Clifford Thornton

The Gardens of Harlem

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The documentation of avant-garde jazz from any period becomes severely hampered by production insecurities as soon as the subject at hand is large-scale orchestral music. The Jazz Composer's Orchestra of America was founded mostly to try and deal with this ever-present problem, and had created a small but respected catalog by the time this release saw the light of day in the mid-'70s. The orchestra and their related distribution company, New Music Distribution Service, was unfortunately also wallowing in debt, innuendo, and bad vibes by the time this record came out; all the good intentions in the world can't hide the sense that the album's colorful, sturdy gatefold sleeve is hiding more than day-old baked goods, perhaps even shoved into the oven on a day when the cooks were a bit short on certain ingredients. There was something of a struggle getting this project finished and released, a fact documented for posterity quite simply by the 1972 copyright on the performances and 1975 release date on the actual album. In the gap between these two dates, Clifford Thornton remained fully engaged as a highly respected and influential voice in the new improvised music coming out of the black community, particularly if the subject was making use of influences from other world musics. His Gardens of Harlem project, perpetually in the oven or being rehearsed in dribs and drabs, was to be his masterpiece, bringing together Afro-Cuban, Jamaican, Ghanian, Algerian, American blues, and gospel influences as well as a piece based on the cry of a South Carolina fruit vendor. A massive cast was to be involved, including some hot avant-garde jazz soloists and a stage full of percussionists. Slightly more than 50 minutes was eventually released, and the good moments are truly riveting, making one long for the version of this album that might have been created had someone with deeper pockets been around. To the listener who is not used to this kind of jazz, the record may just sound really weird but attractively diverse. Seasoned listeners, on the other hand, will detect the traces of slapdash performances that haven't quite come together. The frustrating part is that the music is really so close to being better than what it is, like an encampment of travelers who have stopped short of an oasis actually within their sight. Because the suite was obviously abbreviated, players such as saxophonist Pat Patrick, who could have made the proceedings that much more interesting by contributing solos, don't get to. There is nothing wrong with the ones who do solo, however, and special attention should be paid to the opening track, featuring the interesting and overlooked trombonist Janice Robinson; the rip-snorting Wadada Leo Smith feature on "Chango Obari"; nice use of Carla Bley's piano talents on "Gospel Ballade"; and the exchanges between George Barrow, Ted Daniels, and Dewey Redman on the final section, "Blues City." Some listeners may find this latter piece to be a favorite track, as it dispenses with most of the avant-garde or world music concepts and just gets down to grooving. There are other followers of Thornton who wish his most ambitious recorded work didn't opt for such an easy ending. Both camps would no doubt agree that it is a shame Thornton was unable to create a larger body of work with this kind of vision.