George Braith


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Saxophonist and composer George Braith released five recordings during the 1960s before going silent for a couple of decades. He is well known as an innovator, able to play two saxophones at once -- he was inspired after seeing Roland Kirk in a Philly club -- though he used that technique only when a tune warranted it. Braith's first four albums -- Laughing Soul, Soul Stream, Two Souls in One, Extension (all cut for Blue Note except Laughing Soul) -- wove hard bop and soul-jazz that was ubiquitous for both labels at the time. His final offering for Prestige, 1967's Musart, is a whole other thing. For the first time, Braith was allowed to follow his muse with a plethora of musicians in various combinations, and employ a wide range of sounds and textures, which were captured spectacularly by Rudy Van Gelder. Musically, Musart seamlessly moves from Latin, exotica, and bossa to gently dissonant outside jazz to hard-grooving soul-jazz. The opening "Del's Theme" commences with an exotic, haunting, wordless female backing chorus, a Latin rhythmic pulse set by hand drums and shakers, and Ben Dixon's drum kit; Braith and pianist Jane Getz wind around them modally before his alto digs into a meaty but fluid melody. On "Laura," Braith uses a strich (a straight alto horn sans bell) atop a chorus of percussion and bass, playing a bluesy, straight-ahead melody through African rhythms before Getz solos in bright colors and tones. The intro to "Our Blessings," played to a tango rhythm by electric guitars, organ, electric bass, and Getz's deft right-hand arpeggios, highlights Braith's soulful yet angular strich. And speaking of soul, the brief "Splashes of Love" melds Motown with Bacharach-esque pop in Braith's breezy yet adventurous soprano saxophone improvisation. The crown jewel in this set, however, is the title track. Over nine minutes long, it begins with layers of percussion, a single bass note, and its first overtone. An electric guitar enters, playing the outlines of a chord progression without completing it, and Braith doubles on soprano and alto to create the theme. A flamenco interlude follows on guitar and is dramatized by Getz's piano before the worlds of Latin and African musics, modal and free jazz, all entwine without ever losing focus; moving farther afield and ending in wide-open space. It's a stunner. It's followed by a warm, fluid reading of the standard ballad "Embraceable You," played on fat-sounding, C-melody horn, and it's closed by the funky Latin soul of "Evelyn Anita," with Braith on strich and soprano leading congas, bongos, tambourines, and bass. Musart is his masterpiece; it is one of the most diverse yet refined albums to come out of the '60s, and has few peers even today. Its wholly original, creative imagination and expert execution are equaled only by its perfect balance between refinement and solid grooves.

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