Black Renaissance (Red Vinyl Edition)

A 2 track avant garde jazz album (39m 13s) — released August 12th 2013 on Luv N Haight

Harry Whitaker is a piano player, producer and arranger who at the age of 26 recorded Black Renaissance "Body, Mind, and Spirit," a holy grail amongst collectors of soul-jazz and rare groove, and an album so rare it's virtually a myth to many.

Made up of two long tracks that periodically build and release for forty minutes over two sides of an LP it's an improvised masterpiece combining Afrocentric spiritual soul, jazz, poetry, amazing solos, a tasty bass line or two and more than a fair share of funky beats. It's also one of the earliest jazz albums to feature rapping. "I called the project Black Renaissance because that is what I wanted to see happen - especially in music. I describe it as Dixieland circa 1976 - by the end of the songs everyone is playing together."

Given its rarity, when asked if he was surprised that people knew about the album Whitaker jokes "I've told enough people about it over the years! Now they can actually hear it. It was a record before it's time. It's not a commercial release - I think of it as classical. You can call it jazz, but it's free, it's got African roots, it's for people who people who dig that sound."

Harry Whitaker has enjoyed a successful career as a producer, arranger and composer, cutting his teeth on the best of the Roy Ayers Ubiquity releases and making a living working closely with Roberta Flack - as her musical director, even playing on her big Eugene McDaniels' written hit "I Feel Like Makin' Love." Black Renaissance "Body, Mind, and Spirit," was his first attempt at a project where he wrote and composed the music and played keys on both tracks.

So just how did such a great record almost not make it past the shores of Japan?

The Black Renaissance project was recorded on Martin Luther King Day, January 15th, 1976 at Sound Ideas Studio in New York City. "With all the turmoil going on during Kings time he had come to mean a lot to all kinds of people. I wanted to put something down to celebrate his memory - and the date was just about the only thing that we planned ahead of time on this record." Much to Whitakers dismay, Baystate, the Japanese company who originally released the album, misprinted the recording date as June 15th. This wasn't the only item they mishandled and Whitaker admits that being new to the business side of the industry didn't help. "I was still learning. I gave Baystate a copy, not the original, but a copy of the masters and they went ahead and released it in 1977." Unfortunately for Whitaker there was no paperwork, no deal, and definitely no money for his recording. He only heard through the grapevine that the record had been released. In actual fact, he is pretty sure that none of the artists involved have even heard the finished result! Despite several visits to Japan, Whitaker was unable to locate Baystate records, which after our investigation appears to be long defunct. "I couldn't get a deal for this record in the USA, until now, so I had to wait a long time! I guess it's because it's such a personal record, not a money-maker."

When a friend of Whitaker's house burned down years later, included in the possessions lost were the masters to the Black Renaissance album. "I decided that was the end of it all and that I should move on from trying to get a deal in the USA, until you guys (Ubiquity) called me!"

Whitaker's on-going career includes collaborations with many high-profile artists. Beginning with a two-year stint in Lloyd Price's big band in 1965 as part of a line-up that included Slide Hampton and Pepper Adams. Whitaker also found time to work with 1960s teen-idol Bobby Rydell. He started to write his own material in 1968. "This was just before I met Roy (Ayers). From then on everything was on the up-swing."

Whitaker played with Roy Ayers' Ubiquity band from 1970 until 1974. He wrote, produced and arranged many of Ayers classics - including playing keys on the seminal rare-groover "We Live In Brooklyn", and co-producing and arranging the film soundtrack to "Coffy" the blaxploitation classic featuring Pam Grier.

Rare-groove fanatics will note Whitakers credit as being in charge of musical direction on Gene McDaniels 1971 often-sampled "Headless Heroes of The Apocalypse." Most significantly, he became music director for Roberta Flack during her heyday. Whitaker's piano skills can also be heard on Gwen Guthrie's "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent." He has appeared on recordings by his great friend Terumasa Hino plus Norman Connors, Bobbi Humphrey, Stephanie Mills, Carmen Lundy, Claudia Acuna, Phyliss Hyman, The Spinners, Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson, Mtume, the list goes on . . . Commercially successful work with Roberta Flack followed swiftly after his split with the Roy Ayers Ubiquity group. With an influx of cash, Whitaker now had the luxury of being able to record his own material. "This is a very personal record and I wanted to take control. I composed, arranged and even played on it," says Whitaker of the Black Renaissance album. "I was lucky enough to have the time, resources and the material."

Despite being put together by a man who'd made his living arranging other people's music, the Black Renaissance session was largely a loose and improvised recording. There were no overdubs or edits and each track was recorded in one magical take. "We discussed ideas the night before - just the basics like the bass lines and the drums, but that was it. It was recorded in what I call moment-to-moment," he explains, "It's very spontaneous but because the basic ideas were there and the players were all the best at the time it came together and has an Afrocentric quality to it."

Whitaker is very proud of Woody Shaw's trumpet solos on this record, "Nobody has heard him play like that!" Alongside Shaw is an all-star cast including Azar Lawrence, Buster Williams, Billy Hart and Mtume. "The musicians on the record were, and still are, my friends and confidants, or as Bird said "My worthy constituents," he adds. To encourage spontaneity Whitaker had invited a crowd of friends and industry people, Roberta Flack showed as did a current and an ex-wife who appear on the album reciting poetry. "The studio was packed, it was like a party celebration or a gathering. It was full of people who appreciated music and that helped the energy and the vibe, we were able to bounce ideas off the crowd. There are solos, poetry and even rapping on it, all of it improvised. They say the first rap records came out in 1976, maybe mine was one of the first?" When asked if he'd re-do anything on the album Whitaker replies with a defiant "No! And I couldn't even repeat what we did even for a couple of million dollars!" And with an album this good, why should he!

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