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The Pharaohs
Awakening
(Luv N' Haight/Ubiquity)
The Pharaohs
In the Basement
(Luv N' Haight/Ubiquity)

Like James Brown on a psych-jazz bender or Charles Mingus dabbling in avant-garde funk, the Pharaohs cut a singular path up the center of R&B, making room to further explore the sonic innovations introduced in the Sixties by not only Brown and Mingus, but Sly Stone, George Clinton, and Sun Ra as well. Although the Pharaohs never came close to a hit -- they fell apart just three years after the release of their one album -- they were an integral if criminally overlooked group in the late-Sixties/early-Seventies freakout soul scene. Two reissues on the Ubiquity offshoot Luv N' Haight -- the Pharaohs' 1971 debut Awakening and a collection of outtakes and rarities -- should help establish the group's importance and influence.

The Pharaohs were formed by trumpeter Charles Handy and evolved from a junior-college band called the Jazzmen (which included Handy and future Earth, Wind and Fire avatar Maurice White). When the Jazzmen split in the late Sixties -- with half the members, including White, taking places in the house band at Chess Records -- Handy assembled some musicians affiliated with the Chicago Affro-Arts Theater and rechristened the eleven-piece band the Pharaohs, a reflection of his growing interest in Egyptology.

Awakening is a groundbreaking set of funk laced with Afro-Beat percussion and the sparkling musical explorations of the most daring (not to say noisy) jazz men of the period. From the blast of staccato horns that opens "Damballa" to the tribal drums and chants of "Ibo," from the retooled version of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" to the percolating bounce of "Black Enuff," Awakening sounds like the missing link between George Clinton's cosmic slop and the taut rhythmic excursions of Boxing Gandhis.

Ditto for In the Basement, which collects three ferocious live tracks from a 1972 gig, a rollicking outtake from the Awakening session ("The Pharaohs Love Y'all"), and the flip side from the band's one single (a swaggering run through Al Green's "Love and Happiness"). It captures the band on the brink of perfecting the approach captured so masterfully on the Pharaohs' debut, but it wasn't to be. Handy continued his studies of Egyptology, while members of the Pharaohs horn section were swept up by Maurice White for his then-new combo Earth, Wind and Fire, whose early hits and big-band, jazz/funk style owe a great deal to the music collected on these two long overdue collections. (Ubiquity, P.O. Box 192104, San Francisco, CA 94119)

-- John Floyd

Various Artists
Best of Fat Possum
(Fat Possum/Capricorn)

How can the blues evolve when the conditions that gave rise to its birth and subsequent development no longer exist?

The blues grew out of the forced isolation of African-American people on the plantations of the South, where it developed for decades as an acoustic music. When, in the aftermath of World War II, the mechanical cotton picker put an end to sharecropping, the millions of blacks who made their way to the cities of the North and South took the blues with them. There, as Muddy Waters pointed out, it had to become electric to be heard in an urban environment. But the continuing flow of migration from the rural Deep South to the cities kept an organic link to the roots of the blues, feeding a frenzy of creativity by bluesmen as different in style and location as Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King.

As that migration died out and urban blues gave way to soul, funk, and rock and roll, the blues became static, even though many artists still managed to find thrilling ways to run in place.

But there's an exception to every rule. In Mississippi, the state that remains closest to the conditions that spawned the blues, a new form of the music has evolved. Rural blues musicians, some of them still farmers, took the old acoustic country blues and added not just electricity but a jolt of primal rock and roll. Six are featured on Best of Fat Possum. It's country blues in subject matter (Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me in the City" is a Saturday-go-to-town song if ever there was one), approach (the rough-hewn rhythms and fevered vocals that once were necessary for acoustic performers at noisy plantation get-togethers), and attitude. But this is loud, electric music, drawing from urban blues and rock. It can have the sweet edge of Little Dave and Big Love or the raw brute force of R.L. Burnside.

Collectively, the artists here give the blues a shot in the arm that can take the music past the millennium with some momentum.

-- Lee Ballinger

Louisiana Purchase
1996 New York Revival Cast
(DRG)

Something strange was happening on Broadway in 1940. Musicals, which used to be little more than songs and stars grafted onto flimsy boy-meets-girl plots, were turning sophisticated. Lady in the Dark dealt with psychoanalysis; in Pal Joey the traditional, Brylcreemed juvenile male lead was usurped by a calculating gigolo. Audiences accustomed to escapist entertainment didn't know what to make of this new intelligence and seriousness. It wasn't until 1943 and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! that audiences grew to appreciate the new maturity of Broadway's best writers and musicians. (Today, Stephen Sondheim's musicals cause similar problems.)

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