I can’t remember when I first learned about Hamiet Bluiett, but it was fairly recently. I’ve been digging into his work since, but Bearer of the Holy Flame has always eluded me. Thankfully Strut Records reissued this spellbinding session, originally issued on Black Fire, recently and it hits so many high spots for me that I keep coming back for more.
Bluiett’s versatility on a variety of reed instruments has always been impressive and all of his chops are on display throughout Bearer of the Holy Flame as he leads an impressive quintet through (dubbed the ‘Bluiett 5’) a fire breathing, hour-long live set in 1983. From the opening minutes of the side-long “Footprints,” it’s clear that the group is on one and the next 57 minutes are going to rip through the cosmic seams, expansively stretching grooves to new, sometimes hidden, corners. Drummer Marvin Smith and percussionist Chief Bey always press the rhythms forward, combining to create a huge wall of sound that underpins everything. Bluiett starts shredding right away, his saxophone absolutely howling before giving away to a soulful piano solo from John Hicks. Over the course of 18+ minutes everyone gets their time to shine – even bassist Fred Hopkins throws down, pulling up the reins to float through the mellowest section of the piece before the two percussion solos blow the damn room off. Seriously, this entire side is a revelation and an absolute delightful place to lose yourself.
The rest of Bearer of the Holy Flame may not quite reach the stratospheric heights of “Footprints,” but the other five tracks offer up different sides of this unique sound world. “Song Song” lets Bluiett flicker in front of the rolling rhythms on his flute, giving a soft edge to the upbeat jams until a brief sax excursion acts as an intermediary, handing it over to Hopkins to bring home. The bass solo goes into some pretty dark spaces – accented by the room ambiance in a way that takes you straight into this time and space – flowing beautifully into “Headless Blues.” Bearer of the Holy Flame wraps up with the lovely “I’ll Close My Eyes” and ramshackle “Gumbo – Vegetarian Style” (I’m always a sucker for the band introductions at the end of killer sets like this).
I hope more seemingly forgotten classics like this get reissued (and I’m all in on CD reissues so they’re more accessible and affordable, especially from European labels) and this will continue my quest to learn more and hear more from Hamiet Bluiett whenever and wherever I can. Bearer of the Holy Flame is a stellar set of contemporary free jazz explorations well worth your time.