The Al Wright Unit — featuring vocalist Ruth Wright — brings both homegrown cred and a space-trekking sonic legacy back to the Red Bank Public Library on Thursday evening. (Photos courtesy of Red Bank Public Library)
By TOM CHESEK (First published on RedBankGreen May 12, 2010)
“In New Jersey there’s a place with much to offer, much to proffer, called Red Bank” — from “Red Bank II,” lyrics by Al Wright
We first happened upon the Al Wright Unit some twenty years ago, back in the original Monmouth Street location of the old House of Coffee — and we found the chamber-jazz combo a flavorful way to chase a ‘ccino.There was Mr. Wright, cutting a dapper figure as the elegant suit-and-tie standup skinsman, with vocalist wife Ruth Wright bringing some classically cool phrasing to a set that spotlighted a healthy number of original compositions.
When the 21st- century edition of the Unit (Ruth, Al and keyboardistGreg Murphy) returns to the Red Bank Public Library tomorrow evening for the latest in a semiannual series of free performances, the drummer and bandleader will do more than pay customary tribute to the town where he’s lived his whole life. He’ll be tapping into a whole other, cosmically amazing legacy that many of his longtime neighbors might not be aware of.
“Broad Street, Front Street, they meet and run down to the park/ where thousands come from all around for fun/ there are tennis courts of clay, and a spot where children play/on the swings and other things/ and from time to time there’s blues/ and the boats race by or cruise/ My, what fun”
From 1968 through the late 70s — and then “off and on” into the 1990s — Red Bank’s own Alfred T. Wright performed under the name of Alzo, helping to pilot the intergalactic big-band bebop spaceship known as theSun Ra Arkestra from the wheelhouse of his drum kit. As William “Count” Basie was to Red Bank, so the one and only Sun Ra — old-school stride piano guy, new-age philosopher, Ancient Egypt astronaut, undisputed innovator of electronica and freeform freakouts — was to the outer rings of Saturn, his professed “home planet” to which he presumably returned in 1993.
“It was actually all about discipline with Sun Ra,” Wright recalls of the expansive thinker, who never touched anything stronger than club soda when making music. “All of us had to be prepared to expect the unexpected.”
As the Arkestra navigator observes about his former boss, “Nothing he ever played was done just to gain acceptance. The objective was to prepare people for the Age of Space, with the realization that only true creativity is accepted by the creator of the universe.”
Al and Ruth — who also trekked through space with the Arkestra as a singer — were already a husband/wife team and parents to a young child during their busiest days of touring in the band, “home schooling” daughter Cynthia (if “home” could occasionally be defined as a tour bus or hotel) and continuing in that role even after taking a hiatus from band life when Cynthia (who would go on to graduate from Rowan University) was six years old.
None of which is to suggest that Wright — a Class of ‘55 grad of Red Bank High School, and an alumnus of Atlanta University — is cold on the idea of public school education. A longtime fourth and fifth grade teacher in the Red Bank, Middletown and New Brunswick school systems, he was named in 2008 to Red Bank Regional’s Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.
Before that, the musician and educator also maintained a whole other identity as a sculptor upon finding himself “in a state of limbo” when he left the touring life. Creating some 1200 sculptures in wood at his old Shrewsbury Avenue studio, Wright would go on to see his studies of the founders of the Schomburg Center and the Tuskegee Institutefeatured in their respective permanent collections — and would donate works to the private collection of his personal favorite musician, the late bop saxophonist Jackie McLean.
“I was really just trying to occupy my time,” says Wright of his almost accidental interlude as a fine artist, adding that he put the sculpting tools aside when he came to the realization that he “said what I had to say.”
From there, however, it was on to a new stint as a writer — through his book Zo Sez (Nothing Pofound), a 2004 collection of “pithy thoughts” described variously as “erudite or humorous, philosophical or witty.” The self-published volume is still available for sale here.
“Little Red Bank is a small town/ a town for which Count Basie helped make it a part of history”
While his energies may have been “actuated to another level of consciousness” by his proximity to the solar flares of Ra, it’s as a musician that Wright most famously carries on the Count Basie legacy.
In fact, Wright once lived next door to the old Basie place, a family homestead visited in later years by the legendary Kid From Red Bank on his frequent homecoming excursions.
“He’d come into town driving a pink Cadillac convertible,” says Wright of the Count’s grand entrances. “He’d always talk to the kids in the neighborhood, ask how we’re doing in school.”
The earlier version of the Al Wright Unit honored the Basie-birthing borough with Red Bank, a self-released CD of original Wright songs (including the civic love letter “Red Bank II”) recorded a little over ten years ago. Although it’s probably a challenge to find one for sale these days, redbankgreen was able to ascertain that the Red Bank Library has at least one copy for borrowing (as does the Middletown Main Library).
When the Wrights and Murphy drop in at the old Eisner place on Front Street to play the first of two scheduled 2010 shows, they’ll be adding a nod to another of Sun Ra’s distinctive devices, by incorporating a dance component. It comes courtesy of Carol A.L. Penn — medical doctor, doula, yoga instructor, veteran of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and herself a story for another day.
Adds Wright, “I’ll be tapping, too.” Did we mention that he’s also a proficient tap dancer?
“We don’t say any of these things to be boastful,” explains Wright when summing up the formidable credentials of the extended Unit family. “It’s just where we’re from.”