The Purple Why Returns to “Markstown”

MARKSTOWN / TINTWEISS: bells into. Ramona, I Love You. How Sweet? Contrapuntal. N.E.S.W. up/down. The Purple Why theme / live: St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery, New York, August 21, 1968 / Universal Heroes. Just Be Mine. Monogamy is Out. Space Rocks. “We Are All the Universal Heroes” / live: Town Hall, New York, September 14, 1968 / The Purple Why: James DuBoise, tpt; Mark Whitecage, t-sax/fl; Trevor Koehler, bar-sax; Judy Stuart, Amy Sheffer, voc; Steve Tintweiss, bs/melodic/voc; Laurence Cook, dm / Inky Dot Media CD 003

For a handful of those reading this review (or perhaps none at all), this release of two concerts from 53 years ago relives a time when, believe it or not, avant-garde jazz once rubbed elbows with Hippie rock and folk musicians. Yes, you read that right. The first of these two concerts, given at St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery during a week-long series of benefits to raise money for the victims of the Nigerian-Biafran conflict. Being only 17 years old at the time and about to start college, and having no interest at that time in avant-garde jazz, I didn’t even know it was happening.

But the music here is fascinating: somewhat like the then-new Art Ensemble of Chicago mixed with a little Charles Mingus, it has the loose rhythmic feel and experimental solos of the former but something of the structure of the latter. Even more so than the music itself, however, I was absolutely amazed at how well it was recorded. Though clearly a reprocessed analog recording, the stereo sound and the realistic representation of the group along with the actual ambience of the location runs rings around some of Ornette Coleman’s live performances from the mid-1960s, where the sound is variable and sometimes downright awful considering its time.

Judging from the eight or ten people clapping during the performance, it doesn’t seem that The Purple Why attracted anywhere near the kind of crowds that came to hear the others involved in these concerts (particularly, I would say, such big names as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and Country Joe McDonald), but what they lacked in numbers they made up in enthusiasm. Bassist-leader Steve Tintweiss’ vocals suggest that the band was pretty stoned for this first concert, yet it didn’t seem to affect their creativity, just the poor quality of his singing. Although the concert is broken up on this CD into six different tracks (not counting the final applause), the music is played continuously with no breaks between numbers.

Near the end of the fourth track, it sounded to me as if the group was running out of energy and ideas—all except Tintweiss, who plays a superb bass solo—but at the start of track 5 things pick up again. I guess it was all just part of the ebb and flow of a live performance. Trumpeter James DuBoise explodes in a blistering trumpet solo that has some echoes of Don Cherry in it, and Tintweiss’ bass solo is wholly remarkable, distorting and stretching the strings of his instrument in a tortured expression of feelings.

The sound on the Town Hall Concert isn’t quite as good as the one from St. Mark’s Church. The band seems a bit more distant from the microphones, which makes the instruments sound just a bit muddy and less crisp, but it’s still good enough to her what’s going on. This session sounds a bit more like the AEC and less like Mingus, but is still interesting music. Nonetheless, it seemed to my ears more rambling and less structured than in the August concert despite some excellent solos. This is more of a “throw the notes up against the wall and see what sticks” approach. Some people like this style of jazz very much, but for the most part I don’t, and Tintweiss’ hoarse screaming doesn’t enhance the listening experience very much. The women “vocalists,” one of whom was Tintweiss’ girlfriend at the time, also contribute some atonal screams.

A mixed bag, then. The first set is marvelous by any standards, but the second is more of an acquired taste.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “The Purple Why Returns to “Markstown”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review. Coincidental that Mark Whitecage, who very recently passed from throat cancer, never got to see the final CD package (although he did get to hear the files this past January), has the title “MarksTown”. He told me it was his only recorded release on tenor sax since he switched to alto a year or two after 1968.
    st

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