Donkey Business

The Unheard Music Series reissues Funky Donkey, a classic of St. Louis jazz

"We were all pretty much steeped in the funk tradition anyway," he continues. "Some of the guys grew up playing with Little Milton, as well as, of course, Albert King, Ike and, of course, Oliver Sain. We were pretty much steeped in the blues. We were getting our early experience in the blues and rhythm & blues. But this funk thing was different, the way Miles put it out there. It was extended performances; it wasn't vocally oriented, you weren't backing up singers per se, and the instrumentals were right out there. It was basically coming in with a free form -- those guys had some [riffs] they knew, but they didn't make a big deal out of it. You just came in and played. It was fairly free-form."

Free-form it obviously is, but it's free-form coming out of the imaginations of artists at their peak. You can hear it on the second track (side two of the original release), "Una New York." It's a more restrained examination of a song written by Shaw, and it illustrates the depth of feeling within the collective. Lester Bowie tosses off a Southwestern trumpet riff that seems stolen straight from a spaghetti Western, echoed in spirit by guitarist Horne. They uncover another riff, this one less raucous, more restrained -- though containing enough energy to power a 747 -- that they proceed to celebrate for another 18 minutes. Lester in particular is highlighted here, and the listener is treated to remarkable glimpse of a master.

Says Parran: "The stature of the band -- Lester Bowie was no small potatoes, even in '73. He had already come back from Europe and had appeared on the cover of Downbeat magazine along with Don Ellis and Freddie Hubbard. Lester Bowie had made it, and he was on the gig, so it was no little deal. But to a lot of people in St. Louis, they just didn't know what was happening."

But it wasn't just St. Louisans who were overlooking members of BAG at their finest, Corbett says. "I think it's this important part of the puzzle that's all but forgotten and rarely mentioned, even by the people who were there. The World Saxophone Quartet guys rarely mention it; my experience is that they never really talk up the BAG heritage that much."

With any luck, that will change. Corbett says that in addition to the Funky Donkey masters, he received from Thomas a box of tapes that were thought to be of the same performance: "I'm sure he thought that these were related; it turns out that they were not. They're of a completely different session, unmarked, that was clearly also prepared for release and never came out. When he's in town next, we're going to sit down with the music and sort through it, figure out who's playing on it. The tracks are all listed, and it's really great. Primo St. Louis Black Artists Group music."

Next week: the howl of the Screamin' Mee-Mees' Warp Sessions 1973.

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