy Bang, trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and bassist Fred Hopkins), The Group left no studio recordings in their two years together, making this 1986 live recording the first evidence of their ‘interdependence’ concept.

    Informed by the skewed abstractions of Ornette Coleman and the pluralism of the Loft era, The Group extend the language of post-bop jazz. A lengthy exploration of Mingus’ immortal ‘Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat’ hears Brown and Abdullah caress the wistful melody over several solo verses, before Bang’s gutsy live-wire fiddling pushes it all out. Brown’s ‘La Placita’ sounds like a Mariachi Albert Ayler, its joyful refrain marching towards freedom, while Abdullah’s open-ended arrangement of Miriam Makeba’s ‘Amanpondo’ builds on the township jazz of Brotherhood of Breath. Tuneful, swinging and thrillingly inventive, this is gloriously creative and soulful music.

  2. Fracking may deserve its bad rap but jazz fans everywhere are digging NoBusiness’s search for tiny pockets of underground black gold. To date, the label has unearthed unavailable or previously unreleased treasures from the likes of Billy Bang, Jemeel Moondoc and William Parker, and they’ve raised another rare beauty here.

    It’s hard to conceive of a blander band name than the Group, or a simpler though accurate album title than Live, but do not be fooled by the generic labeling — this is a brand-name, New York, free-jazz supergroup. Was there a better free jazz rhythm section than bassist Sirone with Andrew Cyrille on drums? Actually, there was, when second bassist Fred Hopkins was added to replace Sirone, who’d announced that he would miss the gig but showed up to play anyway. The front line includes saxophonist Marion Brown — who, aside from his own sublime recordings (check out his Quartet LP, also featuring two bassists), appeared on Coltrane’s Ascension — violinist Bang and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, who also contributes a 26-page historical essay to the CD booklet.

    Their fifth concert was at the Jazz Center of New York in 1986, recorded directly from the sound board only to sit in a shoebox until after Bang’s death in April 2011. The Group acted as a repertory band for the music of others, a rare concept in avant-jazz circles. Thus, in addition to two band compositions, we get one each from Charles Mingus, Miriam Makeba and the recently departed Butch Morris.

    Morris is famous for his conductions but penned some tunes early in his career. His “Joann’s Green Satin Dress” features Bang, his bowing alternating between pretty and pretty ferocious, as the theme repeats cyclically. Bang’s “Shift Below” has everyone chipping in with brief gestures, supporting a rising violin storm. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is given an extended treatment, allowing both Brown and Abdullah to shine. Brown’s own “La Placita” starts with dueling bassists giving way to the catchy theme, brilliantly combining swinging rhythms with free blowing.

    But the highlight of the evening must have been the 25-minute closer, Makeba’s rousing “Amanpondo” (as spelled here, originally titled “Amampondo”). Stripped of vocals, it’s barely recognizable, but the South African lilt is there, as the Group resembles a pared-down Dedication Orchestra.

  3. In music, all-star games generally do pretty well. One thinks of concert recordings like The Quintet at Massey Hall in Toronto, 1953 (later issued on LP by Debut), where bebop masters Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus convened on stage. Or the various outfits billed later as Jazz at the Philharmonic or Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars, bringing notable artists and repertoire together as a surefire shot. In rock music, perhaps the result of bringing together known greats is a little more predictable, but the term ‘supergroup’ still applies, whether one is talking about Cream, Blind Faith, or June of ’44. But not every such all-star lineup is as storied — witness The Group, a band of first-, second-, and third-generation avant-garde jazz musicians who came together for a series of concerts in 1986 and 1987, the results of which went unreleased until Live came out late in 2012 on Lithuania’s No Business Records. It was never the intention for The Group to pass by recorded documentation; rather, as much as the 1980s were a time of increased visibility for jazz and improvising musicians, the home court of New York still pressed conservatism ahead of even the most populist branch of creative music.

    The Group was a cooperative consisting of trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, violinist Billy Bang, alto saxophonist Marion Brown, bassists Sirone and Fred Hopkins, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Brown and Cyrille were the ensemble’s veterans, both having been on the scene since the early-to-mid-60s. Sirone (given name Norris Jones) was a few years younger but also came up in the post-Coltrane avant-garde. Fred Hopkins was a Chicagoan who relocated East alongside a number of his peers in the AACM, while Abdullah and Bang were veterans of the 1970s loft jazz scene. Only Abdullah and Cyrille are still living, but both continue to contribute much to modern music. Circa 1986, all six of these figures were vibrant and crucial voices in the varied landscape of jazz from inside to outside, keeping company with collectives like Old and New Dreams, The Leaders, and the World Saxophone Quartet.

