Some records you love because they capture a moment in time. Some because they either numb your pain or lubricate it. Some records make you want to party; some make you take a Vicodin and sit alone in your room with the lights out. Some records you love because they rock better, louder, tighter, harder than anything else you’ve ever heard. Some records you love simply for nostalgia’s or novelty’s or laughter’s sake. Some records you love because they always get you riled; some you love because they always get you laid. But some records you cherish.
What is the difference between “to cherish” and “to love?” Love is a word so elastic it incorporates all meanings and none, like its cousin “fuck.” For some it’s the equivalent of “to be.” Love is a worldview. “Cherish” is a song by The Association. At first blush, they’re synonyms, but there’s a crucial difference: love is an open-ended thing. Like a long hallway with no doors on either end, it starts before you and continues after. In the middle is a steady flow of beauty, of feeling of incident and truth. But all of it, even while you hold it dear, you know in your heart is just passin’ through. And you’re okay with that. You accept it as a foundation of the universal scheme. Because you know the cycle, the passage, the stream will renew itself without end, and it will bind you up in its wave and trundle you along to be remade anew as well.
But to cherish requires a will ready to defy the gods. To cherish is to know with heartbreaking wisdom and agonizing grace the perfect singularity of a thing. To reach out from the churn of time and space with hands too small. To hold on to it all the way down. It is love for a thing that will never be remade. That can only exist in this small space of fleeting time. We love the falling snow; we cherish the snowflake as it touches our skin. We love the post-coitus postures we make with our bedmates; we cherish the glistened gaze that binds us in orbit.
The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby is a record I cherish. It is one I would fight for to the death. Technically, it is a jazz album. In jazz terms, it’s a “head” record, made in the post-Coltrane period when artists like Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Sun-Ra were incorporating vast musical styles into a dreamed-of “one” music, nothing less than the sound of the Universal Om. The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby doesn’t attempt to reach those heights. It is a more modest enterprise, but its charms are no less enduring. It’s effects no less essential. It is one of a handful of impossible musical moments that make us say, “Thank God this exists.”
Dorothy Ashby was a pianist by trade who turned to the harp following the lead of Alice Coltrane. Her preceding records, including the classic Soul Harping, infused strong soul elements into deep, mellow grooves that crossed the boundary into funk and soul music realms. But her classical musicianship and production kept the sound from getting wayward and abstract, rooted in the world of disciplined jazz.
With The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, however, she threw out the proverbial mold. Teaming with arranger and conductor Richard Evans, she crafted a record perfectly suited to the time, one that incorporated Far East instruments, exotic Middle Eastern flavors, funky organ and bass riffs, and vocals refined and ghostly to weave a psychedelic tapestry that stands outside of time, hovering in the plane of eternal imagination.
Her basis was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the fatalistic Persian ode to the pleasures of wine written in the Islamic Empire of the twelfth century. Passed down through a millennium of English literature, inspiring the Carpe Diem poets especially, it was translated famously in the Victorian Era by Robert FitzGerald. Depending on how you read it, the poem can be an existential celebration of life and the joys of the flesh or a nihilistic, sarcastic condemnation of them.
In her take, Dorothy Ashby incorporates lines directly from the poem as vocal introductions to each of the ten cuts, using them as jumping off points to set the mood for each jam. Employing both the harp and the Japanese koto, she creates a sonic world that is at once a product of the late Sixties and the ancient Middle East. But at all times, her timing, virtuosic skill and the dramatic flair of both her vocal readings and the orchestrations lend an elegance and poignant intelligence to the set, assuring it never devolves into camp or dated novelty.
That the album was her penultimate recording (her last record appeared fourteen years later, two years before she died), gives an added sense of gravity to the album’s shifting focus between mortality and exuberant, liberated pleasure. It remains a monumental achievement, the crowning expression of a life’s work that deals beautifully, elegantly, and with startling originality, to life’s most basic themes. And the final cut, “The Moving Finger,” stands for all time as one of the sickest soul-jazz collaborations ever put to wax.
Definitely a record worth seeking out. One easy to love and long to be cherished.
DOROTHY ASHBY THE RUBAIYAT OF DOROTHY ASHBY, 1970, Cadet