CLIFFORD JORDAN & FRIENDS: ‘Drink Plenty Water’ (Harvest Song Records)

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A virtuoso tenor saxophonist and composer originally from Chicago, Clifford Jordan (1931-1991) first rose to fame in the late 1950s recording three highly regarded three hard bop-style LPs for New York’s famous Blue Note label. Building on that solid foundation, Jordan went on to record for various labels over the ensuing years and work with some of jazz’s biggest names, including Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1970s, Jordan recorded what some people regard as his finest musical creation, the double LP Glass Bead Games, the second and last of two albums he cut for the independent Strata-East label. The company was established by two of Jordan’s friends, trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell, who decided to form their own artist-friendly label because they were dismayed by how the increasingly corporatized music business was treating jazz musicians. 

Unbeknown to many people, Jordan had recorded a third album for Strata-East in August 1974 but for unknown reasons, it never saw the light of day. The good news for Jordan fans, though, is that his lost third album for Strata-East has been discovered in the archives, dusted down, and thanks to the marvels of modern audio restoration technology, has been spruced up for an official release on Harvest Song Records, a label run by Jordan’s widow Sandy.  

Drink Plenty Water turns out to be one of the most remarkable recordings of Jordan’s career.  That’s largely because it’s a dedicated vocal album for which he wrote most of the lyrics and is unlike anything else in his canon. The vocals are shared between Donna Jordan Harris – Jordan’s daughter, who was then just sixteen – and the resonant-voiced actor and singer David Smyrl, who later joined the cast of Sesame Street. Behind them, a high-calibre ensemble consisting of “friends” lays down some carefully crafted backdrops; among them,  noted trumpeter Bill Hardman, bass clarinetist Charlie Rouse (who is best remembered for his long stint as a saxophonist in Thelonious Monk’s band), pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Billy Higgins. The striking arrangements were written by the late jazz bassist Bill Lee, who was film director Spike Lee’s father. 

The set opens with ‘The Highest Mountain,’ a rousing fusion of gospel and jazz that Jordan recorded several times as an instrumental in his career. It’s a jubilant track that highlights Donna Jordan Harris’ beguiling and slightly tentative lead voice and features some fine horn blowing by her father. The young singer also fronts the charming and lightly swinging ‘Witch Doctor’s Chant (Ee-Bah-Lickey-Doo)’ which is enhanced by colourful horn textures; it’s very different from the instrumental version Jordan cut for his 1970 Vortex LP, Soul Fountain.  

The most striking track of all is ‘Drink Plenty Of Water And Drink Slow,’ featuring a spoken narrative from the commanding David Smyrl. Part poem, self-help advice, and social message song, it is flecked with both humour and pathos. In sharp contrast, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling For You’ is a funky blues while the hypnotic ‘My Papa’s Coming Home’ is an urgent piece of modal jazz distinguished by an infectious vocal chorus. 

The impressive Smyrl returns for the longest track, ‘Talking Blues,’ which he wrote the lyrics for. It’s a spoken-word, Oscar Brown Jr-style life-lesson tale rooted in the African American experience that describes the adventures of an itinerant character; an instrumental version of the same tune closes the album, highlighting the wonderful interplay between the horn players. 

Drink Plenty Water is a revelatory recording that adds another dimension to our understanding of Clifford Jordan, both the man and the musician. Why it wasn’t released at the time remains a mystery but the reason may have something to do with how different the record was from what the saxophonist had served up before – and let’s not forget that it was also recorded at a time when the jazz scene seemed to be in decline and the music’s commercial appeal had sunk to an all-time low.  49 years later, however, Drink Plenty Water comes across as the jazz equivalent of finding an oasis in the desert.  

(CW)  4/5