Friday, August 22, 2014

Pharoah & The Underground

Pharoah & The Underground - Spiral Mercury (Clean Feed CD, 2014) ****½

Pharoah & The Underground - Primative Jupiter (Clean Feed LP, 2014) ****

By Matthew Grigg

'Summit Meetings', 'All Star' groupings and much hyped ad-hoc combinations, the Jazz world has used these devises as marketing tools for time immemorial. Given this, Mazurek's approach to engaging with Free Jazz's first generation is to be commended. His association with Pharoah Sanders, the third such project he has undertaken (previously his Exploding Star Orchestra was joined by Bill Dixon and Roscoe Mitchell), stretched over a two year period and the resulting dynamic is a finely honed relationship showcasing the strengths of each horn, with both able to exert considerable influence on the direction of the music.

To accredit these releases to Pharoah & The Underground is somewhat of a misnomer as Mazurek is the lone compositional voice here, utilising thematic material from both the Sao Paulo & Chicago Underground in addition to his Pulsar Quartet, alongside new compositions. Stylistically they read as an extension of his recent work with the Exploding Star Orchestra/Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and a re-contexturalising/stretching of elements from both Underground projects, an approach not dissimilar to last year's excellent 'Skull Sessions'octet. Here Sanders and Mazurek are joined by Chad Taylor, the cornetist's foil in the Chicago Underground, Mauricio Takara and Guilherme Granado of its Sao Paulo counterpart, and Matthew Lux from the Pulsar Quartet, Mandarin Movie & Isotope 217. All four have been involved with recent incarnations of the Exploding Star Orchestra, their familiarity with each other is evident throughout.

Recorded live in concert at Lisbon's Jazz em Agosto Festival (August 11th 2013), the Spiral Mercury CD presents an unbroken 77 minute suite, which moves between high energy grooves, turn-on-a-dime themes, modal progressions and open, freely improvised areas. Mazurek & Sanders provide a carefully balanced dovetailing of approaches, the cornet often the more piercing and 'out', the saxes providing a softer, more melodic edge. When the energy of the music dictates, the septuagenerian duly matches it with patented screeches and penetrating tones, but throughout, his long velveteen lines dictate play as often as Mazurek's sharper blasts and flurries. That Primitive Jupiter LP opens with the ostinato of 'Spiral Mercury' (alongside 'Asasumamehn', one of the 2 tracks repeated across both releases) is maybe the only factor to recommend the CD over the LP, the way broken motifs from the theme are introduced in the closing moments of the preceding track is missing from the more judiciously edited wax incarnation. But for those with an interest in Mazurek's trajectory, or fans of Sanders' increasingly infrequent output, both are mandatory.

The combination of Taylor and Takara on drums and percussion ensure a pronounced rhythmic foundation for much of the performance, with a Latin edge lent to the propulsion, unsurprising given the inclusion of the Brazilian contingent. The perpetually bubbling bed of fractured electronics recasts the afro-futurist settings of Sanders' 'Thembi', and his work with Alice Coltrane, into the post-cosmic future-jazz nebula Mazurek has been navigating during recent voyages. Takara's use of cavaquinho ensures he never encroaches on the low-end register of Lux's territory, whilst giving ample space for Granado's keys to move in-between. Throughout, elements central to both Underground projects are in play but repurposed in this longer setting. In fact, the musical omnivorousness of these groups makes perfect sense in this context, here this approach is given the time and space to contribute fully to a larger whole. Whether devotional rhythmic grooves, searching abstraction or full-throttle velocity, the interaction between the musicians is never less than adroitly judged, simultaneously casting a glancing eye backward whilst straining for the farthest reaches of the cosmos. As The Art Ensemble would have it, "Ancient to the Future."

Given the length of their partnership, its not overly expectant to hope for more recordings of this caliber to surface. "Tell this to everybody, wherever they are… Keep watching the skies."