    Live was recorded September 13, 1986 at the Jazz Center of New York in lower Manhattan and consists of five compositions, two by members of The Group and three from the pens of Mingus, Miriam Makeba, and cornetist Butch Morris. Programmatically, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the works of architects Morris and Mingus are placed next to one another. The cornetist’s “Joanne’s Green Satin Dress” sets a gentle calypso lilt against massive, pliant dueling pizzicato basses and Cyrille’s detailed waltzing architecture. Bang’s violin is dervish-like and electric while kaleidoscopically phrased, and Brown’s alto is imbued with a warm, throaty simplicity. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ ode to Lester Young, begins with a “Wade in the Water”-like duet between Brown and Cyrille, a hushed blues oratory that spreads out into Abdullah’s burred vocalizing and plunged wow, spurring his comrades towards incisive soli and a particularly rousing bass duet with Hopkins’ excoriating arco in play.

    Brown’s “La Placita” is a Spanish-tinged tune that first appeared on his ESP-Disk’ LP Why Not? (1966, with Sirone). The tug of two bassists is reminiscent of Ronnie Boykins and Reggie Johnson on “Capricorn Moon,” another fine early Brown recorded work, and in actuality, this piece seems like an amalgam of both tunes. The saxophonist’s tone and phrasing are calmly aged, with Monkish flecks soaring on the ebb of a multi-tiered rhythm section. Cyrille’s unaccompanied solo is an Afro-Cuban drum choir pared down into particulate, matter-of-fact statements. Following the tense string trio of “Shift Below,” Abdullah’s arrangement of Makeba’s “Amanpondo” is a rousing dance of Township and Sufi rhythms, the latter in full bloom under the skittering bow of Billy Bang. Nearly a half-hour in length, “Amanpondo” is epic, groovy, and also terse when it needs to be. Like most of the tunes here, it follows a theme-and-solos structure, rather than collective improvisation, and even when the soloists take the music “out,” the music remains rooted.

    With all the accolades showered on artists like Wynton Marsalis and his acolytes during the 1980s at the expense of “accessible avant-garde” players, it’s no surprise that a somewhat more obscure outfit like The Group remained a collective of musicians’ musicians rather than household names. But it’s clear from Live that free music and the tradition had a lot to say to one another, and that the results could be both complex and breathtakingly powerful. It’s better that we hear The Group a quarter-century late than never.

  4. Very often I have expressed my admiration for the Lithuanian label NoBusiness out there in Europe’s wild east Danas Mikailionis and Valerij Anosov have been doing a marvelous job for this music we all adore. On the one hand they release new music of great bands like Tarfala Trio and The Thing or they support local greats like Liudas Mockunas, on the other hand they try to release legendary, almost forgotten tapes. Especially close to their hearts seems to be the time of the late 1970s and early 80s, which you can see at their releases of Billy Bang’s Survival Ensemble’s Black Man’s Blues, William Parker’s Centering, and Warner/Freeman/Spigner’s Freestyle Band – all lost gems. Another seminal, yet unrecorded, band of this era was The Group.

    Today it seems hard to believe that such a band was not able to get a record deal because with Ahmed Abdullah (tr), Marion Brown (sax), Billy Bang (v), Andrew Cyrille (dr), Sirone and Fred Hopkins (b) we are talking about a supergroup here. But times were changing in the 1980s, which Abdullah points out in his excellent liner notes (the 26 pages were worth the price for the album alone). Ronald Reagan and his neo-liberal economic agenda supported selfishness instead of communality and this was also visible in the jazz scene with the ascent of Wynton Marsalis, who opposed free jazz musicians fiercely (a fact which is bitterly deplored by Abdullah). So the music of The Group is also a reaction to these changes of the basic social conditions.

