In the late 1970s, Gary Bartz's work became quite commercial. But earlier in the decade -- when the alto and soprano saxophonist led his Ntu Troop -- he was more ambitious. Recorded in 1972, Juju Street Songs is among the risk-taking efforts that came from the Ntu Troop. This ambitious LP finds Bartz drawing on a variety of influences -- everything from John Coltrane's modal post-bop to world music to the electric fusion that Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were providing at the time. The term world music, of course, can mean a lot of different things; for the Ntu Troop, it means a strong Middle Eastern/Arabic influence on the moody "Teheran" and more of an Afro-Caribbean outlook on the exuberant "Africans Unite." Bassist Stafford James' "Bertha Baptist," meanwhile, is a jazz-funk gem that drummer Harvey Mason interpreted on his Earthmover LP of 1976. Although very jazz-oriented, Juju Street Songs is well aware of what was happening with R&B in the early 1970s. "I Wanna Be Where You Are" was a hit for Michael Jackson back when the Jacksons were still calling themselves the Jackson Five, but Bartz gives the soul-pop tune a serious makeover and demonstrates that it can work well as instrumental jazz. And Stevie Wonder's "Black Maybe," which features Andy Bey on vocals, lends itself equally well to a jazz interpretation. If you want to hear how much Juju Street Songs differs from the commercial stuff that Bartz offered in the late 1970s, just play "I Wanna Be Where You Are" next to his late 1970s version of L.T.D.'s "Love Ballad" -- while Bartz seriously interprets Michael Jackson's hit, his performance of "Love Ballad" is an uninteresting, overproduced, note-for-note cover. Excellent from start to finish, this LP captures Bartz at the height of his creativity.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson