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Newly unearthed 1974 session by Clifford Jordan is a striking, one-of-a-kind album


This is FRESH AIR. Tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan came up in Chicago and toured in the '60s with greats like Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Randy Weston. Jordan's own albums include a tribute to folk bluesman Lead Belly. A newly unearthed 1974 session by Jordan, which mixes singers and an actor with a small ensemble, is out now. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a striking one of a kind.


CLIFFORD JORDAN: (Singing) When you got something that is on your mind, you say these words and it will make you feel real fine. (Scatting) Ee-bah-lickey, ee-bah-lickey, ee-bah-lickey, ee-bah-lickey-doo.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: "Witch Doctor's Chant (Ee-Bah-Lickey-Doo)" from Clifford Jordan's album "Drink Plenty Water." He didn't have to look far for singers, drafting his teenage daughter Donna, his wife's sister Denise Williams, and her pal Kathy O'Boyle into an instant girl group. They gave his songs the right street-corner cred.


JORDAN: (Singing) I feel, feel, feel like a heel, and I don't feel like a big wheel. You left me by myself. I put my blues on the shelf. Why don't you come home, babe, where you belong? I've got a feeling for you.

WHITEHEAD: Dick Griffin on trombone. Clifford Jordan was recording for the independent Black musicians' label Strata-East in 1974 when "Drink Plenty Water" was made. It may have gone unreleased because that year Jordan and company made a commercially unsuccessful Strata-East LP with some of the same front-stoop feel, led by singer Muriel Winston, who also appears here. Still, Jordan's tunes are better, even the dead-simple rondo "My Papa's Coming Home."


JORDAN: (Singing) Coming home, coming home, coming home, I'm coming home. Coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home...

WHITEHEAD: Whether Dad's returning from a business trip, tour of duty or other enforced separation, Clifford Jordan's solo catches the celebratory mood.


JORDAN: (Singing) Coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, coming home, my papa's coming home...

WHITEHEAD: Jordan had previously recorded instrumental versions of a couple of these tunes and arrangements aimed at attracting a wider audience. But "Drink Plenty Water" sounds designed for his core African American constituency. There are a couple of monologues by actor David L. Smyrl, later known as "Sesame Street" shopkeeper Mr. Handford. On the track "Drink Plenty Water And Walk Slow," Smyrl plays a jailhouse sage who's seen it all, sizing up and wising up a new cellmate.


JORDAN: I hear tell you played that horn once well, but after that five-year layoff, boy, you sound like hell. You were so drug, a tear came to your eye, and you put that horn back in the case and heaved a sigh. You was about to have a nervous breakdown if Splat and Doobie and Telly Smith (ph) hadn't told you how good you sound. And another thing that dried that tear in your eye was when they told you that the dinner bell had rung and that the dessert for dinner that night was cherry pie. Boy, you lucky that you were snatched out of the alley in the Valley on 50th Street and stood up in this prison on your own two feet.

WHITEHEAD: That jostle of words and music recalls Charles Mingus' beatnik jazz and poetry mashups. But David Smyrl's 1974 streetwise rhymed couplets also look ahead a few short years to hip-hop. It's a reminder of the deep roots of rap and African American oral literature, even if rappers do it faster. You can hear hip-hop's subject matter coming on Smyrl's tall story "Talking Blues."


JORDAN: So I hung around, and I played the clown until the Army took me in. Then I spent two years in a Texas town where they didn't like the color of my skin. Well, now the Army didn't like me. I didn't like them. We was glad when we let each other go. Another secondhand car and some cowboy boots and I hit it in New Mexico. Well, I smoked a lot of grass, and I ran a lot of guns. You know, I slept on the ground now and then. Yeah, I lived in the mountains with the bandits for a while till the federal troops came in.

WHITEHEAD: Fine players in Clifford Jordan's extended band include trumpeter Bill Hardman, pianist Stanley Cowell, drummer Billy Higgins and on bass, either Sam Jones or Bill Lee, who also wrote some subtle background charts for the band and who recently passed away. The music for that "Talking Blues" was improvised, and the album ends with that same blues minus the vocal, the better to hear the band's loose goosing. Even so, the flavor of Black speech remains. Jordan's onetime boss Randy Weston said, I like the music to sound like the way Black people talk. Clifford had that sound, that voice. Clifford Jordan's voice comes through clearly in the words and the music on the oddball rediscovery "Drink Plenty Water."


MOSLEY: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed the newly released recording by tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan titled "Drink Plenty Water."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - is the movie and TV industry collapsing or just reshaping itself to suit the relatively new world of the internet and streaming? We'll talk with Bloomberg reporter Lucas Shaw about what we, the viewers, can expect in the future, especially now that writers and actors are on strike. I hope you can join us.

For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.