AMN Reviews: Arni Cheatham’s Thing – Thing [Porter Records PRCD 1507]

For decades, New York had generally been recognized as one of, if not the, most important centers for jazz in the world. But even during New York’s dominance the music flourished in creatively fertile regional centers such as Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New Haven, and Boston. This last city was home to the early fusion group Thing.

Thing, whose members met as students at the Berklee School of Music, was nominally led by alto and soprano saxophonist Arni Cheatham. Originally from Chicago, Cheatham became an influential figure in Boston’s jazz community not only as a musician, but as one of the founders of the city’s Jazz Coalition as well as a music educator and advocate.

The group’s self-titled, self-issued album, which came out in the early 1970s and has recently been reissued by Porter Records, was its only release. The album contains two lengthy live performances, each of which would have taken up one side of an LP, recorded live in Cambridge, Massachusetts in spring of 1972. Both are superior examples of the kind of early jazz-rock fusion that eschewed elaborate arrangements and chord progressions in favor of a more direct, modal improvisation grounded in a funk-rock rhythm. The rhythm section of electric bassist David Saltman, electric pianist Vagn Leick, drummer Kiah “T” Nowlin and conga player Dorian McGee set out infectious grooves and static harmonies that afford Cheatham—on flute as well as saxophones—and trumpeter Wil Letman the freedom to play in or out. The group’s rhythms are complex but intelligible, the solos tight but loose; the performance seems to capture a moment—short-lived, as we now know–that saw just the right balance struck between the conservation of jazz conventions and the importation of the instruments and pulses of rock.

Thing is just one installment in Porter’s continuing series of reissues of archival performances deserving of a second life. Two other releases in the series—Obugumba, the 1972 album by the Ugandan guitarist/vocalist Birigwa, and drummer Joe Chambers’ 1976 New World—are also worth hearing.

Daniel Barbiero

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