Pharoah Sanders - soprano & tenor saxophone
Rob Mazurek - cornet, electronics
Guilherme Granado - keyboards, electronics, samplers
Mauricio Takara – drums, percussion, cavaquinho, electronics
Matthew Lux – electric bass
Chad Taylor – drums, mbira

Available at

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Led Bib – The People in Your Neighbourhood (Cuneiform, 2014) ***½

By Julian Eidenberger

Led Bib is usually considered a jazz-rock band, and while that’s a label that captures some aspects of the band’s sound, it is still a bit of a misnomer if not accompanied by further qualifications. Indeed, it’d take quite a bit of shoehorning to make the British quintet fit neatly into said pigeonhole: To begin with, there’s very little actual “rock” music to be found on The People in Your Neighbourhood (the band’s fifth full-length). Unlike many classic jazz-rock bands, Led Bib show an interest in jazz beyond Miles’ feverish Electric Jazz; nods to Modal Jazz, Bop and even Swing abound here, while the “rock” part of the equation is often only implied rather than acted out. This is also reflected in the band’s line-up: Instead of employing an electric guitar as lead instrument, the band features two alto saxophones on top of drums, double bass and keyboards. In the absence of this rock signifier par excellence, it’s up to the drums and keys to add a rock-ish feel to the proceedings.

This, of course, is not per se a problem, and the album really starts in a rather impressive way, with the first five cuts being particularly strong. Whether it’s the groovy, swinging New Teles, the kinetic This Roofus or the melodramatic Angry Waters – there’s hardly any reason to kvetch here. Finally, Recycling Saga caps off this impressive string of songs; it’s probably the highpoint of the entire album, moving slowly and elegantly towards a gorgeous conclusion, recalling Kind of Blue’s thought-out constructions in the process.

Unfortunately, though, The People in Your Neighbourhood is also an album that overstays its welcome; by the time Plastic Lighthouse comes on, the listener is already well-accustomed to the band’s modus operandi and starting to crave for some variation. In a way, one of the band’s greatest strengths – its sense of form – becomes its biggest weakness as the album nears its end; what seemed elegant in the beginning, starts to feel unwieldy and even bloated here. In general, the album’s second half lacks discord – in both the literal and figurative senses. There are hardly any “stumbling blocks” to break the routine and reawaken the listener’s interest. That being said, Orphan Elephants is – while short on surprises – nonetheless a strong way to end the record.

As it is, The People in Your Neighbourhood is a decent record, but it might’ve been a brilliant one had the band taken more chances.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Joe Morris - Perpetual Frontier - The Properties Of Free Music (Riti, 2013)

By Stef

There aren't that many books that deal with free improvisation. Not that there is not a great story to tell, but what can you write about music, and most of all, niche music for niche audiences, and then on top of this music that is so beyond any grasp of known descriptions, that any attempt is doomed to fail. Or is it?

In his "Perpetual Frontier", guitarist, bass-player and musical educator Joe Morris gives it a try, and a welcome try at that. Not much has been written about 'free music' as Morris likes to call the composed/improvised genre we are reviewing on this blog, and we can agree with the name. It's more than 'free jazz', and different from 'free improvisation'.

The book is more than welcome, because it offers a kind of foundational explanation of what 'free music' is, and then in an almost academic fashion. Morris presents "The Properties Of Free Music", a description of the constituents and building blocks of the music, with definitions of the known ingredients like melody, harmony, rhythm and their absence and their alternatives. He describes the conceptual methods and systems that musicians can use in establishing their sound, the essence of what musicians try to achieve, and they can do that through synthesis, interpretation and invention, by using known forms or by creating new ones. He writes about musical platforms, about interaction, about open forms, templates and layering, about melodic structure. He explores four theoretical frameworks of free form in a little more depth : Ornette Coleman's 'harmolodics', Cecil Taylor's 'unit structures', Anthony Braxton's 'tri-axiom theory', and European Free Improvisation.

The explanations, the definitions and the conceptual framework offered here will be of high value to students of music, but also to interested listeners, who will find here a great toolbox of ideas and explanations for what is possibly the least codefied of musical genres. Joe Morris is of course very much aware of this, and his text is a open-ended as the music, an offering of possibilities for musical creation.

Next to this academic first part of the book, he has had the great idea to ask individual musicians to answer a questionnaire and talk about their vision on the music they play. We get the insights of Marilyn Crispell, Rashid Bakr, Agusti Fernandez, Simon H. Fell, Mary Halvorson, Katt Hernandez, Joe McPhee, Nicole Mitchell, William Parker, Jamie Saft, Matthew Shipp, Ken Vandermark, Alex Ward, Nate Wooley and JackWright. Quite an impressive list of musicians, and what they write is a wonderful complement to Morris framework. Why? Because they write about the human aspect of making music, they talk about emotions, spirituality, being enriched through interaction, about the audiences with whom the music resonates, about intimacy, about the joy of making music, about the tension, about the magic of it, about the unknown.

