Bob Northern, the 82-year-old better known as Brother Ah — especially to listeners of his radio show on WPFW-FM — remembers the precise moment when he spontaneously became a composer.
It was 1969, and he had just taken the usual bus route from his nightly gig — playing French horn in the orchestra for the original Broadway production of “1776” — to his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “This night I felt awfully peculiar,” recalls Northern, who has lived in Washington since the early 1980s. “I hadn’t had anything to drink, any drugs or anything, I just felt peculiar. So I got into the apartment, and I sat on the edge of my bed, and I started to just go into another zone. And I heard all of this music just coming to me.”
Northern came out of the trance only when the sun rose and hit him in the eye. But even then, the music he’d experienced was so vivid that he rushed to his piano, played back what he remembered and wrote it down.
The piece, which Northern titled “Beyond Yourself (The Midnight Confession),” was the core of what would become “Sound Awareness,” the first album by Brother Ah and the Sounds of Awareness. Two more recordings, 1975’s “Move Ever Onward” and 1983’s “Key to Nowhere,” would follow. Last month, all three albums were rereleased in vinyl, CD and digital formats by the Brooklyn-based Manufactured Recordings.
The rereleases, which Manufactured is marketing as a three-volume set, are intended as precursors to another trio of Brother Ah releases: three albums’ worth of previously unreleased music, recorded decades ago but never heard outside the basement of Northern’s home in the Takoma Park neighborhood of Washington.
The new music, he says, is of a piece with the older records: mellow, soft-voiced, meditative. It was a quality that immediately struck Akua (then known as Pat) Dixon, still a cello student at Manhattan School of Music when she appeared on “Beyond Yourself” — a quiet, ethereal piece that features some hallmarks of the experimental “psychedelic” era, but is otherwise thoroughly outside of time and place.
“Around that time there was a lot of anger in society, and so a good bit of the improvisational music at that time was expressing that. It could have been very harsh,” Dixon says. “But he was hearing something more mellow-sounding, more peaceful.”
They recorded “Beyond Yourself” in the candlelit basement classroom at New York’s Hunter College, where a neighbor taught. “He said, ‘You’ll have to do it on a Sunday because we’re not allowed in there, and we can’t turn on the lights because I don’t want to be discovered,’” Northern recalls. “And he recorded us on a four-track Tandberg tape recorder.”
Up to that point, Northern had been strictly a player; even in jazz, he had mostly played written parts, in large-ensemble arrangements led by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans and Quincy Jones.
“I was a French hornist; I didn’t realize I was a composer,” Northern says. “But people started calling me that after I made this.”
His other music was composed in the more traditional sense. Indeed, “Move Ever Onward” found Northern first forming the ensemble he wanted — from his students at Brown University; his brother, singer Kwesi Northern; and saxophonist Pat Patrick — then writing music for them as the Sounds of Awareness. The result, recorded in New York (this time in a studio), is the most dated of the three. Its mixture of Eastern instruments, like the Indian sitar and tabla and the Japanese koto, with jazz instruments and rhythms (plus the spoken-word, transcendental-meditation-friendly poetry of Ayida Tengamana) can at times suggest a hippie jam session. But it is also undeniably mesmerizing, and the caliber of technical musicianship is consistently high.
“These were all students who believed in my philosophy, believed in my teaching, and liked my music,” says Northern. “We always meditated together; before every performance, before everything we did.”
Perhaps the most beautiful of the recordings, “Key to Nowhere,” was recorded in Silver Spring in 1983; Northern had moved to Washington the year before to teach at Levine School of Music. The album features lyrical melodies, hypnotic vamps and dense interlocking rhythms (inspired by Northern’s many summers spent studying music in Africa) performed in dulcet, contemplative tones that again both evoke and transcend a specific era.
Northern’s new ensemble, once again called the Sounds of Awareness, included an eclectic mix of instruments — including a harp, kalimba and gongs — and a jazz rhythm section made of D.C.-based musicians. Among them was the then-21-year-old bassist Michael Bowie.
“I was awestruck,” Bowie says. “Brother Ah’s music is very giving, it’s very spiritual. And that’s who he is. He’s a very giving and a very spiritually based person.”
Aside from one 1993 CD, “Celebration,” Northern hasn’t released anything else as Brother Ah. For nearly 20 years, Northern has hosted “The Jazz Collectors,” his weekly broadcast on WPFW (at 89.3). He still plays music, but not on the French horn — he now concentrates on flutes and percussion — and not in concert. Northern plays “healing music” at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and other hospitals, at public healing sessions and occasionally for private individuals. He refers to it as “my ministry.”
But last year, he got a surprise phone call. Mike Sniper, a record collector in Brooklyn, had formed a family of labels; one of them, Manufactured Recordings, specialized in reissues. Sniper has a soft spot for spiritual jazz, and he thought Brother Ah’s records should be reissued.“When I started talking to him, and he told me that there were all these unreleased records, I was like ‘Oh, my God, that’s amazing!’ ” Sniper says.
Manufactured has slated three never-before-heard Brother Ah albums for release in November: “The Sea,” recorded in 1978; “Searching,” 1980; and “Meditation,” 1981. They feature Northern not on French horn, but trumpet, which he played as a teenager.
“Musicians, what you hear from them is generally a reflection of who they are as people,” says Bowie. The newly unearthed music, then, combined with the reissues, makes for an unexpectedly deep perspective on Bob Northern — a.k.a. Brother Ah, musician and healer.