Winter Park, FL's Porter Records is the imprint that reintroduced America to Finnish jazz great Heikki Sarmanto. The label does it again with this gorgeous deluxe reissue of Byard Lancaster's long-gone classic Live at Macalester College, which was originally released on his tiny Dogtown label in 1972. This set is making its first appearance CD and contains an extra 25 minutes of music recorded in Boston in 1973 by the J.R. Mitchell Experimental Unit. The late Mitchell was a drummer and educator at various institutions, including Temple University. He and Lancaster had been close friends and collaborators since the 1950s; he is the drummer on all the music here. This is an incredible document of post-Coltrane free jazz that contains music from three performances with three different bands over three years. The opener, "1324," was recorded in Boston in 1970; it features Lancaster on soprano sax and trumpet (!), Mitchell, upright bassistCalvin Hill, electric bassist Paul Morrison, and conguero Lester Lumley. It's a 16-minute workout where Lancaster uses the same visionary improvisational abilities he displayed with Sunny Murray in 1966, but developed to an instinctual level. His soloing is pure snaky delight, moving through Near and Far Eastern scales, modal jazz, and free blowing. Mitchell's drumming flows like lava, offering harsh rim-shot accents, rolling tom-toms, and chant-like bass drum steadiness, allowing Lancaster and both bassists an open center for interplay.
The Macalster College performance from 1971 features Lancaster and Mitchell with pianist Sid Simmons and bassist Jerome Hunter; the gig comprises the next three selections. Given the concert setting, the recording quality isn't quite pristine, but it's fine. The set begins with the brief and haunting ballad "Last Summer," with Lancaster playing flute amid bowed basslines and taut, whispering snare drums. Simmons uses a painterly approach on the fringes. This is message music, where an expressionistic spirituality is articulated modally as the deep-listening collective comes to a multivalent thought. This breaks loose when Mitchell's drum solo introduces "War World," a six-plus-minute improvisation. Mitchell's playing here is dynamite: he charges the kit and then tames it, making it dance before the rest of the band enters. Lancaster's tenor jumps in like a frenetic opponent -- he pushes against those crystalline yet ever-insistent flurries of snare, cymbals, and double toms. Hunter doesn't enter until two-thirds of the way through (little to no piano here) when the battle between sax and drums is at critical mass. The deep bowed textures of his bass add warmth and depth to the fury; he is the bridge, finding a locking step where the trio becomes one. The set ends with the ten-minute "Live at Macalester," a wildly swinging modal number that weaves free improv to Eastern harmonies and soul-jazz. Check Simmons' beautiful large chords against that bowed upright and the interplay between saxophone and drums. It's a knockout. The bonus material has Hill in the bass chair, with an unknown pianist and two other saxophonists and an electric guitarist -- all unknown. These two cuts, "World in Me" and "Thought," are among the most compelling live statements in Lancaster's catalog. In both the former and the latter, the attention to detail in the composed frames is simply stunning, as is the taut yet dramatic way they move toward group improv, both as musical communication and inspiration. This release includes a terrific liner essay by Lancaster and rare photos as well. This is a triumphant date; thanks to Porter for unearthing such gems and resurrecting them on CD.