The testimonials are sometimes elaborate, with the musicians apparently eager to tell their story, to tell their vision. Interestingly, all of them talk about instrumental skills and technique as essential but totally uninteresting unless it leads to great music.

Many of the musicians have different opinions, as much as they have different backgrounds, and influences, and musical concepts, but that makes it interesting.

As a non-musician, I found it all very revelatory, but what surprised me most was the limited attention given to the audience, to the individual listener. That's why I liked Nicole Mitchell's text so much : "I like stretching beyond the comfort zone to make discoveries of my own and to guide listeners to the other sides of themselves". I also like the way Jack Wright writes about it in his very personal story "Musicians would do well to ask themselves not whether they want to please people but how. Obviously you can please people by giving them what they expect to hear; the reward path for that is assured. But there is another kind of pleasure for people when they are not sure what they are getting and don't know how to judge it, who even enjoy being confused a bit". Yes, we, the listeners, can relate to that.

A very valuable book that will be of interest to many musicians and fans of free music.

To end with a quote from William Parker: "Theory in itself did not free people to reach into a deeper area of sound. It was those who altered, abandoned, and redefined the elements of music that got closer to the true source".

This books gives you the options ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Variable Density Sound Orchestra - Evolving Strategies (Not Two, 2014) ****

By Stef

In 2009, I wrote this review of Garrison Fewel's "Variable Density Sound Orchestra", out of love for the late Roy Campbell's playing. In the meantime, the band released its third album, after "Sound Particle 47", released in 2010. The band is Garrison Fewell on guitar, John Tchicai on tenor and flute, Roy Campbell Jr on trumpet, pocket trumpet and flugelhorn, Steve Swell on trombone, Dmitry Ishenko on bass and Reggie Nicholson on drums.

The band's name already suggests some of the music's concept, tightly arranged, almost epic themes are alternated with free and light-textured improvisations, floating above ground in contrast to the strongly tradition rooted themes. The great thing about the music is that all band members feel perfectly comfortable in both environments.

The album is book-ended by "Mystical Realities", a boppish and delightful composition by Steve Swell, for which the theme and the basic vamp offer a great springboard for the improvisers to do their thing, and they do it well, and with joy. It is equally joyful to hear the late Roy Campbell again, in the company of musicians he knew well. I am not sure when this was recorded, but one can only hope that even more material shows up with his soulful playing.

The next track, "Evolving Strategies", is more eery and open-ended, completely in free mode without any recognisable pattern, and it moves into "Return And Breathe", which starts with the same eery concept, with Tchicai on flute, turning into a mid-tempo rhythmic jazzy piece, on which the interaction between Swell and Fewell gets all the spotlights. This track is followed by another light-textured group improvisation in memory of and in tribute to Bill Dixon, that magically ends in a unison theme.

The central piece is "Voyage From Ra", a theme we know well from Fewell's and Tchicai's "Tribal Ghost" album, one of our preferred albums of last year, then called "The Queen Of Ra", a great composition that again allows for some great soloing by Tchicai.

Then comes "Evolving Strategies" again, the same light-textured affair, with sparse sounds, and primarily the horns interacting, with little bursts of support by guitar, bass and drums.

It becomes somewhat denser with the Tchicai composition "Heart Is Only A Part", first released on his "Musica Sacra Nova" album, and then it ends with the epic "Mystical Realities", with Roy Campbell now starring.

And Fewell in all this? He is the silent mover, or rather the quiet mover, more the coach of the band than the leader, guiding his band forward, trusting them in their skills, and using his jazzy licks and harmonic support to increase the depth of the overall sound.

So, the album's mirror-like structure, and the band's shifts through this reflection with changing approaches is really great, you get a journey through jazz history, without too much pretense, and with the absolute joy of interplay and technical skills that are all there to make the music sing.

Great band, great musicians, great music. Enjoy!

Available at

Peter Brötzmann/Sonny Sharrock - Whathefuckdoyouwant (Trost, 2014) ****

The first thing you realize is this guitar sound. It’s metallic, reverberating, icy, crisp. And there is this unusual use of a bottleneck slide guitar, the blistering speed, extremely high pitched notes, treble prone, right at the threshold of pain. We know it from Last Exit. No one sounds like Sonny Sharrock.