    It is deeply rooted in jazz tradition, which is audible at the highlight of this album: the band’s version of Charles Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, the bassist’s legendary tribute to the late Lester Young. Their version starts with a funeral march intro by Cyrille and Brown which reminds us why the song was originally written. But at the same time they add another element to this blues, and this is increased when the rest of the band joins in. It seems as if Ornette Coleman was playing this song (interestingly the band’s front line consists of the instruments Coleman plays), you can feel the sadness and the moaning for a lost friend but there is a good deal of anger about revisionism in society as well, especially Bang’s solo and the bass duet are enchanting and full of rage at the same time. The other pieces are Butch Morris’ Joann’s Green Satin Dress, Brown’s La Placita (a band’s favorite), Bang’s Shift Below and Miriam Makeba’s Amanpondo, a track list which reflects the band’s repertoire of outside compositions, standards and their own stuff. Shift Below is almost exclusively a piece for the strings in the band, the others only add touches of color here and there, it is a wonderful track based on a blues riff played by Bang. Abdullah’s arrangement of the Makeba song (which means “my ancestors visit me in my sleep” – if I can rely on a comment on youtube) brings the African roots to New York, it is a very rough and disharmonious version, but it transports optimism as well. Additionally, it is the track with the largest collective playing.

    This is a wonderful record, a true missing link. The liner notes also mention that there is another Abdullah group in the waiting loop – The Melodic Art-Tet. I can hardly wait.

  5. What quirk of fate governs whether or not a band captures the public imagination? A star-studded lineup? A strong set of tunes? Or just the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time? For The Group—a stellar mid-’80s aggregation of New York City avant talent—all these preconditions seemed to be in place, yet still it was unable to garner the recording date which would have cemented its place in the jazz annals. Consequently, after a few thankless years, the members followed other more fruitful paths and the unit became just a little known footnote in the free jazz narrative. Until now.

    As part of the Lithuanian No Business label’s ongoing mission to excavate the more obscure strata of the loft jazz years, this clearly recorded live session from 1986—representing the outfit’s fifth gig—has finally surfaced. While not as illuminating as the staggering Centering (No Business, 2012) collection, by bassist William Parker, this generous, 76-minute set both fills a gap in the discographies of the participants and documents a slice of history.

    And it is an all-star cast, featuring a roster of established luminaries alongside up-and-coming names. First among equals is alto saxophonist Marion Brown, still famous for his appearance on John Coltrane’s seminal Ascension (Impulse!, 1965). Joining him in the front line are the two youngest members, violinist Billy Bang and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. Together they prove a well-balanced triumvirate, heard to great effect in a lovely extemporized coda to a down and dirty rendition of bassist Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” It’s the sort of territory in which the irrepressible Bang excels, sawing with wild abandon to energize all about him. He pulls the same trick on Brown’s Latin-tinged “La Placita,” following the composer’s citrus-sweet alto and Abdullah’s joyous melodic variations, and again, in the final riff-driven “Amanpondo.”

    However, in spite of this edition of the band boasting two of the finest bassists around at the time in Fred Hopkins (from saxophonist Henry Threadgill’s classic Air) and Sirone (from the Revolutionary Ensemble), and being fuelled by the time-keeping of legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille, too many of the cuts seem to chug along without catching fire. It’s telling that the standout is the one which eschews the string of solos approach: Bang’s “Shift Below,” in which his violin consorts in abrasive colloquy with the twin basses before concluding with the written material, embroidered by trumpet and alto.

    While this isn’t the place to look for the best work by any of these men, it’s not possible to find them together anywhere else, and with Bang, Brown, Hopkins and Sirone all deceased, for that alone it should be cherished.

  6. The Group was a smartly aggregated new jazz avant improv outfit of great distinction. After all, it was Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet, Marion Brown, alto, Billy Bang, violin, Sirone, bass, Fred Hopkins, bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Nice. That so many of them have now passed is a warning to those who think they will live forever. Get your projects in order, leave something behind you’ll be proud of.

    This band had/has every reason to be proud of what they were doing live in New York, September 1986. The tapes were running and The Group Live (No Business NBCD 50) is the result, a fine slice of this ensemble in fine form, doing various originals, A Butch Morris (RIP) composition and Mingus’s perennial Pork Pie.

    What is striking is how nicely the group dynamic flowed. It all lays well, relaxed, freely expressive, by all-stars more concerned with playing the music than getting jolts of ego boost. Every one of them were/are more concerned about the music than some sort of cheap aggrandizement. And it shows in the quality of what they did.

    And so you get a goodly set of The Group at its best. The recording is clear, balance good and they are on top of it. What was I doing that night that I couldn’t be there? Who remembers. Thank No Business for getting this out to us. It gives you something any of us would have been glad to leave behind before we headed for the stars and the great beyond!

  7. Les années 1980 virent la disparition des lofts qui, à New York, permettaient aux musiciens de free jazz d’exprimer leurs idées musicales. L’accession au pouvoir de Ronald Reagan coïncida avec la suprématie de Wynton Marsalis : ainsi la décennie serait marquée du double sceau de l’individualisme et de la réaction.

