THE CIRCLE WITH A HOLE IN THE MIDDLE
Rare Vinyl Revisited
by
Bill Shoemaker

Beaver Harris:
The 360 Degree
Music Experience
From Rag Time
to No Time

360 Records LP 2001

From Rag Time to No Time was one of the most subversive recordings of its time. Recorded in late 1974 and early ’75, it sought nothing less than proclaim jazz to be a unified field, instead of a Balkanized muddle. Anyone who thought drummer Beaver Harris to be an unlikely candidate to do so was probably only aware of his work with Fire Music principals like Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. Harris’ resume was actually remarkably well rounded; not only did he work with icons like Monk and Rollins, but he played with old-schoolers like vocalist Maxine Sullivan, trumpeter Doc Cheatham and clarinetist Herb Hall, all of whom make vital contributions to the album. Tellingly, the only other musician on the album with comparable avant-garde credentials is pianist Dave Burrell, who was (and remains) as grounded in Joplin, Morton and Waller as he is in later styles (on subsequent 360 Music Experience recordings, Burrell had co-leader billing; here, he is listed as Music Director). Harris not only enlisted a unique cross-section of musicians from the jazz community (Ron Carter, Jimmy Garrison and Cecil McBee are the bassists), but Caribbean and Indian musicians, as well.

Yet, Harris didn’t go overboard by pairing Cheatham with sitarist Sunil Garg, or Hall with steel drummer Francis Haynes. Instead, he divided the LP into two sidelong, stylistically contrasting sequences. The common denominator is the sinew-like role of drums. Short Harris traps solos provide the transitions on the “From Rag Time” A Side, which is arranged by Marshall Brown, who also plays valve trombone and euphonium. With the exception of the Burrell-penned “A.M. Rag,” an excellent example of how Burrell attenuates early styles without draining them of their innate optimism, the compositions are by Harris. A thorough refutation of avant-garde stereotypes, this sequence is, at turns, melancholy and sprightly. However, Harris’ obvious affection for the elders on the date and the styles they propagated stops well short of mushy nostalgia; and, he is not hesitant to nudge them, artistically. The lyrics of the two ballads sung by Sullivan – “Can There Be Peace?” and “I Wish I Knew” – are informed by atomic-age anxiety and doubt rather than the romanticism of the vintage ballads that were her stock in trade, and prompt her depth-plumbing performances. Similarly, on the ebullient “It’s Hard But We Do,” the deep-in-the-pocket drive of Burrell, Carter and Harris causes Brown, Cheatham and Hall to stretch.

The two-part “Round Trip” takes up the entirety of the “To No Time” B-Side, and is an overlooked benchmark of multiculturalism in jazz. Throughout, themes that initially seem inspired by African music will take on an Asian tinge, and vice versa. After a short bluesy Carter-McBee duet and a short percussion interlude (in addition to Harris and Haynes, there are five other hand drummers), a mournful theme is introduced, highlighted by flutist Keith Marks. Bill Willingham sings a short chant that bears some resemblance to Leon Thomas’ work with Pharoah Sanders, triggering a simmering ensemble featuring Howard Johnson’s gruff baritone saxophone and Burrell’s cascading lines and clusters. After a bass interlude, Marks ramps up the energy with Burrell and the drummers, slipping into a convivial Brazilian groove. The drummers erupt, eventually settling into a fast 6/8 groove, onto which a lilting melody stated by Marks and Haynes – and a vibrant steel drum solo – are plied.  Burrell moves to the foreground for an abstract statement, which peters out to allow Haynes to state a spare luminous theme. A rubato ensemble ensues, which dissolves with a final Harris onslaught.

In addition to its abundant musical merits, From Rag Time to No Time is significant on two other counts. The musicians produced the album, no small feat give the relative high costs of LP production, the obstacles of distribution (the emergence of the quixotic New Music Distribution Service notwithstanding), and a press corps that generally didn’t get it. Additionally, the album sparked pungent, if delayed musical commentary from across the pond. In 1982, Vienna Art Orchestra recorded From No Time to Rag Time (hatART). VAO composer Mathias Ruegg’s historical view was decidedly more dialectical than Harris’, which held that the music’s entire history is always present.