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Don Pullen
 Sacred Common Ground, Blue Note CD CDP 7243 8 32800 2 5, 1995 (46:14)

 Native American songs meet African-Brazilian jazz

It is fitting that in Don Pullen's final complete recording he leaves us with a unique combination of multicultural sounds representing the culmination of his life in music. With  Sacred Common Ground, Pullen combines the African-Brazilian Connection, with whom he recorded and toured for much of the 1990s, with the Chief Cliff Singers, Kootenai Indians from Elmo, Montana. Jazz always seemed far too restrictive a term for what Don Pullen gave to the world, and in this parting contribution he demonstrates the universality of music, culture, and spiritual roots.

I first became familiar with Pullen's distinct percussive, hand-rolling style of piano playing on Charles Mingus'  Changes One and  Changes Two albums in the 1970s. I then saw him perform with Mingus in a small club in Urbana, Illinois and was captivated by his mastery of the instrument. Like many others on this particular night, I was pleased when, due to a number of college students' raucous conversations during a particularly soft piano solo, Mingus grabbed a microphone and shouted "Shut up out there. This cat's playin' his ass off." Charles Mingus knew genius when he heard it.

This particular collaboration between Pullen and the Chief Cliff Singers began in 1993 when they met to compose a jazz/Indian score for "Earth Eagle First Circle," a new dance work by Garth Fagan. Pullen's paternal grandmother was half-Indian, but he hadn't heard live Native American music until 1992. The power and emotion of the music fascinated him. The more he listened to the Indian rhythms and sequences, the more they became familiar to him. Pullen found much in common with gospel, shuffle rhythms, the blues and cutting-edge jazz. The Chief Cliff Singers gradually accustomed themselves to the polyrhythmic beats the African-Brazilian Connection wove in and out of the steady Indian drum beat. Since the Chief Cliff Singers' songs were part of an oral tradition handed down by their ancestors and not written down, Pullen had to work hard to master the complexity of these songs in order create the unique compositions. Lead singer and co-composer Mike Kenmille's use of new hand signals helped direct his singers so they were able to collaborate with the other musicians.

The result is a rich collection of Native American chanting built upon the soft, dynamic and soothing sound of Pullen's Afro-Brazilian style of jazz. Joseph Bowie's trombone brings out a strong bluesy feel to "Reservation Blues," which starts off with the singers chanting and then abruptly switches to a more traditional twelve-bar blues. Bowie and alto saxophonist Carlos Ward weave back and fourth, then give way to Pullen's rolling, percussive playing. Throughout the CD, the combination of J.T. Lewis' Latin-tinged jazz drumming and Senegalese Mor Thiam's African percussion, combined with the indigenous Americans' steady pounding, make for a rich and soulful sound.

"Message in Smoke" begins with a soft Pullen solo and gathers momentum as the singers begin chanting, then the percussion picks up, and finally the horns start to squawk back and forth. It's wild, free, challenging, and most certainly worth the effort. "Resting On The Road" is a gentle ballad and the most reminiscent of Pullen's earlier work with the African-Brazilian Connection.

Pullen was diagnosed with lymphoma about one-third of the way through this project and was well into chemotherapy at the time of the recording, yet the compositions and his performance show all the vitality and energy of his earlier work. The final cut, "Reprise: Still Here," has Kenmille singing alone sad and raw. Perhaps Howard Mandel put it best in the liner notes when he concludes: "Wherever people with spirit such as Don Pullen evinced come together to join with rather than divide one another-wherever music with the power and presence of Pullen's falls on ears that turn toward the sound-in even one instant of perception and reflection - there are Pullen and company, there are the Chief Cliff Singers, there is  Sacred Common Ground. --  Mark Craemer

production notes & song titles

Don Pullen, piano. The African-Brazilian Connection: Carlos Ward, alto saxophone; J. T. Lewis, drums; Mor Thiam, African percussion. Featuring: Joseph Bowie, trombone; Santi Debriano, bass. Chief Cliff Singers: Mike Kenmille (lead), Clifford Burke, Arleen Adams, Gina Big Beaver, Clayton Burke, Kenny Lozeau, Francis Auld (vocals and drums).

Produced by Michael Cuscuna and Don Pullen. Recorded at the Power Station in New York City on March 8 & 9, 1995.

The Eagle Staff is First | Common Ground | River Song | Reservation Blues | Message in Smoke | Resting On The Road | Reprise: Still Here

of related interest

The Don Pullen/George Adams Quartet
 Breakthrough, Blue Note CD BT-85122, 1986

Don Pullen
 New Beginnings, Blue Note CD CDP 7 91785 2, 1989

Don Pullen & The African-Brazilian Connection
 Ode to Life, Blue Note CD CDP 0777 7 89233 2 9, 1993
If you're into the African-Brazilian sound, this CD is excellent.

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.