Dawan Muhammad has been a mainstay on the west coast jazz scene for over four decades. From the late 1980’s through the mid 90’s, he worked with drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Da’ood at The World Stage in Los Angeles, a performance gallery for developing young musicians and writers. Muhammad functioned as de facto manager, helping to incubate young groups such as Black/Note and the B Sharp Quartet. Alongside drummer Harold Acey, multi-reedman Dawan also performed weekends at The World stage, in the company of Seasoned veterans like Kevin Toney, and James Leary and “young lions” such as Greg Kirstin and Jesse Murphy. Adopting the name LifeForce, various groups of muscians presented Saturday afternoon concerts followed by workshops featuring Jazz Giants gigging at major venues in the L.A. area, who’d responded to Higgin’s invitation.
LifeForce also participated in recording workshops at LA’s Sonora Studios, shere they laid down the material featured in this CD in two four hour sessions in early August 1992. “They just put microphones in the room and turned on a two track machine,” recounts Muhammad who also notes that the spirit of live recording was unembellished by mixing or overdubbing. “Harold Acey and I were there both days, but one day (pianist) Greg Kirstin and (bassist) Jesse Murphy made it and the next day (pianist) Kevin Toney and (bassist) James Leary made it. It was an opportunity to try some things, so everybody just pulled out what they had and we experimented with whatever felt comfortable. In mastering we alternated tracks between the two rhythm sections.” As it turned out, Kirstin was finishing up a recording session in the same studio with trumpeter Ron Stout and saxophonist James Mahone, so Muhammad wisely recruited both horn players to transform the quartet into a sextet for two of this album’s tracks.
The players presented here also participate in other projects, from Bobby Hutcherson’s rhythm section to quite different realms of R&B, fusion, and acid jazz. Kirstin’s versatility with all types of music has kept him in demand. Murphy is an early call bassist in New York, including extended stints with Vincent Herring and John Scofield. Like Kirstin, Kevin Toney has covered a wide range of musical styles. An original member of The Blackbyrds (organized by Donald Byrd in the early 70’s), Toney has also waxed familiar in smooth jazz and R&B settings. “James Leary is another unsung hero of this music,” says Muhammad about the bassist with whom he’s collaborated since the late 1960’s. “He is a superb musician, who will always have a gig. His innovative approach to music composition and his recordings as a leader and sideman have been overshadowed by his long association with both the Sammy Davis Jr. and Count Basie Orchestras.”
Returning to the ten tracks of ingenuous, handsomely handled jazz before you here, you might consider the music’s source, which seems to reside in an empathetic group consciousness, a unity of purpose and approach which every working musician seeks but doesn’t always find. Consider also the sound of the leader manifest though a virtuosi variety of instruments. On Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” Muhammad’s tenor lines are hip but spare, helping the music speak for itself. Harold Acey follows the leader in a similarly understated mode, as does bassist Jesse Murphy, and, it’s all in a “Blue Noteish” sense of fun. James Leary’s melodically modest compositions (“Over and Over” and “Remember To Smile”) on which he also sustains the bass pulse, are enhanced with lovely arrangements featuring Muhammad’s birdsong flute on the former and sweet soprano sax on the latter. The soprano also directs a good-natured reading of Monk’s “Eronel,” before pianist Kevin Toney ramps up the players for his “Chase,” post-modern in style, but as accessible as it is exciting. In the standard songbook on Matt Dennis’s “Everything Happens to Me,” Muhammad touches his tenor with a human voice, letting the unheard lyrics shine through, soulful and tender. Drummer Acey invokes an affecting incantational solo to introduce his “Ace in the Whole,” and provides artful commentary on the fascinating interchange between Greg Kirstin’s piano and Muhammad’s flute on the latter’s “Gumbo,” (for extra credit, see if you can spot the melodies of “Brownie Speaks,” “Oleo,” “Dexterity” and “C.T.A.” over “rhythm changes, spontaneously added to the stew by the instrumentalist). The team spirit spreads to the horn section on the title track and on Kirstin’s “The Art of End,” expanded to include Ron Stout on trumpet and James Mahone on alto sax alongside the leader’s tenor.
Don’t be surprised if repeated listenings to this album cause you to plumb the source of your own positive energy. That’s what jazz should be doing!
(Jeff Kaliss writes about jazz, world music and other human expressions for Bay Area, national, international print and internet publication outlets).