In 1959-1960, three albums crossed boundaries in three different ways and sent jazz reeling. John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” packed so many chords into its explosive tunes that it forced be-bop to an abrupt harmonic conclusion. Meanwhile, Ornette Coleman’s melodic inventiveness on “The Shape of Jazz to Come” worked from another angle to release jazz songs from the constrictions of chord progressions. Finally, the weightless modal tunes on Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” ignored chords altogether. In short, the most advanced jazz musicians were aching for broader ranges of expression.
Enter Byard Lancaster, the multi-instrumentalist, music educator and performer who once carried a business card that read, “From A Love Supreme to Sex Machine and all in between.” Although Lancaster is hardly as well-known as Coltrane and James Brown, he’s no doubt made some interesting contributions to the evolution of music. “It’s Not Up to Us,” originally released in 1968, finds Lancaster and the explosive guitarist Sonny Sharrock busting down the walls that survived the jazz revolution of a decade earlier.
There are several reasons to buy this re-release. The first, of course, is because it contains a wide range of outstanding music. From the jaunty, plaintive flute lines of the title track to the abstract rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and the aggressive guitar trills of the album’s dark conclusion, “Satan,” every note rings with honesty. The second reason is that it’s an education in the evolution of studio tools as compositional devices. Here and there are deep washes of reverb, and Lancaster’s horn occasionally surprises the ears by panning and fading. The effects are tasteful and subtle but — given the times — radical, nonetheless.
On Lancaster’s impressive resume (he has played at the White House) is an arrest that stems from his long-standing passion for playing in public. In November 2000 he was busted in Philly for “playing various instruments and causing alarm in front of a [convenience store].” The charge was eventually dropped. The revolution continues.