"Witchi Tai To" - Jim Pepper

I got to know this tune from the drummer in New Morning, Anthony. Since he introduced me to "Witchi Tai To," the jazz trio has performed it several times.

The saxophonist Jim Pepper composed this tune, influenced by his Native American ancestory. Pepper grew up in Portland, Oregon, of Kaw (Oklahoma, and Kansas) and Muscogee (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia) heritage. Working with guitarist Larry Coryell in the the 1960's group The Free Spirits, Pepper helped pioneer the development of fusion jazz, combining elements of jazz and rock music. The drum beat, straight eighth notes, electric bass guitar, and Pepper's edgier, R&B influenced saxophone sound embody this new style.

Pepper composed "Witchi Tai To" while working with the short-lived band Everything is Everything, around a peyote chant he learned from his grandfather. Pepper's version mixes sections of chant with  lyrics translated to English. According to the folk rock duo Brewer and Shipley (who later covered the song), this is the only song featuring authentic Native American chant to break into the Billboard Pop Chart Top 100. I find it interesting that Pepper uses unequal groupings -- lyrics occur in phrases of 4 bars, over a descending chord progression of 6 bars. This is called grouping dissonance.

I invite you to compare a few recordings of this tune and enjoy their differences.

The Everything is Everything version, recorded in 1969, reached the Billboard charts. The light drumbeat, sustained organ, and simple bass line give it a pop sound associated with the late 1960s.

Jim Pepper recorded the tune again for his first solo album, Pepper's Pow Wow (1971). This has become reference recording for many jazz musicians. More than twice the length of the first version, Pepper includes an introduction, extended solo section, and a closing section. The introductory chant, with drums and rattles, sounds much more accurate to its Native American origin. The ensemble enters with more instruments and a countermelody (including piano, organ, guitar, and winds). The sound and texture of this recording is typical of fusion jazz in the 1970s with the electronic instruments and driving beat, mixing in elements of free jazz during the saxophone solo.

The last recording of this song I have found by Jim Pepper comes from the 1991 Jazzfest in Raab, Austria. I find it exciting to see how his connection to his ancestry continued to develop in his approach to jazz. Unfortunately, he died of cancer in 1992.

For another interpretation, check out this recording by the Jan Garbarek Group. Jan is a Norwegian saxophonist who performs jazz, classical and world music.