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Clifford Thornton New Art Ensemble

Trombonist (and occasional trumpeter) Clifford Thornton is seen by aficionados of the postwar modern creative movement as one of the great forgotten geniuses, a slight that's due almost entirely to the unavailability of any of his recordings as a bandleader. A pupil of the hard bop trumpeter Donald Byrd during the '50s, the Philadelphia native entered the New York free jazz scene in the early '60s after a stint in the army, working as a session man for the likes of Archie Shepp and Sun Ra, before forming his own ensemble.

Thornton's first group featured a talented young trumpeter named Joe McPhee, who would soon go on to start his own funk-driven free jazz group, and bassist Jimmy Garrison, part of John Coltrane's classic '60s quartet for all his heady, spiritual forays into interstellar sound. The New Art Ensemble recorded Freedom & Unity at a portentous time -- the day after Coletrane's legendary funeral ceremony, at which Ornette Coleman (whose trio rehearsed across the hall from the New Art) and Albert Ayler led their groups musical eulogies. Perhaps something of the spirit of that moment, of its violent mourning, pervades these compositions as well. The album's pieces are elegant, hard, and full of open spaces, twisting and inverting the bop idiom Thornton studied as a neophyte. His amazingly flexible trombone serves as both anchor and provocateur for the group's complex improvisations. The featured "O.C.T.," a McPhee composition featuring some luminous, ferocious trumpet, serves to place the entire session; the title's initials stand for Ornette, Cecil (Taylor), and Trane.

Thornton released the album on his own independent Third World label and wasn't able to get the 1967 recording out for two years. Production and distribution problems continued to dog him on later releases, such as his aborted masterpiece, The Gardens of Harlem -- an album of free jazz rooted in gospel and Pan-African rhythms which, thanks to financial constraints, failed to live up to Thornton's grand vision -- which he recorded in 1972 but didn't see light of day until '75. It was around this time that Thornton relocated to Europe; he died in Geneva in 1989, his recordings largely forgotten. In 2001, Atavistic rescued Freedom & Unity from the dustbin of history.

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