The Funkiest Band You Never Heard

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If 32 Jazz Records hadn't purchased the Muse Records catalog, 98 percent of the world's jazz aficionados would still be unaware of Catalyst. This two-disc compilation features the band's four albums in their entirety: Perception, Catalyst (recorded on Cobblestone), Unity, and A Tear and a Smile, nearly 140 minutes of jazz recorded from 1972-1975. The title, which depicts a funk band, is misleading and the only miscue. Catalyst blends soul, jazz, avant-garde, rock, and Eastern influences for a super-fusion superior to what the bigger labels were promoting and selling.

Eddie Green (keyboards, vocals), Sherman Ferguson (drums, percussion, marimba), Odean Pope (sax, flute, oboe), and Al Johnson (bass) comprised the original group; Johnson left to work with Chuck Mangione and was replaced by Tyrone Brown. Some of Philadelphia's finest soul musicians, including Larry Washington (conga), Norman Harris (guitar), and Anthony Jackson and Ron Baker (bass), augmented Catalyst on some sessions.

The Philly-based band was a jack of all styles and master of them all. Breaking the CD down by individual albums, their debut Catalyst consisted of six contemporary bop tunes, including Green's "Ain't It the Truth," a slamming, congested groove that's as hyper as a two-year-old. "New Found Groove" is an introspective floater, livened by Green's vibrant keyboarding. "Perception" defies this CD title completely, Brown's soft, beautiful "Uzuri" is a dazzler. Two lengthy avant-garde jams -- "Celestial Bodies" and "Perception" -- spotlight each member, very little funk here.

Unity, a 1974 release, is the most fusionistic Catalyst album. Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report's bass player) and Mwandishi's drummer Billy Hart play prominent roles in flavoring the six cuts highlighted by "Shorter Street," a tribute to Wayne Shorter, the waltz-paced "Little Miss Lady," and the intriguing "Mail Order." Catalyst's final album, A Tear and a Smile, features synthesizers, strings, woodwinds, and Charles Ellerbee on guitar and vocals. While Unity spotlights Odean Pope's sax, this one gives drummer Sherman Ferguson the curtain calls.

If you missed Catalyst the first time around, and most did, you can't afford to be out of the loop this time. This is a keeper, every track says something and says it well.

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