The Gardens of Harlem is an album by multi-instrumentalist and composer Clifford Thornton.
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It was recorded at Blue Rock Studio in New York in April 1974 and released in 1975 by JCOA Records.
On the album, Thornton is joined by members of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, complemented by seven musicians playing African percussion.
The music was conducted by Jack Jeffers.
In an article for London Jazz News, Jon Turney said: “Clifford Thornton…conducted the final version awarded to the Jazz Composers’ Co-operative Orchestra, and it’s brilliant.
The multiple African percussions which occupy a dominating place here in the first pieces wonderfully energize the music.
And as the liner notes state, this collection of sounds arises because the entire work explores West African music and how it has traveled “from West to North Africa, the Caribbean, the South East of the United in Harlem”.
He evoked this history by selecting vocal melodies from the territories in question and orchestrating them… They are beautiful melodies, orchestrated with great skill, and evocative in their own right.
Add some excellent jazz solos, and it’s a heady brew.
John Corbett called Thornton “another figure whose thin discography distorts his true meaning,
and described the album as “beautiful, majestic, complex”.
Writing for The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide, Fred Goodman commented:
“this…album…remains one of the most satisfying fusions of traditional Third World music with the American jazz tradition.
Thornton’s compositions are superbly treated here by the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra… Gardens of Harlem weaves together in one great tapestry the many experimental directions pursued on the New York scene during this period.
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David Hollenberg, in a 1976 review for Mother Jones, commented:
“The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra…has released ten records…All are ambitious and honest, especially a recent album titled The Gardens of Harlem…This is not the first time a jazz musician has attempted to incorporate ‘primitive’ music to jazz… but to my knowledge it is the most thorough and credible attempt.
In a review for AllMusic, Eugene Chadbourne wrote, “There was a kind of struggle to get this project finished and released…Gardens of Harlem…perpetually in the oven or drip-twisted, had to be [Thornton’s] masterpiece, bringing together Afro-Cuban, Jamaican, Ghanaian, Algerian, American blues and gospel influences as well as a track based on the cry of a South Carolina fruit vendor.
A massive cast had to be involved, including hot avant-garde jazz soloists and a stage full of percussionists.
Clifford Thornton completed “The Gardens Of Harlem” album:
Just over 50 minutes were finally released, and the good times are truly captivating, which makes one dream of the version on this album that might have been created if someone with deeper pockets had been there… too bad that Thornton couldn’t have created a larger body of work with that kind of vision.
Photo credit: 1) Clifford Thornton Wikipedia. 2) YouTube.