Natural Food was one of those bands that sprung up around Boston in the late 1960s and early '70s in the latter squalls of hippiedom as it centered its cultural, social, and political focus on ending the Vietnam War. Rock music was king, of course, but lots of music was readily available and put out cheaply and quickly by any number of soul, blues, funk, and bluegrass singer/songwriters by the truckload, and even some world music came onto the scene. This was more true in college towns where various kinds of musical invention met with other disciplines like theater, poetry, activism, absurdity, and drugs. Boston with Harvard, Boston College, MIT, and the Berklee School of Music drew the curious, adventurous, and talented from everywhere -- and there were a disproportionate number of guitar players. Pianist and composer Mait Edey, then a college student, was an adventurous musician; he'd been involved with various forms of roots music from across the spectrum. This album was released as one of less than a handful of titles on his own privately pressed Seeds imprint in 1972. It is a blues record like no other blues record that has ever been cut, because it was essentially made by group of blues players, jazz players, rock players, and a vocalist who wasn't a formal singer. It also features Edey's Fender Rhodes in the forefront, making it funky as all get out. This killer little set was reissued on CD by Luke Mosling's Porter Records label (from Winter Park, FL, no less!) as part of his initial offering of three titles. (A 2007 recording by Finnish jazz legend Heikki Sarmanto and his quartet, and the self-titled Birigwa record from 1972, which was also on the Seeds imprint, are the other two.)
The players in this band are perhaps not well known, but have interesting pedigrees nonetheless: saxophonist (one of the two here, the other is Billy Thompson) Bill Hurd is an award winning player and already was by then; he is also Charles Lloyd's nephew. Those who follow jazz guitar closely will know guitarist Lance Gunderson, who by this time had already performed with Joe Henderson and Chico Hamilton. Bassist Phil Morrison was a veteran of T-Bone Walker's road band; the other bassist (they alternate), Charlie LaChapelle, was part of Hal Galper's band. There is this other guy who you may know as well. They called him John Crumbles back then; he is known by his real name now: John Abercrombie, and he guested on a track here, and there's also drummer Craig Herndon, who's part of the Heikki Sarmanto quartet! The third guitarist was Paul Lenart. As far as we know, singer Brenda "Latifah" James hasn't been heard from since her excellent performances on three of these tunes.
Edey, who arranged all of this material, wanted to present a blues recording that encompassed as much of the blues form as possible in terms of cadence, harmony and rhythm. What Natural Food came up with was something else. In these eight tunes, there is a place where the blues, soul-jazz, early Rhodes funkiness, out jazz, post-bop, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, acid guitar-vision rock, fuzzed out R&B, and traditional song form all came together for a riot in sound, feel, and groove. In other words, it's a stone classic. The readings of "Gin House Blues" and "See See Rider" are more in line with what's been happening on the beathead scene than it did with the blues-rock sound coming out of the '70s. Part of that has to do with the particular sonorities and plainness in Latifah's voice. She sang these tunes the way you'd converse with a neighbor in the yard if you wanted to get a point across. Edey overdubbed her vocal on "See See Rider," and she did her own overdubbing on "Siren Song." She is a soloist here in an ensemble setting, not a frontperson. The band does not back her: she is part of the band. The hand percussion on "Wobbly Bird Blues," and the two horn players interweaving and interpolating with one another is a fantastic touch and could have been on a Prestige set. "Siren Song" opens with a funky bassline that gets drenched in Rhodes; the same pitch harmony overdub vocal by Latifah offers a centering point for this rhythm heavy approach, the snare is popping, breaking, and then the guitar enters, ready for its chance to cut loose, and it does between the first and third verses. Whoa. The get-down groove quotient on this set is high: it just cooks, simmers, cooks and simmers, until the final cut, "Granny on the Gramophone," where Edey and his pals just let it rip. Bass, Rhodes, wah wah guitars, fuzzed pedals, breaks, loping grooves and general nastiness all push up against one another, building the thing until it just gets all over you and you can't get it off -- much less out of your head. Thanks to the cooperation of Edey and the courage of Mosling, it's a gift that this treasure is available again. Don't miss it the second time around. Just get it!