Yesterday saw the first reissue of saxophonist Alan Braufman’s Valley Of Search, which was the second album to appear on the India Navigation record label in 1975. India Navigation specialized in avant-garde and free jazz, and in that respect, Valley Of Search was a good fit for the label; the album is a perfect illustration of the short-lived but vibrant NYC loft scene of the early-mid 1970s.
A bit of background. NYC was in a state of decay in the mid-1970s, as Taxi Driver (1976) showed well. The causes are too numerous to analyse here, but one factor was the effect of old industries moving out of the city. Many warehouses and industrial buildings were abandoned at this time, and were soon occupied by counter-culture artists of all kinds, including jazz musicians. The most famous of these were Ornette Coleman’s ‘Artist House’ on Prince Street, Ali’s Alley (Rashied Ali) and Studio Rivbea (Sam Rivers). 501 Canal Street was another such ‘loft’ that was taken over by a group of young Berklee graduates, including saxophonist Alan Braufman and pianist Gene Ashton, now known as Cooper-Moore. For a modest rent, but no central heating, musicians and their families lived on four floors of the building, leaving the ground floor – which had a store front – as a rehearsal and performance space. Performances took place on a Friday and Saturday night, and the band assembled by Braufman and Ashton became the de-facto house band.
Braufman had embraced music at an early age, and was self-taught before he attended Berklee. “I started playing clarinet at eight; my mom was deeply into the music, so she would play Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Coltrane,” he explained. “It grabbed me – there was something exciting about it that I didn’t hear in other music, so no matter what I was going to be a musician. When I was thirteen I got my first saxophone. I had a teacher who could teach me how to play but not how to improvise (which is what I wanted to do) so I had to figure it out. I didn’t know changes, but I could pick out the patterns that were happening in free music and I could figure out what to do. I would teach myself patterns and scales, figure out some harmonics.”
After graduating, he moved to New York, and soon teamed up with bass player Cecil McBee, who had come through Boston with Pharoah Sanders. Braufman appeared on McBee’s 1974 album, Mutima, and the bass player also appears on this recording. Rounding out the line-up are drummer David Lee and percussionist Ralph Williams.
The music is best described as ‘free jazz’, although it is firmly rooted in the spiritualism of late John Coltrane and early 1970s Pharoah Sanders, which probably helps to make it more accessible. The album opens with Rainbow Warriors, an improvised piece featuring McBee on bowed bass and Gene Ashton on dulcimer. This merges with Chant, on which the pianist recites a Bahá’í prayer over a stew of saxophone, bowed bass, percussion and shouts. The overall vibe might be of its time, it still sounds fresh and vibrant.
Thankfulness is one of the highlights, and is built around a repeated theme by Braufman; there is some astonishing drumming by Lee, and Braufman eventually gives way to an improvised piano solo by Ashton, supported by some wild percussion by Williams. Love Is For Real is built around a cool bass line by McBee, before Braufman enters with an extraordinary, fiery solo.
Little Nabil’s March, as the name suggests, has a Middle Eastern feel, and is improvised around a simple line by Braufman, supported by a marching drumbeat by Lee and the occasional whistle. Destiny brings the album to a close, and is perhaps the most accessible of all, very reminiscent of late-era Coltrane.
Valley Of Search has been out of print for many years, and is considered highly collectable. This reissue is available on both CD and vinyl, and is on the Valley Of Search label, set up by Braufman’s nephew. It’s a fascinating story, an equally fascinating album, and with the emergence of Kamasi Washington – who draws on many of the same influences – it sounds less dated, and more accessible than one might imagine.