The members of the Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble, better known as simply Entourage, had rather lofty goals for their art. As guitarist Wall Matthews explained in a video promoting the release of this collection of unreleased material by the group, their intention was to play music “free of cliché” that would blend together elements of their interests in jazz, world music, classical and folk in a manner that would strip away “all the elements that would make that identifiable as those types of music.” Entourage wanted, in other words, to make music the world had never heard before.
Heard today, it takes no effort to find the threads tying the group’s two studio albums and this three-CD/single LP set of unreleased material to contemporaneous artists of the early to mid-’70s. Their work isn’t far afield from that of composers such as Michael Nyman or Simon Jeffes (Penguin Cafe Orchestra) or much of the sounds coming out on the ECM label. When you get deep inside a conceptual bubble, it’s easy to think that no one else could do what you’re doing.
Which is not to say that the members of Entourage were blind to what was going on in the world. Saxophonist Joe Clark formed the group initially to snap up a weekly gig at a nightclub in his native Baltimore. The sound, according to the notes provided by critic J.D. Considine, was an early fusion jazz experiment, complete with occasional poetry readings and a rock rhythm section that doesn’t sound too far afield from what Miles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk were attempting during the same period. After that ended, Clark later joined up with drummer Joe Smith and viola player Rusty Clark, and with them luxuriating in the NEU!-like psychedelic sprawl that would make up their untitled 1973 album.
The bulk of this collection comes from the third iteration of the band, which introduced Matthews and bassist Terry Plumeri into the fold. As heard on 1976’s Neptune’s Rising, these two gents helped tether the other players to the ground so they could float and fly around, secure in their safe return to solid ground. The second disc of the three CDs features outtakes from that album and the third is made up of music that was recorded for an intended third album and a commission from the Royal Danish Ballet.
That feeling of protected exploration is not only where the other half of the Entourage’s full name comes into play—they were often joined on stage by modern dancers who would improvise choreography in response to the music—but also key to how the ensemble succeeded in their other intended objective. According to Matthews, the music was meant to evoke “the state between waking and sleep, the dream state.” While the songs featured on this set have some clear guidelines and a sense of structure, they still come across as sparks of inspiration made as a response to the ever-evolving, slithery quality of the images that the brainstem playing before the mind’s eye.
Matthews’ work, especially when he’s on electric guitar, hides his undoubted virtuosity on the instrument. His playing is foregrounded, but it is there to add definition and balance rather than draw focus away from the rest of the players. It’s mainly the Clarks that set the melodies and tone for each piece here. So much of that comes down to the timbres of their instruments (Joe Clark’s chosen horns were e-flat and b-flat soprano saxophones), those high keening notes which naturally rise above the fray. But they are also responsible for the hallucinatory yaw of these pieces. On songs like “Soft Fist” or “Millbrook,” Matthews settles into a steady finger-picked pattern while the two Clarks take turns wafting into the corners of the frame like steady lens flares.
While his contributions are key to the studio albums, Smith’s percussion isn’t a major factor in much of this set. But when it does appear, most often in the music Entourage did for a balletic take on the story of Cleopatra, it is the perfect subtle seasoning to an already lavish meal. His rolling drums are the stiff-backed pose of “Miliary Music” and his delightfully dizzying cymbal and snare runs on “Temple of Whales” feel like being given an extra spin in a game of “Pin The Tail On The Donkey.”
And that’s what should never be forgotten about the story and music of Entourage, one that was sadly given a hard stop by the death of Joe Clark in 1983 and Rusty Clark three years later. As serious as they clearly took their playing, the music never lost its sense of playfulness and joy, with an inviting quality that draws people in to respond to it with movement or their own instrumental contributions. It’s an entourage you want to be a part of.