I’m feeling multifacetedly fortunate that this weekend marks the in-person return of Wesleyan Jazz Weekend and that, after my students’ performance on Friday night, we’ll be getting a visit from the Makanda Project, a big band devoted to the previously unperformed works of Makanda Ken McIntyre. Makanda was a demonstrated virtuoso on alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute, and oboe at minimum (though his multi-wind capacities didn’t end there), a distinctive, meticulous composer, and an educator with a deep impact. I have heard stories from folks across multiple generations describing Makanda’s seriousness and integrity, and I am delighted that work is being done to preserve and amplify his legacy.
In advance of this concert, and both to celebrate it and to provide some points of entry for folks less familiar with Makanda’s work, here is a handful of my favorite tracks among the many I have enjoyed through the years.
1 ) “Curtsy” from Looking Ahead (1960)
A lot of folks know Makanda best for his first album as a leader, which puts him alongside the more-heralded multi-wind virtuoso Eric Dolphy. On this bop-meets-modern track, both can be heard on alto saxophone (with Makanda taking the 1st solo and Dolphy the 2nd). They’re both brilliant and the contrast is fascinating. Walter Bishop, Jr. also throws in a tasty piano solo.
2 ) “96.5 ” from Year of the Iron Sheep (1962)
This swinging yet angular composition features Makanda demonstrating his voice on flute. Ron Carter tales a great bass solo and while Jaki Byard doesn’t solo, his piano contributes characteristically lush yet unpredictable texture throughout.
3 ) “Kaijee” from Way Way Out (1963)
Another more-heralded multi-wind virtuoso, Yusef Lateef, may be better known for his work on the oboe, but Makanda demonstrates his soul and virtuosity on that instrument on this tribute to his son. His lush but not syrupy arrangement for the string section shows yet another aspect of his arsenal.
4 ) “Unit Structure/As of Now/Section” from Unit Structures by Cecil Taylor (1966)
This album is one of the landmarks of avant-garde jazz in the 1960s and Makanda, on bass clarinet, is the first soloist and an important part of the ensemble passages, and my goodness does he burn. Other soloists include Cecil on piano, Jimmy Lyons on alto, Eddie Gale on trumpet, while Andrew Cyrille on drums and Alan Silva on bass have their fingerprints all over.
5 ) “Mercedes” from Hindsight (1974)
This fiery modal waltz offers a particularly fierce example of Makanda’s flute work, while also featuring solos by Kenny Drew on piano and Alex Riel on drums. This whole album is delightful and marks his return to recording as a bandleader after a hiatus of more than a decade.
6 ) “Jamaican Sunset” from Home (1975)
Given his Jamaican roots (his parents were from there) the Caribbean flavors to some of Makanda’s music are far from a trivial affectation. This gorgeous, tender composition (featuring him again on flute) is one of my favorite examples of this, and Jaki Byard shines on piano.
7 ) “Home” from Don’t Look Back by Nat Adderley (1976)
This pretty yet metrically tricky song (also known as “Home, Cradle of Happiness”) harkens back to classic Cannonball Adderley sextet music and features Makanda (the composer of this song) playing some lyrical, emotional oboe, followed by additional solos by Nat on cornet and Onaje Allan Gumbs on electric piano.
8 ) “African Drums” from Beautiful Africa by Beaver Harris (1979)
Drummer Beaver Harris is best known for his work as a sideman on many avant-garde sessions in the 1960s and 1970s, including over a dozen Archie Schepp sessions, but he also had a significant catalogue as a bandleader beginning in the mid-70s. This track, a two-chord modal vamp in waltz time, features a several minute long, ripping solo Makanda on bassoon. I’m not a scholar on jazz double reed history, but I’m not aware of any bassoon solos prior to this one that are as burning. Other soloists here include Grachan Moncur III on trombone, Ron Burton on piano, and Harris himself.
9 ) “Peas ‘n’ Rice” from In the Wind (1995-6)
This fascinating album is all woodwind quartet arrangements of Makanda’s compositions, with the maestro himself playing all the parts, overdubbed on various winds (flutes, clarinets, double reeds). This track, one of a significant number about food, is as intricate as it is grooving.
10 ) “Monk & Trane” from A New Beginning (1999)
Makanda is on alto saxophone here, demonstrating the influence of the composition’s two sources of dedication, and yet it’s clear that by this point (on, sadly, his last recording) his voice was entirely his own. There are also excellent solos by Joanne Brackeen on piano and Charli Persip on drums, but Makanda is rightly the star here.