Byron Morris & Gerald Wise

Unity

Eremite Records MTE-66 LP

Personnel:

Morris alto & soprano saxophones, vocals 
Wise trumpet & percussion
Eric Gravatt drums & percussion
Byard Lancaster alto saxophone, flute, percussion, trumpet, vocals
Vins Johnson baritone & tenor saxophones
Abu Sharrieff drums, percussion, vocals
Keno Speller amplified conga drum, percussion, special effects
Fred Williams bass
'Chris' bass

Track Listing:

Side 'A'
1. JWM+53
Side 'B'
2. Black Awareness

recorded 22 March 1969, Washington DC
original producers: Morris & Wise
engineer: Leonard Jones
reissue producer: Michael Ehlers
restoration: Joe Lizzi & Ben Young

unity, by byron & gerald, is a long lost & highly sought-after private press free jazz album recorded in 1969 at howard university. encouraged by his friend joe mcphee (who contributed an 'invocation' to the back cover), byron morris made unity the very first release on his own EPI label (EPI-01, 1972). it is the only hardcore free jazz record out of 1960s DC, & a viscerally powerful musical & cultural dispatch on the aesthetic & sociopolitical upheavals of its time. eremite's edition exactly reproduces the original EPI release & adds new liner notes by byron morris. it is pressed on premium quality audiophile vinyl by RTI, presented in a heavyweight stoughton 'laser disc' sleeve with a hand-pulled screenprinted insert by alan sherry/siwa in an edition 550 copies. PROJECT PRODUCED WITH THE ARTIST'S FULL PERMISSION & COOPERATION. with mad love & appreciation, eremite dedicates this reissue to the musicians & aficionados of the 1960s & '70s american free jazz underground epitomized by byron & gerald, aboriginal music society, drumdance to the motherland, solidarity unit inc., black unity trio, mcphee's nation time, & so many more... you know who you are!

a brief technical note: the couple minutes of 'channel warble' on side 'B' of unity is native to the source. the private press underground realm is not mo-fi. technical imperfection was the norm. 

"In the early spring of 1969, several months before moving to Poughkeepsie, NY, Gerald Wise & I, along with the recording engineer Len Jones, conceived of the idea to gather a group of musicians who were like-minded concerning "The New Thing" (Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little). Most of the musicians we asked to be part of this experiment we knew from jam sessions or were already part of Unit Five. Eric Gravatt suggested we invite two of his musician friends from Philadelphia, Byard Lancaster & Keno Speller. I wrote a musical composition for the date dedicated to my father, “JWM+53.” My friend Earl Snead wrote the other composition, “Black Awareness.” Earl passed shortly after the session.

The recording session took place at the studio of an experimental TV channel that leased space on the campus of Howard University. Gerry & I welcomed all the musicians and thanked them for being part of the session. The scene immediately took on a magical atmosphere, with everyone going about their tasks as if they had cue sheets. In the center of the room we laid out our instruments on two 4x8 tables. That way we could just pick up any instrument and play when the spirit hit us. I had two altos (one plastic) & a curved soprano. Jerry Wise had his trumpet & some hand rhythm instruments. Byard Lancaster had an alto sax, flute, trumpet & some hand rhythm instruments. Vins Johnson had a tenor & a baritone sax. Keno Speller had a bell tree, tambourines, claves, drum sticks, felt-headed mallets & a set of amplified conga drums. Inside the tables our two drummers, Eric Gravatt & Abu Sharrieff, sat face to face with two full drum kits & microphones all around them. Next to them were our two bassists, Fred Williams & a young man named Chris (whose last name, sadly, I cannot remember). 

To this day, I wish the proceedings had been filmed. The energy level was so high that Byard Lancaster did push-ups when not playing (I believe I remember Vins Johnson & Keno Speller also doing some). In spite of all of the excitement, everyone wanted to make a serious musical statement & cooperated in taking directions from Len Jones, Gerry & me. It was orderly excitement, the collective "We" caught-up in the moment. Ornette’s Free Jazz & Trane’s Ascension (1965) address much of what we were attempting in the studio that day in 1969... Whew!!! Byron Morris, still looking for a time machine for a short stay in 1969!!! SMILES...

Each musician poured out their creative ideas with a great abundance of energy & spontaneous creativity. In all my life I have never again been part of a musical experience like this session. May God bless all the musicians, recording engineers & others who worked on this session, as well as those who worked on the final record album, Byron & Gerald’s Unity, released in 1972. Thinking about all of this now I am very humbled. Whew. Tears...