    Aussi certains musiciens américains, héritiers de générations de jazzmen qui n’eurent de cesse de bousculer les formes établies, surent incarner une autre vision du jazz, et peut-être, de l’Amérique. Les années 1980 virent donc s’épanouir de nouvelles fleurs sauvages, en la qualité de groupes coopératifs qui comptaient bien abolir la notion de leader et s’inscrire dans le grand continuum de la musique africaine américaine (se souvenir pour mieux s’affranchir). Ainsi naquirent Old and New Dreams (Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden et Ed Blackwell), Song X (Ornette Coleman et Pat Metheny), The Leaders (Lester Bowie, Chico Freeman, Arthur Blythe, Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee et Don Moye) ou encore The World Saxophone Quartet (David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill et Hamiet Bluiett). Ainsi naquit The Group.

    Derrière ce patronyme humble, débusquer cependant cinq pointures, en d’autres circonstances à la tête de leurs propres formations., et rappeler leurs parcours légendaires : Andrew Cyrille avait battu pour Coleman Hawkins et Cecil Taylor ; Marion Brown soufflé auprès de John Coltrane et Archie Shepp ; on entendit le violon de Billy Bang et la trompette d’Ahmed Abdullah au sein de l’orchestre de Sun Ra ; la contrebasse de Sirone avait accompagné Pharoah Sanders et Charles Gayle. The Group tourna pendant deux années dans la région de New York, en 1986 et 1987, et c’est leur cinquième concert qui est ici documenté. Cette unique trace discographique du quintet est exceptionnelle. Tout d’abord parce que ce soir-là, le 13 septembre 1986 au Jazz Center of New York, le groupe était augmenté d’un second contrebassiste, Fred Hopkins. Ensuite, pour le répertoire interprété. En plus de leur propre matériau (on peut entendre ici une composition de Bang et une de Brown), The Group commença d’embrasser plus large et proposa trois relectures passionnantes de thèmes de Charles Mingus, Butch Morris et Miriam Makeba.

    Aux côtés de la rythmique, les trois instruments sont donc le saxophone alto, la trompette et le violon., soit : tles rois instruments pratiqués par Ornette Coleman. Et s’il fallait chercher une influence, ou plus exactement une parenté, dans la musique jouée par The Group, c’est vers celui-ci qu’il faudrait se tourner. Comme chez le musicien texan, on entend sur ce disque l’amour des mélodies autour desquelles tourner agilement et gaiement, de soudains accès de mélancolie bientôt balayés, l’importance de la pulsation et le dynamitage tranquille des formes. Cette musique incroyablement vivante, la joie communicative de six musiciens au sommet de leur art et les notes de pochettes éclairantes d’Ahmed Abdullah, suscitent une très forte émotion.

  8. The Group – “Live” is yet another volume in the No Business unnamed “vault” series , making available dug up archive recordings that document some of the lost chapters in free-jazz history (Billy Bang’s Survival Unit, William Hooker & Thomas Chapin duo and Thomas Borgmann Trio have already appeared on the blog). It takes tjust a quick look at the names’ list to know that this a heavyweight band. The Group did never got a chance to document their music in a studio which makes this release a true digger’s treasure.

    To name a band “The Group” that’s both modest and bold statement. The main idea was create a true collective, equally an economic choice as artistic statement born from and reactive to the reality of the 80s. This means everyone brings own material for the musicians to play, everyone participates in the promotion efforts and expenses. Everyone shares responsibilities and credits. A true interdependent unit.

    The music played by The Group shows deep appreciation of black music history. Billy Bang’s violin brings always to mind the rural blues feeling and gutsy folk expression. Marion Brown’s bright sax sound is rooted in swing era, he’s responsible for the arrangement of Mingus’ classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” which he introduces with a soulful citation of negro spiritual “Wade in the Water”. The 18-minutes long span allows plenty solo space to all the musicians and they truly are on fire here.

    The sunny “La Placita” penned by Brown, rides the latin/carribean danceable rhythms, with Ahmed’s poignant tumpet’s tone and Mariachi-like bravado spicing up the mix. The cd ends with the 25-minutes long “Amanpondo”, originally composed and sung by Miriam Makeba (arranged for The Group by Ahmed). The song is irresistibly joyful, filling the air with the community feeling of an african chant as all the musicians bring some of their most inspired playing on the album (you can’t be uninspired having Andrew Cyrille, Fred Hopkins and Sirone playing this kind of a fat groove).

