Milt Ward and Virgo Spectrum- Obscure Grail
This album, with Milt Ward as band leader and featuring Carlos Garnett on tenor sax and Cecil McBee on bass is fairly rare- it comes up occasionally for sale, but it took me time to get a copy. Released in 1977 (according to the copyright notices on the labels) on the utterly obscure Twin Quest label, little seems to be known about Ward or the sessions. He did appear as a trumpet player on a few other albums. Given the album’s rep as a “grail” it is surprising how little is known about it, particularly given the line up.
Milt Ward’s sole release as a band leader, the album includes a number of Ward’s own compositions, playing trumpet as well as flugelhorn. It fits under the genre heading of ‘soul jazz’ which could mean almost anything- here, the horns dominate at first. And it’s an impressive horn section that includes not only the aforementioned Carlos Garnett (Mingus and Miles, among others) and Bill Pierce, a stalwart who was the chair of the woodwinds department at Berklee School (known for his work with Tony Williams and Art Blakey), but a host of other horn players with whom I had no real familiarity: Eddie Alex, Glenn Barbour and our leader, Milt Ward.
When McBee comes in part way through the first track, “Mr. Cheese,” the horns have already spoken against a bass and drum beat with some wonderful flute weaving in and out. The horns come back in together, and the solo that follows chips away at the high notes while the electric piano does that chime-y thing and we’re off on another horn solo, deeper, bigger. The way these guys pull together is pretty impressive- I have no idea how much time they rehearsed, but they don’t get in each other’s way.
McBee has a nice part here, and then another horn solo, with a different character and tone. The band starts to increase pressure just short of the six minute mark, and soon, we’re into another sound altogether- synth, trumpet, a variation of theme and the flute returns, with some fillips from the horns, a funky bass and electric piano riff and the horn section is all harmonious, with a flash and dead stop.
Things really take off on the second track,” The Foreign[o]r”- a glorious piece of East meets West flavor where Ward and McBee leave no one behind: the sax parts are killer, as is the percussion work. This is a pretty expensive record to buy for one track, but this one might convince you. Stunning.
“Morning Glories,” the last track on first side, starts with piano, horn and various shimmers of percussion (with some deep tones likely generated by the synthesizer) that lead us to an almost pastoral moment of soft piano, horn and bass thrumming, triangle, bells and other assorted percussion and synth in the background. Ignacio Mena is credited with the percussion work and it is a marvel. The mournful horn that leads us out has a Latin soul.
Starts with a full horn complement on “The Charle” with some cool synth parts and leads into some vigorous horn solos. This piece is a little funkier, due to the electric piano and beat but at its heart, it’s that big horn section that delivers. McBee has a metronomic steadiness, but climbs and descends like he’s playing a melodic instrument. There’s also an electric bass on this album, credited to Coucho [Cucho?] Martinez. This is a big sounding piece.
“Virgo Paths” follows- very upbeat horn sounds pointing skyward, the synth does a futuristic number that sounds like a computer run on vacuum tubes and then the soprano sax takes off, leading us on to a medley of instrumental explorations by the horns, including Ward’s trumpet. This is a pretty hot piece of music with a lot of rhythmic drive – the horn parts become complex due to their interweaving.
The album finishes with “Juneboy’s Frismas,” which starts with a bit of cacophony before settling into a solid Latin groove. The drum work in particular here is impressive and if you crank this track it’s a big “Wow.” The sax solo that follows is pure bliss and that climbing bass just punches. Another bit of cacophony and McBee solos—various percussion sparkles, and the drum kit is holding the beat as McBee plays exactly what you expect even though you’ve never heard it before. The horns coalesce at the end for one last big splash and we’re out.
This isn’t mainstream jazz. It’s a bit on the esoteric side; however, the moments of cacophony aren’t excess but accents, and are not a constant. My copy was very clean- it was probably an unplayed copy- and stamped on both sides with “Masterdisk” in the deadwax.
I’m going to try to get more information about this album—I have some calls out to a few of the personnel and some others. I will supplement this piece accordingly.