Don Pullen, “The Sixth Sense”

Recorded 1985 for Black Saint. Don Pullen, piano; Olu Dara, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto sax; Fred Hopkins, bass; Bobby Battle, drums. All compositions by Pullen except the title track by Pullen and Frank Dean.

This fabulous album documents a moment of casual in/out in the music. Pullen played jazz at a high level, he held down the piano chair with Mingus, but Pullen also developed a throughly avant-garde style, with his palm and hand launching a fusillade of wild runs and clusters. He definitely plays changes with a glissando, which seems impossible. However he’s doing it, Pullen at full roar documents some of the most exciting and esoteric techniques ever created by a pianist.

“The Sixth Sense” is a funky slice of hard-bop in 5/4. Olu Dara is another player with an encyclopedic grasp of various jazz styles, having worked with Art Blakey before collaborating with all sorts of significant avant-gardists. Here Dara is bluesy and commanding over the meaty vamp. Good blindfold test! Donald Harrison is very young, and his presence on this disc reminds us that many so-called “young lions” of the mid-’80s had connections to more esoteric musicians. Harrison’s work here pairs with the Harrison/Terence Blanchard tribute to Eric Dolphy and Booker Little music with Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell recorded a year later.

Pullen’s own solo begins somewhat in a conventional zone, but soon enough the astounding double-time flurries start. The left hand keeps the 5/4 going. As good as the horn soloists are — and they are very good — there’s never any doubt that the leader is the most commanding presence on this date.

Fred Hopkins was a star bassist of this peer group. Drummer Bobby Battle died relatively recently, in 2019. Battle isn’t mentioned often today, but he can be heard on about a dozen albums with Pullen, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and others in that circle. Battle sounds just great on this whole album.

“In the Beginning” is comparatively “out,” with a melody that lunges between chaos and a few “tango” gestures. Battle’s free-form playing has an uptempo cast that works beautifully, while nobody did this style better than Hopkins. Harrison is fiery madness, Dara more lyrical. Hopkins listens to the soloists carefully, while Pullen is more like just molten lava.

Of course, during the piano feature, the heat becomes even more unrelenting. The piano is quite out of tune, but maybe it just got that way during tracking.

A hard-bop ethos returns in “Tales from the Bright Side,” which could be from Horace Silver (except for the piano clusters). The piano comping on “The Sixth Sense” was reasonably conventional, with Pullen demarcating the harmonic structure behind the soloists, but “Tales from the Bright Side” has more chaotic accompaniment. It’s almost like the fury of “In the Beginning” infected “The Sixth Sense” in order to become “Tales from the Bright Side.” The dance rhythm is very strong, but they are all really going for it as committed experimental improvisers; the time even gets turned around for a moment a few places, but who cares? In the wonderful piano solo, the bass-register percussive effects recall the more outlandish places in modernist concertos by Bartók or Prokofiev.

The gospel-infused “Gratitude” is a graceful feature for Harrison in duo with Pullen. There’s no improvisation here, nor none required for such a heartfelt yet sophisticated composition. The final piano chords radiate from deep space.

“All is Well” is — surprisingly — another piece with no obvious improvisation. The parade beat approaches and recedes in a traditional NOLA fashion. Less than two minutes of a happy feeling. The first time I heard this in high school it really kind of blew my mind. You were allowed to do this kind of special effect on a serious jazz record?

Five tracks: 41 minutes. Three extended pieces with solos — one odd-meter, one free, and one on a vibrant drone — followed by a hymn and a parade.