Brother Ah – Divine Music (2017)
History can be a motherfucker – its authors vindictive and deeply unfair. Though Jazz – long heralded as the great American art form, got its due, buried within its canon are the legacies of systemic neglect. Its narrative is a mere shadow of the truth. Robert Northern is a lost giant – a name that almost no one has heard – a prodigy once recruited by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Donald Byrd, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, and Sun Ra, who ventured out on his own to astounding effect. His discography, playing, being, and humanity are windows into another world – an image of the heights of 20th Century music – a razor sharp unveiling of the sins of time.
Robert Northern, rehearsing with the Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959)
There is a tendency, when addressing the efforts of avant-garde Jazz which rose at the end of the 1960’s and stretched across the 70’s and 80’s, to simplify and distill – to favor a more easily observed radicalism over the coded and complex. The truths laying below the creative gestures of this era, are more nuanced and discrete. While the names and legacies extending from the efforts of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Cecil Taylor loom large – that revolutionary hard blowing fire which defined so much of the BYG Actuel series and “Loft Era” New York, there was an early fork in the road which sometimes falls from view – a body of spiritually infused music, often slower and more composed – sounds which traced their roots to Africa, India, and parts of the Middle East, growing from broader political gestures of black American self-actualization and power. With seeds planted by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, and Pharoah Sanders, this music presented the avant-garde as a social music – a people’s music of identity, politic, and pride.
Thelonious Monk with his Orchestra – Robert Northern at center. (1959)
The history of Jazz is defined by singular voices. It is dangerous to indulge in generality of any form. For the sake of efficiency, it is a sin we must allow. The two canonical bodies of avant-garde Jazz – Free and Spiritual, which loom large over the 60’s and 70’s (and trickle through the 80’s), present radically different intellectual ideas of politic and approach. While there are figures like Don Cherry – singular geniuses who found the path between, Free Jazz – infused with the politics of the era, tended to embrace the standard paradigms of the avant-garde. It set out to break tradition, to push ever on. For some, particularly members of the AACM, it was conceived as a fracture with high European musical traditions – an advanced music which was distinctly American and black. For others, it was closer to catharsis – a vehicle for the anger which swelled from the racism and systemic neglect suffered by African American communities. Where Free-Jazz lashed out, Spiritual Jazz offered another path. Though drawing on many of the same traditions and ideas, it was conceived to build rather than break – a collective means to offer black America a triumphant voice.
Brother Ahh – Sound Awareness (1972)
The work of Robert Northern is among the most seminal, and sinfully neglected, of the later of these two. It is a music of profound intellect, artistry and identity. A social and political music, filled with optimism and joy. His work falls within a great legacy of organized sound – one far too often ignored, which inherited what John Coltrane proposed through his last efforts on earth. Music as a productive means for social change – an indication of a higher plane. The voice of a people, swelling toward the universal – past race, gender, class, and culture – a towering creative gesture, representing the humanity possessed by all.
Brother Ah – 1970’s
Like many of his generation’s most talented voices, Northern bridged two worlds – playing in Classical music orchestras during the day, shifting to Jazz at night. Rather being celebrated for versatility and skill, he found himself more squarely in the cross-hairs of the endemic racism of the creative class. With an incredibly body of ensemble work behind him – his work with Davis, Coltrane, Monk, Byrd, Cherry, Dolphy, Ra, and the rest, in 1970 he took leave from the world – joining the legendary music department at Dartmouth College. It was there that his students affectionately gifted him the name Brother Ah – the vehicle for his imminent return.
Brother Ah – Celestial Strings, from Move Ever Onward (1975)
Northern’s contributions to the history of music are vast – shifting and evolving across the decades following the Second World War. It’s impossible to entirely locate him – to say he’s single thing. While his efforts with history’s giants are enough to ensure his place in the books, it was under his own steam – his voice emerging as Brother Ah, that his creativity reached towering heights.
Brother Ah – Enthusiasm, from Move Ever Onward (1975)
Between 1972 and 1983, Brother Ah and his ensemble released three albums – the first, Sound Awareness on the legendary Strata East, followed by Move Ever Onward and Key To Nowhere on Northern’s private imprint Divine Records – each a rare and coveted masterwork – jewels of an era filled with remarkable gestures of African American self-actualized politics and empowerment – capsules of beauty and culture realized in sonic form. Long hunted by records collectors and fans, they are among the best artifacts of American creative music – sidestepping expectation – flowering with intellect and emotion – pushing beyond the previously explored potentialities of both free-improvisation and spiritual jazz.
Brother Ah & The Sounds Of Awareness – Key To Nowhere (1983)
In 2016, Manufactured Recordings did the world a great service – reissuing Sound Awareness, Move Ever Onward, and Key To Nowhere – bringing them into wider view – repairing some of history’s sins. If you have yet to encounter them, I highly recommend checking out the samples above and picking them up. They are essential for any fan of Spiritual and Free Jazz, particularly those who dig the territory of sound explored by Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Eddie Gale, Phil Cohran, The Pyramids, and Horace Tapscott.
While Brother Ah’s three noted albums have long been held close to the heart of serious fans of Jazz, few knew what lay in wait. As the decades passed, the shadows held three more albums recorded during the same period – efforts which never saw the light of day. These long lost gems are the focus of Divine Music, an astounding 5 LP (or 3 CD) box set – the latest gesture in Manufactured’s dedication to the astounding work of Brother Ah.
Brother Ah – Divine Music (2017)
The Sea, Meditation, and Searching – the three lost albums which make up the totality of Divine Music, recorded in 1978, 1981, 1985 – falling on either side of Key To Nowhere, are not only an incredibly valuable expansion of the previously known world of Brother Ah, but to the total understanding of American music during this era. They open a window into the sonic diversity sculpted by an artist unwilling to bow to the signifiers and expectation imposed on the meaning of Jazz. This is that music as it’s rarely been heard – a distillation of countless traditions, flowering as a single force. Divine Music is presents an alternate history – an evolutionary music – the joining of Jazz, avant-garde Classical music, Soul, Gospel, the Blues, and New Age, with countless indigenous musics from across the globe. It is the voice of awareness – of heightened consciousness and politic. This is a Black music. This is an American music. This is social and spiritual music. This is a global music, bending time and bridging barrier – offering a new way of understanding ourselves.
It’s been a long wait, but its time for Robert Northern to be extended the credit he deserves. He is one of the great lost figures in the history of Jazz. A giant – a man and an artist who has suffered neglect for far too long. His name should be sung to the stars. For his contribution – for the joy carried in his sounds, we owe him great thanks.
Divine Music levels the field – a heavy blow to the sins of time. As a collection of music it is stunningly beautiful. As an artifact, it rewrites the past with every note – so unique and diverse in source and result that it is impossible to completely describe. Astounding, mind bending and singular. This is unquestionably one of the most important releases of the year – historically significant – twenty compositions infused with the soaring heights of sonic joy – listening at its best. Check out the samples below. If you are in North America you can pick it up in your preferred format directly from Manufactured. If you’re in Europe, you can grab it from SoundOhm. Wherever you are, if this is your first encounter with the wonders of Brother Ah, I highly recommend picking up the rest of his discography while they’re still in print. It is world of endless rewards.