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Luther Thomas/Human Arts Ensemble



All right, imagine what it might have sounded like if James Brown and Miles Davis had gotten together around 1972, when Miles was at his free-form funkiest and the Soul Brother Number One was at his super baddest. OK, it might have sounded a little bit like this. Do I have your attention?

Truthfully, though, this stuff is looser and more collectively derived than anything either of those notoriously controlling musical geniuses probably would have produced together, probably closer to the communal spirit of the great Sly and the Family Stone than anything else.

The Human Arts Ensemble was a sprawling, amorphous entity that existed in St. Louis for the better part of the '70s. Emerging from the St. Louis-based Black Arts Group (BAG) of the '60s, the eclectic outfit sought to boldly explore the new directions of jazz, R&B, and soul, creating a massive, vibrant, electric sound which was equal parts fusion and funk. Though the Human Arts Ensemble launched the careers of trombonist Joseph Bowie, drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw, and others, little remains of the Human Arts Ensemble itself; only a few early '70s albums, Under the Sun and Whisper of Dharma, remain in print.

Fortunately, Atavistic's noble Unheard Music series has taken steps to correct that, re-releasing the long out-of-print, totally fantastic Funky Donkey, Vols. 1 & 2. How a recording of this caliber, featuring this personnel, could stay out of print for decades is a mystery that ranks with Stonehenge. Recorded live at a St. Louis church in late 1973, Funky Donkey features not only the Bowie- and Shaw-led Human Arts Ensemble, but also alto saxophonist Luther Thomas serving as band leader and Bowie's brother, legendary free jazz figure Lester Bowie, on trumpet. The braying, madcap donkey funk this gifted group (featuring 11 members in all) produces is utterly out of this world. Massive, heavily Afro-Cuban rhythms churned out by two percussionists (Abdella Ya Yum and Rocky Washington), electric guitarist Marvin Home, Fender bassist Marvin Home, and drummer Shaw serve as the funky bedrock for the explosive improvisations of the other players. Thomas's sax and Lester Bowie's trumpet are particularly agile and acrobatic, tracing jet exhaust patterns through each piece, while a trombonist Joseph Bowie, reedist J.D. Parran, and additional trumpeters Floyd LeFlore and Harold "Pudgey" Atterbury produce the musical equivalent of internal combustion.

Check out the featured masterpiece, the Bobo Shaw-composed "Una New York." Intense, incredible stuff. This comes very highly recommended indeed.

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