Apart from that seminal free jazz/rock formation, Peter Brötzmann (saxophones) and Sharrock(guitars) did some small duo tours in Europe in the late 1980s and although some of these performances were recorded then, only the “Fragments” LP was released in 2003 by Okka. Now the Austrian Trost label has made another bunch available and although the eleven tracks look like loose outtakes it is a great collection.

A surprising trademark of this album is the contrast between quiet, meditative, almost mellow passages which are confronted with brutal, distorted and wild parts like in Track 10, it’s an emotional back and forth that structures the music but also affords the listener’s permanent concentration. Another very unusual and exciting characteristic – especially of the first four tracks – is the fact that Brötzmann and Sharrock play harsh, minimalistic – almost hard-rock- like – repetitive breaks (sometimes in unison) which float either into real tunes (for Brötzmann standards) or angry outbreaks. 

Except the exquisite opening pieces, highlights of the album are Track 5, where Sharrock quotes Jimi Hendrix’s “Instrumental Solo” of the Woodstock performance (he tears it apart, actually) and Track 6, opening with a fragmented and fierce solo by Sharrock, who uses echo and feedback here and who is joined by Brötzman on bass saxophone using growling notes and repetitive lines which are then counteracted by Sharrock’s pattering notes. All in all, the track lives from the enormous differences of the instruments’ sounds which seem to dance around each other. Last but not least Track 8 presents Sharrock building a huge guitar chord wave into which Brötzmann dives head on mingling with these sounds so that it is hard to tell sometimes which instrument we hear.

What is so great about this album is the fact that we can witness how well both musicians seem to understand each other, how excellent their different approaches matched. As almost always with Brötzmann, “Whatthefuckdoyouwant” is a lesson in listening, a recording about communication, a real duo performance.

In his conversations with Gerard Roux Brötzmann said that he really liked Sharrock as a person and a musician and that he wanted to go on with the duo but then he “got a phone call saying that he just passed away” (in 1994).

“Whatthefuckdoyouwant” can be bought from

Listen to the album here: 

P.S.: The story behind the title is told by Brötzmann in the liner notes: “In the afternoon we met with our management Mr. X. Sonny had to discuss some business concerning a new band he wanted to set up and Mr. X had promised a lot of work for that. (…) The conversation got louder and louder; some verbal fight was on the way. Then, with a very fast move, Sonny took a razor blade out of the breast pocket of his sports jacket, unfolded it – all in one move – and shouted, “whatthefuckdoyouwant?, I slice you up, have done that before in Vietnam!” I never had seen before (and haven’t after) a face turning so grey and green, Mr. X — not used to exercise — turned around and started to run up the hill, the Obergrünewalderberg, quite a steeple chase, and never was seen again. The roadie and I had moved closer but before we could do anything the whole spook was over. We drove to the gig, finished the tour and Sonny was the gentle man he always had been.”

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ingrid Laubrock Octet - Zürich Concert (Intakt Records, 2014) ****

By Paul Acquaro

The Zürich Concert is a slowly unfolding and unpredictable album from saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. Recorded after a Südwestrundfunk (German public radio) sponsored opportunity to work with cohorts from New York and London, the Ingrid Laubrock Octet's Live in Zurich was recorded at a subsequent tour date. The group has a cast of musicians drawn from Laubrock's other groups like Sleepthief, the Tom Rainey Trio, along with others. Like these other combos, the octet works intuitively with each other - and with such a large group at her command, this doesn't seem like a small task to manage.  

The first three tracks, the short 'Glasses', the long 'Novemberdoodle' and the again short ‘Blue Line & Sinker’ seem to form a tenuous and deliberate first movement. The sound is dominated by Ted Reichman’s accordion and Tom Rainey’s melodic lines on the xylophone. The atmosphere of ‘Novemberdoodle’ is delicately punctuated by light plinks from the guitar, piano, and xylophone, with some melodic intervention from the horns. Laubrock's approach to the octet is to use the instruments in smaller units and leaving plenty of musical space between the players, and it's quite effective.

Changing the atmosphere, the track 'Chant' has guitarist Mary Halvorson with a long solo introduction. She is joined by the group at times to underscore the passages and add a bit of intensity - the scoring of the soprano sax, along with the sonority of Ben Davis’ cello, and the striking piano playing of Liam Noble is a delight. 'Matrix' begins with Rainey’s drums and Drew Gress’ bass creating a skittish foundation for some noisy blowing by Laubrock. Tom Arthur’s trumpet cuts a fine melodic line later in the track and a section towards the end of the track is both delicate and playfully frenetic.

