It’s been too long a gap since there was a Hidden Gems in this space, so let’s crack the lid on fall features with a new one from Emergency Group’s Dave Mandl. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, it’s time to get acquainted as they’ve released an incredible tape for Island House and have a new record on the way from Centripetal Force next month. That’s not to mention a full album, recorded with Chris Schlarb at Big Ego studios on the horizon soon. The band’s sound engulfs a free jazz energy, with touches of psych and prog curling at the corners. They readily digest the electric Miles and fusion-fueled Hancock periods, and their latest, Venal Twin, exemplifies their strengths. Before the release of the new record I asked the band to contribute a pick for the Gems series and bassist Dave Mandl stepped up with the sole release from Afro-Cuban jazz outfit East New York Ensemble de Music.
I asked Dave to dive into what makes this a favorite, and what brought it into his life. Mandl recalls, “My brother picked up a ton of Folkways records at a sale and this was one of them. At the time (early ’90s?) I’d never heard anything like this. It’s what’s now called “spiritual jazz” — modal, with obvious “eastern” and Middle Eastern influences. It’s slow and languid, and with no showy musicianship. The pieces are very long, repetitive, and meditative. The instruments are all acoustic (with the possible exception of vibraphone). None of the music I was listening to in 1974 (rock, progressive rock, “fusion”) was remotely like this.”
“I grew up in Brooklyn, he notes, “and though I was around when this record was released (though I was pretty young), the chances I would have heard something like this were nil. Now I realize that there was a whole scene of musicians making this wonderful music just a bus ride away from where I was living, but it might as well have been on another planet. In recent years this record has led me to dozens of others in the same vein. While the audience for this music was undoubtedly small, period, I can’t imagine that *any* white people would have been aware of it, due mainly to segregation and the fear that someone like me (in an all-white and frankly racist nabe in southern Brooklyn) would have had of venturing to a “dangerous” neighborhood like East New York, at the eastern end of the borough. Thankfully this music has been re-discovered recently (no Columbus jokes, please) and is now getting the wide recognition it always deserved. Maybe the insularity of the scene in its day was essential to keeping it from becoming something more commercial and thus artistically compromised?”
“This record and others like it are some of my favorite music in the world, and have had a big influence on my playing and musical aesthetic. Strange as it may sound given the story above, I now feel like this music has always been a part of me. It could be that it entered my subconscious via roundabout paths like the psychedelic or improvised rock groups I grew up listening to, who may have actually had exposure to it and incorporated some of its features into their music indirectly.”
My own Folkways explorations aren’t as complete as they could be, and its great to see a pick like this in the series, highlighting the forgotten ends of their catalog. Thanks to Folkways renewed Bandcamp presence, the album is now readily available both digitally and on CD. The album was reissued in 2010 on LP, but at this point those are OOP and pushing a bit pricey. Seek it out in whatever format you can, because At The Helm is an excellent listen and every bit the gem Dave makes it out to be. The band’s latest, Venal Twin, is out October 20th from Centripetal force. You can hear a new cut from the album, “Pyramid Street,” below. It expands on the band’s fogged ally jazz-psych, brimming with tension and turbulence. The outfit’s hard edge slices deep into the song, with Jonathan Byerley’s guitar’s fraying through the spaces in Robert Boston’s keys.
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