Cult Classic: Dawan Muhammad-Deep Stream.

By 1979, jazz wasn’t as popular as it was during the fifties and early sixties. That was the golden age for jazz, and saw countless classic albums released on labels like Blue Note, Verve and Impulse! These albums sold in large quantities and were profitable for the record companies that released them. However, by the mid-sixties, jazz was no longer as popular as it had been. Musical tastes were changing and jazz like the blues had to evolve or risk becoming irrelevant.

By the time of John Coltrane’s death in 1967 rock was by far the most popular musical genre in America. A headline in Downbeat magazine warned that: “Jazz as We Know It Is Dead.” The future for jazz looked bleak.

Fortunately, fusion rode to the rescue of jazz in the late-sixties, and suddenly, there was a resurgence of interest the genre which began to grow in popularity. Some of the most important, influential and innovative fusion albums were released between 1968 to 1974. That was a golden period for fusion which was still popular right up to 1979. However, it wasn’t as popular as it once had been. Jazz was changing and so was the way albums were being released.

By 1979, many American jazz musicians had realised that they didn’t need to sign to a major labels to realise an album. There was another way. All across America small local labels had sprung up and were releasing private presses. Some of these labels were formed by an artist to release an album. That was the case with Evidence Artistic Records which was founded by Dawan Muhammad in 1979 to release his debut album Deep Stream.

Composer, arranger, producer and multi-instrumentalist Dawan Muhammad was thirty-three when he began work on Deep Stream. He composed five of the tracks on the album, and wrote the music to Deep Stream and Is That You which featured lyrics by Delores Pierce. She was part of the band that recorded Deep Stream.

Fifteen musicians and vocalist Delores Pierce joined bandleader Dawan Muhammad who played bass clarinet, flute, saxophone, Fender Rhodes, piano, chequere, congas, drums, dumbek and pandeiro on Deep Stream. He was joined by a rhythm section included drummer and percussionists Daniel Sabanovich and Prince H. Lawsha; Christopher Amberger and Stan Poplin on acoustic and electric bass plus guitarist Chris Cooper who also played violin. They were joined by Paul Nagle on Fender Rhodes and piano; Luis Raul Rivera on congas; flautist Jimmy Johnson while Oscar Williams switched between trumpet and flugelhorn. The strings came courtesy of cellists Deborah Ciremeli and Kenneth Johnson; violists Gordon Thrupp and Judith Hobbs plus violinists Philipp Kashap and Ron Paul. This was the band that accompanied Dawan Muhammad as he recorded the seven tracks that eventually became Deep Stream.

With his debut album complete, Dawan Muhammad decided to release the album as a private press via Evidence Artistic Records. He had enjoyed complete artistic freedom when he recorded Deep Stream and could oversee and micromanage every aspect of the release if he wanted. That was the upside of releasing a private press. 

The downside was that a small label like Evidence Artistic Records neither had the financial muscle nor marketing expertise required that the bigger labels had. Many of the small labels releasing private presses didn’t even have a distributor. This meant that the label owner or even the artist had to drive around town with boxes of albums trying to convince owners of record shops to stock the album. Often the best they could hope was on a sale or return basis. It was a long way from Blue Note, Verve or Impulse!

When Dawan Muhammad released Deep Stream in 1979 sadly, it passed the majority of jazz fans by. Only a few lucky record buyers heard what was a stunning and timeless album of spiritual jazz. It finds the multitalented bandleader and his extended ensemble showcasing their considerable skills and versatility. They switch between and incorporate elements of funk, fusion, hard bop, Ethio-jazz and even free jazz during this seven track set. 

Deep Stream opens with Anxiety a driving, dramatic and genre-melting jam that ebbs and flows veering between urgent and understated. Contrasts are everywhere from stabs of piano, drumrolls and bursts of shrill flugelhorn to a fluttering funky bass and shimmering Fender Rhodes. Later, the piano takes centrestage and plays a leading role before joining forces with the horns and Fender Rhodes for the remainder this captivating roller coaster journey.

As Deep Stream meanders and breezes along a deliberate piano and rhythm section accompanies Delores Pierce’s tender, heartfelt and emotive vocal. When it drops out, the piano and rhythm section stretch their legs and create a slinky arrangement that’s a reminder of jazz’s past.  Later, a flute flutters high above arrangement but it’s still the vocal that plays a starring role in the sound and success of one of the album’s highlights. It’s a similar case on the beautiful slow, string-drenched ballad Is That You where Delores Pierce make a welcome return.

Sun, Moon, Stars is an eight-minute epic that allows Dawan Muhammad and his band to stretch their legs and showcase their considerable talent. Christopher Amberger adds a walking bass while braying, sultry and scorching horns accompany pianist Paul Nagle who plays some of his finest solos during this joyous and uplifting opus that will have you reaching for the sky.

Cataclysmic Decision is quite different from what’s gone before. Thunderous drum rolls add a degree of urgency. So does the the flugelhorn which like the strings are almost dissonant. It’s as if the track is heading in the direction of free jazz. It’s a much more avant-garde and experimental sounding track that shows another side to Dawan Muhammad. 

East Wind is a much more understated and melodic track. It sashays along as braying horns, Fender Rhodes and percussion combine while the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. Dawan Muhammad and his band paint pictures on this cinematic track that’s akin to a seven minutes of musical  sunshine.

Closing Deep Stream is the uber percussive Ethio-jazz of Tambu. It may be short and sweet but it ensures the album closes on a high.

It’s forty-two years since multi-instrumentalist Dawan Muhammad put together a band of talented and versatile jazz musicians to record his debut album Deep Stream. It was released as a private press later in 1979 and is stunning and timeless album of spiritual jazz where  Dawan Muhammad also takes detours via fusion, vocal jazz, funk, free jazz and Ethio-jazz during this seven track set.

Sadly, Deep Stream never found the audience it deservedPart of the problem was that Dawan Muhammad self-released the album. The advantage was that he had complete artistic freedom when he recorded Deep Stream and could oversee and micromanage every aspect of the release. Just like many artists who had released private presses before him, Dawan Muhammad would soon realise that to release and promote an album properly required resources and expertise. This was what a record company provided as well as a distribution deal. Without a distributor it wasn’t possible to get the album into record shops across America.

Many other artists had been in the same situation as Dawan Muhammad and watched as the album they had spent so much of their time writing and recording sunk without trace when it was released. This meant that the majority of jazz fans never heard Deep Stream when it was released. For the multitalented multi-instrumentalist Dawan Muhammad it was a case of what might have been.

It was only much later when jazz fans discovered Dawan Muhammad’s oft-overlooked debut album Deep Stream. By then, it was much a much-prized rarity amongst jazz fans and original copies of the album were beyond the budget of most jazz fans. Thankfully, Dawan Muhammad’s spiritual jazz cult classic was reissued in 2020 and this allowed a new generation of jazz fans to discover the delights of Deep Stream. 

Cult Classic: Dawan Muhammad-Deep Stream.

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