The overall recording is a smart assembly of varying textures and approaches and the diverse instrumentation makes for a fascinating listen. This is an album to take in whole, spend the hour and fifteen minutes that it demands to follow the ideas as they slowly appear and cohere.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Daunik Lazro, Benjamin Duboc & Didier Lasserre - Sens Radiants (Dark Tree, 2014) ****½

By Dan Sorrells

For its fourth release in as many years, Dark Tree Records returns to the trio that launched the label in 2011. Portant Les Cimes Des Arbres was superior in almost every aspect one could consider: a powerhouse line-up, challenging, unorthodox performances, a pristine recording, and beautiful package design. In all those respects, Sens Radiants presents as welcome déjà vu.

Recorded at the Écouter pour l’Instant Festival in the summer of 2013, Sens Radiants showcases an hour-long performance of Lazro on baritone saxophone, Duboc on bass, and Lasserre on a stripped-down drum kit. In true European tradition, the trio has always presented a music that seems completely divorced from any of free improvisation’s jazz heritage. Like Portant Les Cimes Des Arbres, Sens Radiants is steeped in rhythm, though not of the toe-tapping, beat-counting sort. There’s something more organic at work, a subliminal regularity like breathing or waves. It’s music that feels mythical, spiritual, ritual.

Perhaps what Sens Radiants calls to my mind the most is the solemn, ceremonial air of Noh theatre music—its use of space and the obscure rhythmic groundwork that serves as a guiding principle. An incredible mastery of tone is on display throughout the performance. By tone I don’t mean the pitch or source of sounds, but rather the consistent, expressive quality that is particular to the performance, that is indicative of this trio at that moment in time. It never suggests anything less than total cohesion and command.

It almost goes without saying that the entire performance should be absorbed in one sitting, though a few highlights can be noted. It’s always remarkable to hear how much an extension of his own body Lazro’s saxophone is; in his moaning, screaming, humming performances he becomes one of the most sensuous, stirring hornsmen working today. Half an hour in, the music gathers from quiet corners into a colossal knot of friction, Lasserre’s scraped cymbals sounding like he’s tearing at the very air with his drumsticks.

Around the 37 minute mark, Duboc hits upon as virtuosic an arco soloas you’re likely to find in free improvisation. It reminds me of two great Italians: the stunning touch of the late Scodanibbio with a bow, and the tense, abyssal atmosphere of Sciarrino’s Sui poemi concentrici. Perhaps that hints at what feels so special about Sens Radiants as a whole. Many have difficulty discerning the difference between some modern classical music and improvisation. Here, we have improvisation that feels like a great modern composition: controlled and cohering, so certain of its own aesthetic that it’s hard not to think of it as Lazro/Duboc/Lasserre, Opus no. 2.

Available from Instantjazz.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tomasz Sroczynski & Marek Pospieszalski - Bareness (Requiem, 2014) ****

By Stef

We receive a lot of music, really more than any person can ever listen to, and more than any person would care to listen to. Sometimes, as we've had in the past, some music gets the attention because of its unique sound. This is one of those albums.

The duo is Tomasz Scroczynski on violin (already presented on his "Rite Of Spring Variation") and Marek Pospieszalski on tenor saxophone and clarinet (see also "Power Of The Horns" and on "Bandoleros En Gdansk" with the Gonzalez family).

The duo was recorded in a fifteenth Century church in Poland, and the space is like a third musician in the ensemble, and the studio afterwards even more probably ... and it works well. The sound is more like a soundtrack, the kind of music that sets a mood, that colors a story with effects that work quite directly on the emotions of the listener without you actually being aware of it. It affects you in a kind of unnoticeable way. It has its own aesthetic. The music is not inobtrusive, it is at times mesmerising, with raw outbursts once in a while, sometimes soothing, but more often than not inviting the listener into the strange cinematic universe both musicians create, one that is influenced by the great composers, ranging from Bach over Philip Glass to Zbigniew Preisner and John Butcher, and yes, maybe even Amon Tobin.

Needless to say that the music is beyond genre. But the dramatic effect is guaranteed.

