Friday, July 2, 2010

DOROTHY ASHBY: The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby

Dorothy Ashby - The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby
I was in People’s Records in Detroit one Valentine’s Day, hurriedly flipping through the jazz bins as quickly as I could so as not to exhaust the patience of my long-suffering girlfriend. There was one other customer, dropping old funk sides onto a portable turntable, obviously looking for his next million-dollar sample. My lovely ladyfriend was browsing through The Real Detroit and I was rescuing old Hugh Masakela LPs from the dollar bin when I heard HER.

Barely a melody, more like a chant, but layered, harmonized. “The moving finger writes, and having writ…” I tilted my head and mouthed the words “What is this?” and then THAT BEAT kicked in. I saw Cratedigger’s head pop up like prairie dog. The money-break, dusty and warm with the kind of natural reverb now made extinct by tacky digital sheen. Strings, vibraphone, saxophone, and that chunky-goodness bassline! My girl gave me the “Are you done?” look and I gave her the “I have attained Nirvana” look. Straight to the counter with me.

Me: What is this music?

Unusually Nice Record Store Guy: This is a jazz harpist named Dorothy Ashby. She graduated from Wayne State, just down the street there.

Me: Is this record (bashful) for sale, or anything?

UNRSG: This copy is pretty beaten up and the first track doesn’t play, but even so, if it was for sale, it’d be about sixty bucks. I had a decent copy last week, and like, an hour after I got it this Japanese record dealer scooped it up for a hundred.

My heart sank. A luxury afforded only to original-pressing-only-fetishists. Enjoy it now, Michael, while you can, because you’ll never hear this music again.

UNRSG: But you can get a reissue for about ten bucks.

Dorothy Ashby had already made a couple of solid, swinging cocktail-funk records by the time this session was held in late 1969. According to the liner notes, she was planning to record just a couple of these songs, and Richard Evans (who produced and arranged The Rubaiyat) had to convince her to make this record. Thank you for that, Mr. Evans.

Evans’ arrangements, while not ground-breaking, are all top-notch. The strings are warm and expansive without overpowering the soloists or blurring the mix into a syrupy mush, and strong basslines are everywhere, (check out “Drink” and “Wax & Wane”). There are upbeat tunes (the jazzy “Wine” and the lilting “Shadow Shapes”) and mellower, more evocative songs (“For Some We Loved” and “Heaven and Hell”) and the shifting moods are complimented with a variety of timbres, like Ashby’s koto playing, Lenny Druss’ wailing oboe on “For Some We Loved” and some vibes, kalimba and electric guitar. Throughout, Ashby’s harp sweeps with a confident ease.

I don’t want to reduce this enchanting LP to a play-by-play, but I can’t hold back about the first 120 seconds. The first sound is a harp, sweeping through caves and waterfalls, joined by an equally reverbed koto. As the picture comes into focus, a brief snake-charmer motif creeps out from vials and jars, incense is lit, lamps go dim and a lumbering boom-bap propels an arcing string arrangement while harp arpeggios fall like snowflakes. A tense, here-it-comes chord is held and released, and what seven-minute overtures fight to earn has been won effortlessly in 40 seconds. Earned and not squandered. Ashby’s opening serenade is bone-chilling. This verse, which brings us to the two-minute mark, renounces with confident ease the “foolish prophets” of science and saintliness. The worldly and the spiritual now dispensed with, Ashby proceeds to play a harp solo that swings the way harps don’t; no cloud-straddling cherub here. This is precise, sexy jazz-funk.

A few people have told me that they prefer Ashby’s Afro-Harping, mainly because they just can’t get into her singing. Those people are wrong. Ashby’s timeless voice, with its wide vibrato, is probably my favorite thing here and if anything was to be changed about this basically perfect record, I might ask for more of that voice.

The lyrics are all taken from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of Khayyam’s 12th-Century poetry compiled and translated (loosely) by 19th-Century Englishman Edward Fitzgerald. Khyyam’s Rubaiyat is lovely stuff, celebrating life and encouraging us to shalalalalala live for today rather than mortify ourselves with a self-flagellating stink of piety. It’s all very Sufi, or very humanist, or both, or neither. Ashby picked all the best lines to sing, usually starting a song with a short sung passage, sometimes reprising it at the end, and letting the instruments do most of the talking.

This album is something special, but it isn’t always readily available (I have the 2007 reissue on the Dusty Groove label, which seems to be going out of print) so keep an eye peeled and grab it if you see it. And watch out for jet-setting record dealers. This should be in everyone’s crates.

1 comment:

Mr. Stevens said...

Agreed amigo. As always you have made writing about music look easy, and that is an accomplishment of a true writer.