Al – Fatihah: wild and frenzied free acid jazz with a spiritual lesson

Black Unity Trio, Al – Fatihah, United States, Salaam Records, 777-A vinyl LP (1969) / United States, Gotta Groove Records, GGR 2020-2 vinyl LP (remastered, reissued 2020)

Apparently this album has been a much coveted second-hand purchase item with one original vinyl LP copy having sold for US$2,355 on the Popsike.com auction website back in 2017. Enough for aficionados of this recording to cry for a reissue! – which came out, remastered as well, in November 2020, courtesy of the well-named Gotta Groove Records. It’s not hard to see why “Al – Fatihah” is so popular – even on first listen, this recording of free acid jazz is raw and, especially in early tracks, frenzied. On later tracks the album calms down and adopts a calmer and more serene air. In the order that they appear, the track titles suggest a spiritual quest culminating in revelation and transformation. Of the three musicians who formed Black Unity Trio in the late 1960s, the best-known of them is Abdul Wadud (born Ron DeVaughn in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947) on cello and bass: he went on to work and collaborate with other musicians in jazz and classical music in a career stretching from the early 1970s to the early 1990s at least. Of the other musicians in Black Unity Trio, not much is known about their activities after this recording; indeed, drummer Haasan-Al-hut seems to have disappeared entirely afterwards.

An opener with a title like “Birth, Life and Death” just has to be a stupendous dramatic event, if not the most such event on the album, and with rolling drumming, crashing cymbals and crazed squiggly saxophone from Yusuf Mumin, this track surely burns its animated way brightly into your brain’s memory cells. “In Light of Blackness” is just as frenetic with sax and percussion duelling and duetting as fast as they can as though the musicians’ lives were at stake and slowing down might put them in mortal danger. Later on cello joins in the fray and while sax drops out, strings and skins maintain a frantic conversation, the cello strings shredding furiously while percussion (Haasan-Al-hut plays quite a variety) stutters and titters and bangs about. The first half of the album having been and gone, the music starts to settle down a bit though Al-hut is still busy thundering on his drum-kit and Mumin has his manic moments on the sax. “John’s Vision” has a slightly exotic Middle Eastern air in the soaring sax melodies which are occasionally languid compared to the thrashing drumming beneath. On “Al-Nisa”, the trio seems to be going for creating and sustaining a sultry, laidback atmosphere for most of the track’s running time. Closing track “Final Expression” is a short minimally played piece with a wistful mood and an atmosphere of near-loneliness.

While perhaps the album doesn’t go out with a Big Bang of wildly virtuosic jazz improvisation and jamming, it features plenty of energy, passion and a sense of fervour and resolve on early pieces, and surprising melancholy and a sense of alone-ness in later tracks. The spiritual quest is not without its obstacles, travails and setbacks, and the path to enlightenment can be a very lonely one fraught with self-doubt and despondency. Even when the truth is revealed, and the suffering on the way towards it turns out to be worth something after all, the realisation may still prove a disappointment and the path from then on may not shine so brightly as it did before. Even after over 50 years since its release, this album still has a spiritual lesson to teach, in wild and raw music.

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