A gem of untouched brilliance rescued from the murk of early-’70s obscurity by Smithsonian Folkways and Ikef Records, At the Helm is saxophonist Bilal Abdurahman’s sole recording as a frontman. Hidden beneath his band’s cumbersome moniker, a smattering of convulsive “Afro-Indo” percussion supports extended conversational play between precise brass and vibraphone runs.
Raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn alongside such luminaries as ubiquitous drummer Max Roach, Abdurahman grew to master performing with steaming bop quartets and imported African-folk collectives. His jagged Korean Reed blasts snake through the Ensemble’s definitive reading of the Freddie Hubbard standard “Sun Flower” like a blade through misty clouds of Arabic hashish.
In many ways both exotic and familiar, the insistent pace of congas, Turkish drums and African twin-gong percussion anchors the Ensemble’s relaxed but strikingly well-defined interchanges, led always by the twisting melodies spewed from Abdurahman’s soprano. Vibraphone master and primary composer Ameen Nuraldeen is perhaps this album’s best kept secret, as his pieces seamlessly weave minor-key Middle Eastern themes and American jazz structures into an enticing combination that is always complex but never impenetrable. At the Helm, originally released in 1974 on Smithsonian Folkways, is a beautiful study in instrumental proficiency whose recognition date is long past due.