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Proverbs For Sam by Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble

In music, the term ‘untempered’ refers to instruments that can reach notes that don’t correspond to those on the piano keyboard. Western music is generally devoid of untempered instruments (the human voice is a notable exception), but nearly all ethnic traditional music uses untempered wind and stringed instruments. So, it’s no mere coincidence that Bill Cole, the leader of the Untempered Ensemble, is a world-renowned ethnomusicologist who has made the integration of untempered, non-Western instruments into jazz and improvised music his life’s mission. ‘Untempered,’ in more common parlance, can also mean ‘unrestrained’ or ‘uncontrolled.’ This definition applies equally to Proverbs for Sam, which literally bursts with ceaseless, ecstatic, unbridled improvisational free-jazz energy.

Proverbs to Sam features Cole playing a wide variety of untempered wind instruments; from the well-known (didgeridoo) to the wildly exotic (shenai, nagaswaram, sona). The sona, also known as the suona or Chinese shawm, is an ancient Chinese double reed wind instrument similar to the oboe or English horn. The shenai (shehnai) and nagaswaram (nadaswaram) are lower-pitched multi-reed wind instruments from India. All three of these exotic wind instruments were first made known to jazz audiences by adventurous artists such as Dewey Redman, Yusef Lateef and Charlie Mariano during the 1960s and 70s. Though lesser-known to jazz aficionados, Cole has also been playing these, and an array of other ethnic instruments, for more than three decades.

Another untempered instrument that makes a significant appearance on Proverbs to Sam is the diddly-bow, played here by multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore. The diddly-bow is prominent in African-American folklore, and was popularized by contemporary folk-bluesmen Lonnie Pitchford and Seasick Steve. It’s basically a fretless one-stringed banjo of sorts that can be plucked or bowed as the pitch is changed using a metal slide. Cooper-Moore has amplified and added some effects pedals to his, and its timbre is somewhere between an electric guitar, an electric violin, and a cat fight.

The CD's dedicatee, Sam Furnace, was a hugely talented jazz saxophonist who died of cancer in 2004 at the tender age of 49. Starting out as a session musician who worked with soul and funk artists such as The Temptations, the Four Tops, and Billy Mitchell, Furnace cemented his reputation as a jazz artist backing the likes of Mongo Santamaria, McCoy Tyner, the Jazz Passengers, Arturo O'Farrill, and Art Blakey. However, he was best known for his work as a sideman with Fred Ho and Julius Hemphill, with whom he recorded a total of 11 albums. The recordings that comprise "Proverbs For Sam" were made in 2001 and feature Furnace in top form, although his contributions are occasionally buried by the sheer weight of the percussion-heavy ensemble. Unlike the relentlessly keening wail of Cole's exotic reeds and the scrabbling inventions of Cooper-Moore's diddly-bow, Furnace's playing on Proverbs For Sam is quite lyrical and resolutely jazz-based. Sporting a broad, expressive tone somewhat like Arthur Blythe, Furnace's solos have a rigorous internal logic that low-brass expert Joseph Daley, the other primary soloist in the Untempered Ensemble, readily picks up on.

The overall sound of the Untempered Ensemble is highly rhythmic and satisfyingly crunchy in a forceful, almost jazz-rock style. This can be chalked up to the band's formidable rhythm section, comprised of bassist William Parker, and percussionists Warren Smith and Atticus Cole (Bill's son). The singsong, folksy, chanting melody and churning polyrhythms of the CD's first track brought to my mind the early 80s recordings by the great drummer and composer Ronald Shannon Jackson and his band, the Decoding Society. Ghostly, haunting didgeridoo, arco bass, and low-brass multiphonics usher in the second track, a nakedly expressive lamentation that features Cooper-Moore's radically creative, wah-wah enhanced electric diddly-bow playing. Furnace's blues-saturated alto takes center stage as the tune increases in intensity, accompanied by Cooper-Moore's chilling wordless vocalizations. The third track returns to the modus operandi set forth on the CD's opener - a minor-keyed, vaguely Eastern-sounding melody floats over a super-deep polyrhythmic groove and eventually gives way to ecstatic collective soloing by Cole, Furnace, and Daley. My only quibble here is that the soloists never really stop or pause to let the music breathe, nor do they engage each other in an organic way until the 11 minute mark, where Daley and Furnace initiate a sequence of bluesy chants over which Cole continues to solo. Cole returns the favor for a brief, sinewy Furnace excursion, and the tune dissolves into a three-way percussion jam between Smith, Cooper-Moore, and Atticus Cole, followed by a casually masterful bass solo by William Parker.

The CD concludes with a lengthy jam framed by marimba, dual flutes (played by Furnace and Cooper-Moore), and Daley's muted trombone over sparse, delicate drum kit work. Here, the constantly chattering flutes and marimba suggest birdsongs. Following a bass solo, Daley (on tuba), Parker and Atticus Cole set up a somewhat lopsided bluesy shuffle rhythm that builds underneath Bill Cole's nagaswaram solo. Furnace (now on alto), Cooper-Moore (on flute), and Daley (back on trombone) join Cole as the meter dissolves and the piece develops into an ecstatic collective improvisation punctuated by an articulate and engaging drum kit solo. Taken together, these elements combine to give the listener the impression of a lengthy walk, or perhaps a race, along the garden path referred to in the piece's title.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble
  • CD Title: Proverbs For Sam
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Boxholder Records
  • Tracks: Dont Wait For The Day Of Battle Before Getting Your Weapons Ready; If A Blacksmith Continues To Strike An Iron At One Point
  • Musicians: He Must Have A Reason; The Drum Sounding a Message In War Is Beaten In A Cryptic Manner – Only Wise Men Can Dance To It and Only Experienced Men Can Understand It; No One Knows The Paths In A Garden Better Than A Gardener – A Follower Should Always Allow His Guide To Lead'
  • Rating: Three Stars
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