notes for Brooklyn Sax Quartet:
Far Side of Here (OmniTone 12206)
"Transcendence is something
between a metaphor and a miracle."
There are many reasons for artistic expression, and
among these are transcendence and existentialism. Through their
works, artists search for something new and strive to leave their mark
for those to come. They recognize that artistic expression, honorably
offered from the heart, requires serious intent.
But some artists, especially those on the creative
fringe, who work diligently to stay true to their distinctive new vision,
confuse seriousness of intent with seriousness of the content of their
work. Saxophonist Sam Furnace was not one of them; he had a terrific
sense of humor that complemented his sophisticated knowledge of music
and impeccable playing skills.
"He had a keen interest in maintaining friendships
with players," recalls tenor saxophonist and composer David Bindman
of his late Brooklyn Sax Quartet bandmate. "And he was very
accepting of musicians so that, when you played with him, you didn't
feel like there was an ego thing going on."
It's appropriate that Far Side of Here is
dedicated to Sam Furnace (who also plays on half of the tracks), because
the way people reacted to his balanced sense of feet-on-the-ground tradition
and head-in-the-air transcendence is representative of the way audiences
react to the Brooklyn Sax Quartet, a group he was an integral part of.
"The reaction has always been 'joyous,'" explains
David. "There's this sort of meeting between traditional,
melodic, very rhythmic playing and more adventurous, avant garde —whatever
you want to call it —playing. Sometimes they're indistinguishable;
they meld together as one."
Melding of styles and traditions and getting the right
musical image across to the audience —replete with all its melody,
harmony, and rhythm —can be challenging for a traditional four-horn
saxophone quartet, especially without chordal and rhythmic instruments
like piano and drums. Not for the BSQ, whose strong compositions
and experiences working together in other groups come together to make
The original BSQ, that included David, Sam, and baritone
saxophonist/composer Fred Ho (with Chris Jonas on soprano), formed informally
in 1995 after Fred organized a quartet to perform a commission he had
written. The natural chemistry between David, Sam, and Fred, which
they had begun to discover while working together in Fred's Afro Asian
Music Ensemble, and the desire of David and Fred to write for a four-horn
ensemble launched the BSQ. Far Side of Here, the group's
second recording, spotlights some appealingly complementary compositions.
David's pieces, which he describes as being the product
of "stream of consciousness writing," reflect his musical upbringing
in both traditional jazz and New Music. Bill Dixon, Arthur Brooks,
and Stephen Horenstein, who taught at nearby Bennington College, opened
David's mind to new ideas for making music and for improvising, based
on stripping away constraints imposed by convention and focusing more
on making "essential sound."
The resulting compositional method relies on metamorphosing
a piece over a long gestation period. For example, for "Spinning," David
took a phrase he had written twenty years earlier and applied distinctive
off-meter rhythms to extended the piece. The title came from "a
mental state," notes David, "and also the physical aspect of
matter and movement."
Likewise, "Tie Me Sufre" (pronounced "teeay
may soofray"), which means "listen to my cry" in
the Twi language of the Akan people of Ghana, is a piece David had
written 1985 when he was a member of Talking Drums, the Ghanaian-American
ensemble led by Abraham Adzenyah. What started out as a "very
simple kind of minor blues piece" was set to Adowa funeral rhythms
by the band and "reappropriated" for this recording with
newly composed sections.
Baritone saxophonist, composer, writer, and producer
Fred Ho's compositional contributions to the record, which David describes
as "more structured and compact" and "very dense," reflect
Fred's work as political activist. He based "Fishing
Song of the East China Sea" on a traditional Chinese folk song, adapted
from the first movement of his Yellow Power Yellow Soul Suite,
which was composed for bamboo flutes.
The Black Nation Suite is dedicated to the
black liberation struggle. The suite incorporates spirituals with
signature overlaying of grooves and Fred's well-known stop-on-a-dime
transitions. Fred describes the four parts in this way:
"O, Freedom" (traditional). Dedicated
to Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman, revolutionaries who dared to rise up
against their oppressors through armed rebellion.
"We Shall Overcome" (composed by Pete Seeger). Dedicated
to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, who dared
to assert that the proper response to unjust laws is to break them.
"Free New Afrika! Boogaloo." Dedicated to
Queen Mother Audley Moore and Robert F Williams, who dared to challenge
the oppressor's dogma of non-violence and to assert that the black liberation
struggle was one against US imperialism.
"Song for a United Socialist Pan Africa" (composed
in 1975 by Semenya McCord and originally titled "Song for Mozambique"). Dedicated
to the elimination of scourge of AIDS and the entire system of monopoly
capitalist, worldwide imperialism.
Beyond its varied compositions and musical stylings, Far
Side of Here presents an excellent picture of the camaraderie
and joie de vivre Sam brought to the BSQ and which continues
among its members today. Perhaps nowhere better is that joy apparent
than in "Jajo" (pronounced "YAH-yo"),
which means "egg" in Polish. There's a buoyancy in
the reggae-inspired sections of the piece, giving them a feel reminiscent
of the WSQ, "with even a Bob Marley reference in there, which
nobody will get," teases David. (With his quick mind and
wit, surely Sam would have gotten it.)
Now it's our pleasure to enjoy his work living on
through the joyous sounds of the Brooklyn Sax Quartet.