Free Jazz and Improvisation on Vinyl 1965-1985 (Rune Grammofon, 2014) ***

By Colin Green

Such is the dearth of decent (and readable) books on free jazz and improvisation that any addition is welcome. The author of this book – Johannes Rød – is a freelance art historian and conservator with a large vinyl collection, most of which I suspect is documented within its pages. It’s a slim volume (110 pages) elegantly bound and with crisp, vellum-like pages that it’s a pleasure to turn, providing a tactile experience that’s lost on a tablet.

As the book’s subtitle makes clear – “A Guide to 60 Independent Labels” – the focus is not so much on the musicians of this period, as an alphabetical list of the record labels on which the music appeared, which might explain the unfortunate absence of an index. These labels were mostly run by the musicians themselves and dedicated enthusiasts, committed to a wider dissemination of valuable music, but it does mean that significant recordings on “major labels” are absent (Rød offers a definition in his epilogue); none by John Coltrane on Impulse! and nothing on Blue Note, which released some influential albums by Andrew Hill, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor and Sam Rivers. An exception is made for Fontana’s Marte Röling series even though it was a subsidiary of Phillips (is corporate structure and distribution a particularly useful test?).

Rød does not purport to provide a definitive list of labels or complete discographies in every case. The labels chosen and albums listed are a personal selection of what he considers important. Inevitably, there will be quibbles over those that didn’t make the cut. I’d have lobbied for the inclusion of Denon Jazz, responsible for the Steve Lacy Sextet’s classic The Wire (1977) (the magazine was rumoured to have been named after it) and also a number of important albums hosted by prominent members of Japan’s free jazz scene, such as Masahiko Satoh and Masahiko Togashi. I’d also liked to have seen the Greek label Praxis, which released Cecil Taylor’s epic Praxis (1982) – a double album of a solo recital from Italy in 1968: so far as I’m aware, the earliest recording of Taylor solo – as well as albums by John Tchicai, Sun Ra, and Jemeel Moondoc. There would have been space to extend the list beyond sixty as many of the entries occupy only a quarter or so of the available space on the page.

There’s also the thorny – and ultimately, not very interesting – question as to what counts as free jazz or improvisation. Some of the labels released a broad range of music and Rød has chosen from those he considers fall within the scope of the title.

The book only covers recordings on vinyl (though a few ICP cassettes are listed) but this decision is not supported by a claim for the superiority of analogue – a hotly debated topic – but rather that the formative period of free jazz and improv just happened to coincide with music on vinyl. The cut-off date of 1985 – often observed in the breach -- is justified as marking the advent of the compact disc. Fair enough, one has to draw a line somewhere, but I’m not sure I’d agree when Rød says, in conversation with The Wire’s Rob Young: “the period from 1965 to the end of the seventies is in many ways the heyday of this music”. Certainly, the heyday of vinyl sales (of which free jazz formed a miniscule percentage) but of the music itself? As this blog bears witness, in terms of numbers there are now more recordings released and a larger audience than there has ever been. The introduction of compact disc enabled a number of the labels in this book to produce more albums than they’d been able to afford on vinyl. Perhaps Rød means that the period was a sort of Golden Age for the music: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!” Again, I’m unsure: we’re probably still too close to it, but as Mats Gustafsson – a well-known vinyl junkie -- states in his foreword, what can’t be disputed is that it was an extremely creative and innovative period in music.

This is music that I urge you to explore, not just because much of it is very good indeed, but one can hear traces and connections that might not have been so clear at the time, both with the past and what others were doing. Joining the dots can be rewarding and lead to a deeper appreciation of the new releases reviewed on this blog. For all the anti-establishment attitudes of the time, no music takes place in a vacuum and a tradition of sorts was established, which continues to exert a strong influence.

As to the information provided: each entry has a brief history of the label, usually a paragraph or two but in the case of particularly significant labels such as ESP, FMP, Incus, ICP and India Navigation, there’s a longer narrative. Some of this is very useful – at last, someone has made sense of the various sub-labels and relabeling on Hat Hut – but I wonder what benefit there is in listing the six different addresses from which ESP traded between 1964 and 1975. Not all facts are created equal.

Beneath the label history, information about each album is divided into three columns: record number, artist/title and year of release. That’s not much. I always find the year of recording of more interest than when it was released, and there’s no information about the musicians on each album, an odd omission given that this is collaborative music par excellence. Indeed, one wonders for whom the book was written. According to the foreword by Rune Kristfferson, owner of the publisher: the Rune Grammofon label, it “...might not be a definitive overview for the hardcore know-it-all collectors, but more of a guide for the ‘normal’ collectors and those looking to expand their musical horizon...”.

