Although artists like Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams had incorporated religious themes into their music for decades, the concept of “spiritual jazz” gained steam after 1965 when John Coltrane released his epic, A Love Supreme. At the same time, artists like Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders were reaching for the ecstatic in their quest to imbue the music with spiritual uplift.
Tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb is cut from that same cloth. The 64 year old tenor player follows in the hallowed footsteps of those ancestors, as well as musicians like Lonnie Liston Smith, Azar Lawrence and Don Cherry. Lamb’s performance with drummer Newman Taylor Baker on Saturday, December 3 gave us new insight into the power of sound to cleanse and renew the soul.
Their hour long flight at CitySpace’s Blue Room in Easthampton was an unvarnished, unbridled and unapologetic foray into the free jazz universe; days later, the vibrations still reverberate. The unleashed energy had a cleansing effect on this listener; it was catharsis by fire music.
Baker began the evening in a low patter that built towards Lamb’s entrance, which was rough and full-bodied. That pattern held throughout the performance: a solo statement on drums, then the saxophone would join. Perhaps it was a stamina thing. Lamb moved slowly and sat down when not playing.
When he was playing, the music bounced off the room’s tin ceiling and swirled around the space with no need for on-stage amplification. A fusillade of notes, covering the entire range of the horn, came with little mooring to mode or melody until well into the concert, when Lamb started to testify with the blues at his back.
But within the gale force was a softness, expressed especially by Baker, who used nuance and subtlety during much of his alone time. He played the drums by hand for an extended period, creating swing patterns at modest volume. He slapped his thighs, arms and chest, a technique called “hambone”, at an even lower volume. At a whisper, he made his cymbals ring celestially. We listened.
Baker, who turns 80 next year, has led a full life in music. He has recorded extensively with Billy Harper, Matthew Shipp, Henry Grimes and Billy Bang, and has history in music theater, having collaborated with Diedre Murray on multiple projects, including the Obie Award winning, “Running Man”. Other theater credits include work with Ntozake Shange, Leroy Jenkins, Jeanne Lee and Henry Threadgill.
Baker was in Threadgill’s Sextett in the late 1980s. He told me that after getting off the road with Threadgill, his chops would be noticeably better. Reading down complicated drum parts, learning patterns he wouldn’t necessarily have come up with on his own, expanded his vocabulary, which he brought to other situations.
Until he discovered the washboard in 2010, Baker was the quintessential side man. His deep dive into this 19thcentury tool of drudgery gave him an opportunity to organize his own concept. Using expended shotgun shells on four fingers of each hand, customizing the physical instrument and adding microphones, effects pedals, and amplifiers, Baker has extended the washboard language, which he’s used in all manner of jazz, world, blues and new music contexts.
Andrew Lamb is a special individual. He is soft spoken and full of love. His spiritual essence is unassuming, but palpable. His playing felt like a quest, a search for attainment. Tracing a lineage through saxophonists like Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, Frank Lowe and back to Coltrane, Lamb intoned cascading lines of psalm-like notes, playing with energy and feeling.
Growing up in Chicago and Jamaica, Queens, he alluded to being different than most children, and being bullied repeatedly for it. He told me that one of the reasons he loved to play football, was it provided a socially sanctioned way of exacting pay back to his tormentors. Lamb is quick to credit the Creator in liner notes and in conversation, and although he is by no means ascetic, he has a religious air about him that fits him naturally. Now residing in Nyack, NY with his wife, Lamb has forged his spiritual stance through plenty of real world experience.
He has worked steadily, if quietly over the years. He first came to my attention in the mid-1990s with the release of Portrait in the Mist, a wonderful Delmark recording featuring Warren Smith (on vibes), along with Wilber Morris and Andrei Strobert. Subsequent recordings on Engine and NoBusiness Records kept him on my radar. He had a critical reputation but was only peripherally in the public eye, making him a perfect candidate for inclusion on the Jazz Shares schedule.
The joy of being able to provide an appreciative audience, some money and respect to artists like Andrew Lamb and Newman Taylor Baker, is why we do what we do.