In point of fact, most if not all of us had witnessed firsthand the physical excitement &, in some moments, pure terror of the urban riots set off in the spring of 1968 by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Washington, D.C., exploded with anger & the looting & burning of businesses throughout the city. U.S. Army troops, along with Air Force and Navy/Marine elements, were sent in to quell these massive urban disturbances. During the recording of Unity our collective emotions were still raw, to say the least. Here & now, nearly a half of a century later, I can still smell the tear gas & the burning tires. I get chills just thinking about it. But the music got us through that time... & the music gets us through now!" (excerpt from Byron Morris's 2017 liner notes)

Byron Morris is best known for 1974’s Blow Thru Your Mind, an independent jazz classic beloved of rare groove aficionados. That album was reissued in the early 2000s, but Unity, first released in 1972 on the private press EPI label, has remained out of print until now. Recorded in Washington DC in March 1969, it’s a revelatory blast of underground free jazz. In the sleevenotes to this Eremite reissue, Morris places the album in the context of the urban riots that followed the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in the spring of 1969: “Our collective emotions were still raw, to say the least.” From that urgency and rage, a fiercely ecstatic performance emerges.

Arising from Morris’s partnership with trumpet player Gerald Wise, sound engineer Leonard Jones and future Weather Report drummer Eric Gravatt, Unity is a rare document of DC’s free jazz scene, with Philadelphians Byard Lancaster and Keno Speller joining the locals. Morris recalls how the musicians laid their instruments out on two tables, with Gravatt and fellow drummer Abu Sharrieff sitting face to face between them all. The energy is palpable.

The first side features a piece written by Morris for his father, “JWM 53”. A jaunty marching theme on trumpet and alto is set against sustained tones from the lower horns, before the percussionists blow it wide open with crashing waves of sound. Speller’s amplified conga clatters and pounds, pushing the ensemble to new heights of intensity. That isn’t to say it’s a relentless blare; the musicians fall in and out, allowing for solo and duo features, before rallying round cues and exploding all over again.

There’s a fantastic range of textures, from a pinched North African alto to a gutsy tenor and viscous baritone. Wise’s piercing trumpet ushers in a remarkable passage in which Morris passionately kisses his mouthpiece over what sounds like a concertina or harmonica, to be answered with braying horns and Lancaster’s Leon Thomas-like ululations. On the second track, Earl Snead’s “Black Awareness”, Speller’s xylophone and bell-tree shimmer and chime with the intensity of a new born galaxy, while flutes spiral and the rhythm section roils. Joe McPhee captures the power of this astonishing album in his back sleeve “Invocation”: “Pure cosmic energy… in the name of love. Listen.”

-- Stewart Smith, The Wire

To put it simply, Unity is a monster of a record. The first album recorded under Byron Morris and Gerald Wise’s leadership, this legendary blast of liberated fury was originally privately released in 1972 on the artists’ own E.P.I. Records. Unavailable in any format since, Eremite has finally brought us the gorgeous reissue this album deserves.

Recorded over two days at Howard University in 1969, Morris and Wise play with frenetic and inspired abandon. Unity also features incendiary playing from percussionist Keno Speller and his regular sparring partner Byard Lancaster, fresh from making his Vortex debut and a rejected session for ESP, along with an assortment of rarely-recorded local players from DC. Eric Gravatt rounds the group out on the drum kit, but whereas his playing in the 1970s with Wayne Shorter and various icons of the Japanese jazz scene blurred the line between bop and fusion, the pummeling he lays down here is decidedly avant garde.

The first of two side-long tracks, “JWM+53” opens with lyrical playing that recalls “Lonely Woman”, but Ornette’s ballad is all about longing and his playing of it plaintive and tender, whereas this piece seizes all that possibility and liberates its passion in the name of an anarchic new order. “Black Awareness” is even more powerful: amplified and tuned percussion reminiscent of Marzette Watts “Backdrop for Urban Revolution” sets the scene before crashing tidal swells of drums wash it out to sea, carried away by a righteous storm of trumpet and saxophones.

This reissue is limited to 550 copies. Pressed on heavyweight vinyl by RTI, with an insert featuring Byron Morris’ newly penned liner notes screenprinted by Alan Sherry of SIWA.

-- Stranded Records