Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

Jimzeen and Wizard

POSITIVE KNOWLEDGE from the September 98 issue of OUTSIDE
Date of Interview/Article:5/2/1999
Positive Knowledge - Sixteen Years : The East Bay’s Little- Known Cultural Treasure

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They came originally from the Heartland and the East Coast. Oluyemi Thomas brought his bass clarinet, his Faith, and an engineering degree from Detroit and went to work for the big construction firm in San Francisco. Ijeoma arrived for a few days from Washington, D.C., wearing a brisk business suit and a no nonsense smile. They were young, educated professionals, already rising in the establishment. He had been to Africa and jammed with drummers for whom music meant life. Growing up in the Nation’s Capitol, she had seen government at work from close up. And she had done a lot of reading . . . and listening -- Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Hayden, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin.

When they met in the City they had things to talk about besides disco in the disco Seventies. These things had to do with values, not dollars. It seemed that a life based on values made more sense than one slaved to things. Coming up Oluyemi watched his older brother closely. This brother was surpassing him in dignity and spiritual growth as a result of his comittment to the Bahá’í Faith. Oluyemi joined. He noticed the joy in his other brother’s piano playing; and Oluyemi said, “I better get me an axe.” Ijeoma and Oluyemi spoke of these things. He moved to Washington, D.C. They married and formed their first group -- Spiritual Vibes. In 1980 they returned to the Bay Area, made their home in Oakland, formed Positive Knowledge in 1982, and had two daughters.

Meanwhile, from the heart of the midwest (Indianapolis, Indiana), Spirit had reached the end of his career as a rhytmn & blues, and bebop drummer. He had studied, practiced, and played all the styles of rhythm section and support drumming. And now, open to the new approach of Milford Graves, Sunny Murray, Cecil Taylor, et. al., he was redefining his instrument(s) as an articulate voice equal to what was formerly the ‘front line’ horns. By circuitous route from coast to coast, Spirit found himself based in Oakland, a percussion master, dedicated to service and expression as a channel for the Creative Force. Or, phrased in present-day cant; Spirit deconstructs the binding code of modern jazz to follow undreamt lines of flight. When he met Oluyemi and Ijeoma, Spirit became the third member of Positive Knowledge.

This moving out and beyond the coded and familiar has always been the hallmark of the jazz tradition . . . to move beyond before the man catch up and steal your soul for his money machine. As Wadada Leo Smith, said of Oluyemi, “He’s in consistency with the Tradition.” And this tradition is at bottom a source of life and freedom, a source of spiritual value.

Ijeoma Thomas’ approach to the use of word and voice carrys the tradition into new vocal territory. Coming from the aesthetic of Billie Holiday whose voice was always an instrument in the band, and the free flight of her own words and phrasing, Ijeoma’s work takes us into an intricate and perviously uncharted soundscape. Cecil Taylor has indicated this unexplored territory, Ijeoma has made it her own.
Oluyemi’s music springs from the ground of the bass clarinet. Coming up in Detroit he loved the Motown sound and especially the silken smooth bass parts of Melvin Franklin of the Temptations. Other influences included James Brown, John Coltrane and, of course, Eric Dolphy. But Oluyemi is a second generation or post-Dolphy player. A good place to check out this progression is on the recently released Yo Miles (Shanachie Records, produced by Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo Smith -- a re-creation of Miles Davis’ 1970’s electronic period) where, in the Jack Johnson medley, the “Yesternow” & “Right Off” tracks, Oluyemi nods to the beat and the simple riff before taking off for new dimensions. This is barely a taste. For the full plate get Another Day’s Journey and Invocation #9 with Positive Knowledge on the Music & Arts label, also Unity in Multiplicity with Gino Robair on Rastacan Records at Amoeba Records.

Positive Knowledge is known among jazz cognoscenti nationally and internationally. In 1993 they were invited to the Summer Festival in Minneapolis. In June of 1997 they played in Rotterdam and Amsterdam at The World Music Festival in Holland. In that year they were also Artists in Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, Calif. In July of this year Oluyemi worked with Michael Wimberly (percussionist with Charles Gayle on many gigs and recordings) performing three sets in one night at the Dharma Center in New York City.

Of course, the group plays regularly in the Bay Area. They most recently performed at Beanbenders on August 2nd. In the spirit of expansion and exploration, the group for this gig included special guest Tim Perkis on computer & electronics.