    The three long-burners, with the addition of two shorter tracks, fill up tightly the cd space (the NoBusiness folks do remember about their vinyl fanbase but, the single LP edition do not include “La Placita” and “Shift Below” by Billy Bang).

    The music on this cd testifies to the vitality and persistence of free-jazz scene in the 80s and its release honors dozens of other unnamed and undocumented groups of the era. There’s enough sincere passion and heart and energy in this music to top any rock’n’roll gropu in a showbiz.
    Thanks to everyone at NoBusiness for the efforts they put in making this release possible, huge thanks for Ahmed Abdullah who portrays The Group’s history in the extensive and informative liner notes. The documental value of this record is by far outmatched by the quality of the music itself.

  9. Danas Mikailionis of the Lithuanian No Business imprint has made it his business to direct much needed attention to audio artifacts from the Loft jazz and post-Loft era in New York. Under his stewardship, box sets by Jemeel Moondoc and William Parker are now cornerstones of scholarship documenting this vibrant period of jazz history. Live provides another edifying piece of the mosaic by unearthing part of a two-night stand by the enigmatic and egalitarian group at a performance space in the fall of 1986. The individuals behind the intentionally generic stage name reveal the unusual significance of the roster as each member could be considered star in the scene’s firmament in his own right. Violinist Billy Bang shares a frontline with altoist Marion Brown and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, also doubling on flugelhorn. The rhythm section includes both Sirone and Fred Hopkins on basses and Andrew Cyrille handling drums. All-Star becomes an easy assignation once the music starts.

    Sound is surprisingly free of debris though amplification of both Hopkins and Sirone doesn’t always equate with optimal clarity of their contributions. Bang is amplified too, but his lighter strings work as a cleaner conduit for the juice. The set list contains an effective mix of originals by band members and friends along with a classic kindred piece that ends up the highlight of the performance. Butch Morris’ “Joann’s Green Satin Dress” tips to Mingus in its title and contains galvanizing solos by Bang and Brown that are a quick study in contrasts, the former trading in plentiful, gregarious bow strokes while the latter goes a more measured and somber route. That reliable tendency to “go for broke” in nearly every solo was part of Bang’s indelible charm and showmanship though there were critics over the years who opted instead to pillory him with pejoratives like “bombastic” and “overblown”. Whatever one’s mileage, it’s hard to dismiss without ample equivocation the blend of skill and soul Bang brought to his electric instrument.

    Mingus gets a more overt ovation as Brown and Cyrille open an epic arrangement of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ in tandem, the altoist intoning the refrain from of “Wade in the Water”, which soon morphs into the Mingusian theme as the rest of the band enters. Hopkins gets in a few choice moments of rubber band bass wizardry before Abdullah leads with a brass statement riddled with thrilling extended techniques that reach from Bubber Miley to Bill Dixon. Bang follows, raising the bar yet again with a slicing and sawing array of his signature string-rending gesticulations. A nimble bowed to plucked solo from Hopkins rife with spidery cello-register ornamentations, a brief, but engrossing bass duet, and a raucous ensemble finish signify the other major episodes in the piece and the audience goes understandably ecstatic at the end.

    The dancing rhythms of Brown’s Caribbean-colored “La Placita” are more straightforward by design and the piece winds out largely as a blowing vehicle for the altoist who builds a solo with numerous friendly nods to Ornette and Abdullah’s cool-toned flugelhorn, which turns more fevered in the final minutes of his improvisation. Bang and Cyrille close it out, the former with another serrated statement steeped in rapid hummingbird strokes. The violinist’s strings-centric “Shift Below” serves as a densely-packed interstitial piece, priming both band and audience for the expansive closer, South African songstress Miriam Makeba’s “Amanpondo” which builds and breathes over nearly half-an-hour, traversing much of that span on the steam of an insistent and often crazily resilient Township-tinged groove. Hopkins, in particular, has a field day reeling off ricocheting variations on the self-regenerating rhythm with unflagging dexterity.

    Annotation-wise, a fat booklet barely fits within the confines of the jewel case and is bursting with a wealth of anecdotes and reminiscences (some of them pointed) by Abdullah along with photos and flyers. Despite glowing press, a decent string of gigs and a strongly shared commitment to collaboration, the band wasn’t destined to last and broke up after just two years. The music that survives makes that sad fact all the sadder, but the proof of The Group’s greatness is ripe for reconsideration and commendation however belatedly.

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