Warren Smith

Dragon Dave Meets Prince Black Knight from the Darkside of the Moon

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This evocatively titled album is a bizarre curio from the avant-jazz archives that would likely have been lost if not for the intrepid curatorial work of the Porter label. Percussionist Warren Smith released Dragon Dave himself in 1988, just on cassette, pretty much guaranteeing its eventual -- if not immediate -- obscurity, but the 2011 CD reissue offers a chance for the many who missed the album the first time around to soak up its strange pleasures. True to its time, Dragon Dave is a concept album about the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the escalating arms race, etc. Dragon Dave and Prince Black Knight are seemingly meant to represent the two warring nations in this piece, which combines jazz with spoken word narration. If not for the liner notes, however, it would be tough to tell exactly what the theme was meant to be, as the mostly improvised spoken contributions from various bandmembers are frequently obscured by the loose-limbed percussive clatter of Smith and drummer Kenyatte Abdur-Rahman, and the "narrators," who often talk over each other as well. Fortunately, no successful concept album ever stood or fell on the strength or weakness of its actual concept; in the end, it's always the music that makes it, and that remains the case here. Smith surrounds himself with an outsized ensemble that provides a kaleidoscope of tonal colors in and around the spoken sections, and the music ranges from open-ended free jazz improv to swinging, subtle bop, bluesy moans, and parade-like tunes. The overall effect is somewhere between the Sun Ra Arkestra at their loosest, and early Art Ensemble of Chicago. And while Smith made his home in New York City, he did hail from Chicago, so maybe he was endowed early on with some of the same off-kilter mojo that powered the Art Ensemble's left-field excursions. The whole thing makes for a wild ride, but by avant-jazz standards it's by no means inaccessible: it's frequently tune-based, and even the most anarchic moments feel more like some children's theater workshop gone awry than an art experiment.

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