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Friday, September 9, 2016

William Hooker - Light (The Early Years) (NoBusiness, 2016) ****½

By Martin Schray

In New York, the summer of 1975 was extraordinarily hot and wet. Financially, there was a deficit of around $3 billion and the city faced bankruptcy. Mayor Abraham Beame asked President Ford for help to balance the books, which was refused. He then laid off more than 5,000 policemen, 3,000 garbage men and hundreds of firefighters. As a result, the remaining public workers went on strike, causing a greater stench than usual. In the South Bronx alone there were 5,500 cases of arson in 17 months. But the drug economy was booming: heroin was cheap and there was no shortage of high-quality weed. There was a Do-It-Yourself spirit in the air, the punk scene was born around the legendary CBGBs, and it was the heyday of the loft scene. That was the state of New York when William Hooker played on the dates in 1975 and 1976 which were recorded and assembled for his first album, a double LP … Is Eternal Life, on the first of this 4-CD set.

Hooker was raised in Hartford, Connecticut and during the late Sixties to early Seventies was in California with his wife and son. He jammed with amateur musicians, working on his chops, but his sense of dynamics and form was too elaborate for the people he played with, so he returned to Hartford. Things were no better there. He turned any tune he was given into free jazz, consequently got few jobs, and the Hookers had to leave Connecticut again. This time they went to New York where he tried to break into the loft scene, hoping William’s musical ideas would meet more sympathetic minds, but there were still problems. Sam Rivers, the man behind the legendary RivBea studio, didn’t want him because “a drummer was obliged to put in his times as a sidemen before headlining as a leader“, as Stanley Thomas puts it in the excellent liner notes. However, Hooker wanted to be a leader.

Luckily, he found other spaces to play – public libraries, Columbia University or the famous Kitchen. Although a maverick, there were young firebrands who wanted to play with him, like David Murray and David S. Ware. On “Soy:material/seven“ Hooker plays in a trio with Murray on tenor and Mark Miller on amplified bass. Murray, who was 20 years old and just arrived in New York, had been turning heads at Studio Rivbea and elsewhere. On this track, his debut on record, you can hear his huge tone, already distinctive - brutish yet melodic, focused, and damp with emotion. He was capable of ecstatic free blowing, sizzling with extended techniques. But he could also blow out beautiful Ben Webster-style phrases amongst his gospel blasts and honks. When his brutal sound collides with Hooker’s thunderous playing, it’s clear that two young masters have met. This is the only track with bass - Hooker’s thick style, with its emphasis on tom toms and snare salvos, tends to make the bass superfluous. Possibly why “Passages (anthill)“ is even better: Hooker’s duet with David S. Ware, another rising tenor player, also with one of his first appearances on record. Ware had developed a rich and scalding style, deeply rooted in tradition. His ferocious and spiritual playing challenges Hooker, who responds with roiling hellfire. The result is a track on the verge of madness, in several parts sounding as if the tension was uncontrollable.

In the opening and closing solo performances on the original album it’s apparent that Hooker has found his voice: ultra-fast rolls collide with hefty splashes on cymbals, hollering, energetic outbursts, and low-tuned skins. At times it sounds as if he’s playing corrugated metal sheets, like being sandblasted by a percussion orchestra. Hooker provides space and possibilities for everyone he plays with however, such as Les Goodson and Hasaan Dawkins (saxes, flutes and percussion) on the other recordings from the album, which open CD 2. “Pieces I & II“ is impressive, a wild take-no-prisoners battle between the three, exhausting and relentless. Unfortunately, the sound is poor, with overly reverberant drums which are too forward.

The remainder of CD 2 consists of Hooker’s sophomore album Brighter Lights from 1982 plus one previously unreleased track. In two duos Hooker is joined by Alan Braufman on alto and flute and his longtime colleague, pianist Mark Hennen. Especially on “Patterns I, II & III“ his progress is audible: Hooker uses brushes and swings, such as when Braufman plays flute in the first part. The piece has a subtle, hypnotic energy, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.  In “3&6/Right“, the duo with Mark Hennen, Cecil-Taylor-infused supersonic runs, clusters and rough riffs on piano meet the “old“ muscular Hooker - pure energy playing. The pity is that the piece fades out abruptly.

The previously unreleased recording which closes CD 2 is “Present Happiness“, a trio with Jemeel Moondoc on alto, Hasaan Dawkins on tenor, and an uncredited trumpeter. Compared to the other tracks on the first two CDs, there is obviously notated material. It is based on a four-note saxophone riff which holds the piece together. Hooker’s dynamic rolls and yells help project the solos, especially the trumpet. Classic free jazz at a very high level.

CDs 3 and 4 present previously unreleased material from 1988 and 1989. The first disc is a trio with trumpeter Roy Campbell and tenor saxophonist Booker T. Williams, the second another trio with Lewis Barnes on trumpet and Richard Keene on soprano, alto, tenor and flute. The music easily matches the older material, especially the hour-long performance with Campbell and Williams. Hooker steers the music with his drums operating on the same plane as trumpet and reeds. Hooker’s established himself in the tradition of Art Blakey and Max Roach. The duet parts are exceptional: Campbell’s light trumpet, sometimes bathed in classic blues, buzzes like an insect around Hooker’s African grooves, Williams’ sax tries to match Hooker’s high-octane drumming. Trumpet and sax throw in unison parts, boosted by the extensive use of cymbals. In the last part, there’s even a bebop riff, but Hooker doesn’t want go there and puts a stop to it.

The final disc contains another previously unreleased live session with further sympathetic playing. Barnes’ trumpet and Keene’s saxophones share an empathic timbre which is echoed by Hooker's explosions on “Contrast (With A Feeling)“. Rounding up the disc and bringing the collection full circle, "Continuity of Unfoldment" is another solo track, which also includes some great grooves. There’s s a spoken part by Hooker, foreshadowing the direction in which his interests would move. After these recordings Hooker often worked with musicians from other genres, which guaranteed him more attention outside the free jazz community. In the 1990s he collaborated with rock and avant-garde players such as Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, DJ Spooky and Elliott Sharp and he also included poetry and dance in his music.

Today, the Lithuanian NoBusiness label has become something of a second home for Hooker. Three albums since 2010: the double LP Earth’s Orbit with Darius Jones, Crossing Points, an archival recording of a 1992 duo with the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin; and Live At Vilnius Jazz Festival with saxophonist Liudas Mockūnas. Light: The Early Years 1975 - 1989 isn’t just a tribute to Hooker’s early work, but also puts him on a level with saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and bassist William Parker, whose rare and unreleased recordings were also released by NoBusiness in box sets, with first-rate booklets.

You can listen to some snippets here http://nobusinessrecords.com/NBCD82-85.php, and it is also available through the Downtown Music Gallery.

3 comments:

MJG said...

An informative review overall. Hooker's someone I need to investigate more I think - maybe not starting with this set though. Nice to see reference to Booker T. Williams. I'm off to play his "Go Tell IT To The Mountain" LP right now.

Lee said...

Great review, Martin!

William Hooker said...

Martin...I am glad you REALLY listened.

WH................................