Odean Pope boasts a long and quietly monstrous resume in the jazz world, having toured and recorded extensively with the incomparable Max Roach as well as artists closer to his Philadelphia home, most notably organist Jimmy McGriff, pre-fusion quartet Catalyst, and his own still-active Saxophone Choir. Recorded in a three-drummer setup that’s meant as a fractured riff on the multiple-sax configuration of the Choir, this new disc finds Pope still blowing hard and active as ever, finding a balance between the challenging free music of Chicago’s AACM and the deep soul of his hometown. First off, I have to say the recording on this disc is impeccable—I had to check twice to make sure it wasn’t actually a vintage date, such was the classic atmosphere and recording quality captured. However, its authenticity extends way beyond fidelity.
The centerpiece and real highlight here are the two variations on the tune “Custody Of The American Spirit,” co-written by Porter Records headmaster Luke Mosling. “Custody” starts with sparse free drumming and ritualistic chanting and then explodes into a full percussion cacophony, finally ending with a gorgeous melody that captures the soulful yearning, explosive energy, and fiercely individual feeling of the best avant-garde jazz, both vintage and modern.
“Mwalimu” features a funky head and is dominated by a bass solo from Lee Smith, who elsewhere is occasionally swept up in the percussion-and-sax storm. “The Binder” is a classic soulful freakout, with all drummers skittering along to create a wide-panned cradle in which Pope’s tuneful tenor can wail. On this showcase, Pope summons admirable energy, but retains a strong musicality, rarely falling into the pit of squawking and honking that can dominate some younger energy sax players.
The energy Pope retains comes as much from restraint and control, interested in the journey upwards as much as the climax itself. He occasionally left this listener wanting to be more bowled over a la Pauls Dunmall or Flaherty, but that’s not the brand on display here. And the large-sounding ensemble picks up the slack, with the multiple percussionists particularly immersive in the long middle section of “The Binder” and the deep in-groove of “Go Figure.”
A pivotal figure ere is Marshall Allen, the Sun Ra alumnus who adds an excellent counter to Pope’s tenor with his own alto on this disc. “The Track” features Allen taking up the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), a quirky synth that sounds somewhere between Ra’s modular and Jan Hammer’s keyboard freakouts with Jeff Beck. This track also features Warren Smith on xylophone and timpani in a dueling space-improv with Allen. “Blues” features some smoothly lyrical soloing in a sparse Sonny Rollins environment, swinging along and occasionally breaking down only to regroup with its classic melody.
The opener is reprised as “Custody Of The American (Bullshit Version)” to close the disc, replete with chants of “bullshit” and some howling sax that seems to express the aggression that the opener never acknowledges. The ability of this tune to crystallize so much of what’s happening here is a welcome sign that Pope’s trajectory is as open-minded as could be, as he avoids resting on his deserved “elder statesman” status.