In 2004, His Name Is Alive played a show at the University of Michigan Art Museum. That gig, intended as a one-off, was a tribute to vanguard saxophone great Marion Brown. The show featured an extended edition of HNIA, it was performed beautifully, and it was recorded. Warn Defever was pleased enough with the show itself that he decided to record an album of this material. Three of the eight selections on Sweet Earth Flower are taken from that 2004 gig, the rest are studio cuts. Brown came up during the free jazz explosion and recorded for Fontana, ESP, ECM, Impulse, Freedom, Improvising Artists, and Baystate, to name a few. For health reasons, he has recorded only sporadically since about 1990, and hasn't recorded an album under his own name since 1992, though he has been a guest with son Djinji Brown, and with his old friend Harold Budd. Brown's contribution to the vanguard jazz literature of the '60s and '70s is obscure but invaluable and is highlighted to great effect here. Brown, who could do the free improvisation thing as well as anyone (and did, as his ESP and Freedom records attest), was also given -- particularly after 1970 -- to more modal and melodic forms of improvisation and more structured composition. Unfortunately, few of the post-'70s recordings are available, and none of them in the United States. HNIA showcases much of the music from that period -- ignored even by all but the most ardent post-'60s jazz fans -- here with excellent results. Elliot Bergman and Justin Walter of Nomo are in the house, playing saxophones and trumpet, respectively (Bergman plays some Rhodes too), and handling the lion's share of the soloing. While they may be the obvious shining stars of this set, it is actually pianist Erik Hall who shines like an exploding star. The structure of Brown's tunes and even his solos are based on circular rhythm, where phrase, modality, and harmonics all are based on the science of a returning rhythmic place to bring the listener back into no matter how far she may travel. Hall, who plays Wurlitzer electric piano, is responsible for helping to create the hypnotic vibe, the steady stream and flow of harmonic ideas that give Bergman, Walter, and saxophonist Michael Herbst their flights of fancy. His playing is subtle, rooted in the structure and form, but also in pulse. He creates all the middle space that allows the rhythm section to be more fluid, though they don't stray too far from the home fires either. Defever, who plays guitar and piano here, is an utterly painterly guitarist, whether he's playing wonderfully warm reverbed chords and vamps, or soloing.
The album is bookended with two different readings of "Sweet Earth Flying" from the 1974 album of the same name -- one studio, one live -- in that order. The skeletal chords, hand bells, and sparse percussion that follow the electric piano into the tune's unfolding in the opening jaunt are mysterious, not unlike Harold Budd's own ambient work, but ideas develop and move the tune toward more spacious terrain via Walter's trumpet. It wanders and meanders haltingly until it melts into the title cut from 1966's Juba-Lee. The beautiful upright bass work from Jamie Saltzman creates a loping kind of tension that unfolds moment by moment as the body of the tune emerges from a slow drone to a louder one filled with shimmering cymbals, and solos by Bergman and Walter, before it whispers out again. Defever's wah wah electric guitar introduces the live version of "Capricorn Moon," creating a well-established swampy groove before the horns enter. Over 13 minutes long, the tune unveils itself as a terrain of polyrhythmic interplay on virtually all instruments. The steadily shifting call-and-response between Defever, the percussionists, and the drummers is beautifully well-executed and the saxophone solo drips with spiritual soul. There are also two versions of "Geechee Reflections," from the 1973 album of the same name, both live and studio. Drums, drums, and more drums set the tune forth as an offering to the listener on the live read. It beckons, insists, cajoles, and demands the attention of body and mind, and is played with enough real passion to create a new interior space inside the listener. "Bismillahi 'Rrahmani 'Rrahim," made its original appearance on Vista in 1975, and then a subsequent one on Harold Budd's Pavilion of Dreams album in 1978 (on which Brown played the solo) from Brian Eno's Obscure imprint. The halting, wispy tone of the number is treated elegantly here with Hall's Wurlitzer work finding the same depth as Paul Bley's did on the original, and the same textural ambience of Budd's version. When Bergman enters to play the melody and Defever's controlled feedback winds around him, the effect is awe-inspiring. "November Cotton Flower" showcases the true worth of Brown's lyricism, which, outside of the emerging jazz-funk crowd's revelry in its soulful origins, did not exist in free jazz except -- in a very different way -- for Ornette Coleman's work. This is far more mysterious music, full of shadows and ostinato shapes that suggest more form than there is, but it never strays far enough outside it to challenge the emergent if impressionistic melodicism of the tune's body. As the record winds to a close with the slightly longer live version of "Sweet Earth Flying," the band's complete gift is unveiled: Brown's music translates to the modern era seamlessly when treated with this kind of interpretive gift. Moving inside and outside the contrapuntal dialogue between Walter and Bergman is a four-note pattern from Defever on electric guitar hovering in the background almost nervously, though the horns play languidly and sensually in the top frame dressed in short percussive adornments. Dynamic range becomes fluid, straying from middling tension to nearly invisible release, creating a space for the truly poetic in Brown's music.
Sweet Earth Flower is one of those rare moments when a restless talent like Defever, whose musical interests are all over the map (and some of his recordings have suffered for that, too) can focus his vision on something outside the indie rock comfort zone and pull it off authentically. This is jazz, to be sure, but it's unlike jazz as well, taking into itself the full measure of Brown's own ambition to make a universal, reflective, meditative music that encompassed many traditions and notions of aesthetic evolution, from ancient folk traditions where stories are revealed to a future where space and quiet would walk hand in hand with something more chaotic and undefined. Under Defever's direction, His Name Is Alive has given us the full panorama of that vision and done it with elegance, grace, and spiritual toughness not normally associated with rock.