By way of comparison, although not all the recordings listed in this book appear on the Discogs website, it’s an astonishingly comprehensive database of albums, and an invaluable resource for information about the recording: the date it was made and released, the musicians and what they play, recording location, engineer and producer, together with cover art. Following hyperlinks provides listings of recordings sorted by label or artist. There’s also the European Free Improvisation site, which contains much valuable information.

It may be churlish to judge what is essentially a book of lists as something it does not pretend to be, but as a “guide” it resembles a series of street names with no map to assist the inquisitive around them. There’s an awful lot of music listed here, but why not include a couple of pages suggesting useful starting points, or what would form a good beginner’s collection? Naturally, there are as many such compilations as there are advocates of the music but I don’t have a problem with preferences, and something like this would have been useful.

The centre of the book contains colour reproductions of selected album covers. As Rød says, the artwork often reflected the labels’ limited budgets – none at all in some cases – and we’re unlikely to see books of free jazz cover art, as with Blue Note and ECM. There are notable exceptions however, such as Steve Lacy’s Trickles (Black Saint, 1976) with a painting by Kenneth Noland, and the distinctive style of Marte Röling’s covers for Fontana. I can see Rød’s point when he says about FMP that “they’d think it would be better to package it in a paper bag” but there’s actually something rather appealing about the deliberately home-made, cut and paste style to many of them. Peter Brötzmann, also a talented artist who designed a number, was probably an influence here and they must have been a healthy antidote to the ubiquitous Che Guevara silk screen prints, posters of a tennis player scratching her backside, and maps of Middle Earth that adorned student accommodation and bedsits at the time. Very much proto-punk.

So: assuming you’re not a mere train-spotter, what can the “normal” collector do with this book? The first issue is whether you want to stick with analogue or are content with digital. A number of these albums were re-released on CD, though in limited quantities which can be as rare as the original. Some labels, such as ESP, have issued their major recordings on CD, but a significant number of the albums listed never made it to digital and at this juncture probably never will, due to the demise of the label, lost or dissolved master tapes, or just free jazz economics. If you’re insistent on the black stuff, very occasionally albums from the period will be re-released (Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and the Joe McPhee’s CjR years are recent examples) and there are record fairs – the author and publisher first discussed this book on their plane journey back from Utrecht: “the mother of all record fairs”. Otherwise, the best place to look is probably the Discogs site. Prices can vary considerably and the usual caveat emptor applies. For example: the Cecil Taylor Unit’s Nicaragua: No Pasaran - Willisau 83 Live – the sole release on the Nica Records label (unsurprisingly, not included) – is currently shown at prices from £250.00 to $600.00, plus p&p, and you’ll be lucky to find albums on Sun Ra’s El Saturn label for less that £100.00. The original often requires deep pockets.

The fact remains, a lot of these albums are very rare. To take an extreme example, there are believed to have been no more than ten copies pressed of Don Cherry and Bengt Nordström’s Psychology (Bird Notes, 1964) – good luck in finding that. Also, although there’s been a resurgence of vinyl in recent years, they tend to be virgin 180g pressings. The quality of those released during the period covered by this book varied considerably, usually dependent on the price of oil (vinyl is a petroleum product). Sometimes, the pressings were wafer thin or with a lot of recycled vinyl and other impurities mixed in. You don’t have to be an audiophile to hear the difference.

If you’re happy with digital – and in many cases you really don’t have a choice – quite a few FMPs are now available as downloads from the Destination Out store and surprisingly, there are some complete recordings of real rarities on YouTube. Otherwise, the only option is Inconstant Sol, a site with which many readers will be familiar. It takes a responsible attitude towards copyright infringement: the moderators will not provide links for an album that is commercially available in any format, and if it becomes available they will withdraw the link.  Most importantly, the downloads are good-quality rips in flac format, and are free, but no one is being deprived of money from sales as all the pressings sold out years ago. I doubt that second-hand retailers are much affected, as there will always be those for whom analogue and pride of ownership will justify purchasing a second-hand LP rather than listening to a digital rip, even if it’s free. Not all copyright issues are avoided, and I leave it to each person to make the decision themselves, but I’ve been using the site for some years with a clear conscience. Inconstant Sol is supported by a number of musicians: Paul Dunmall recently sanctioned the uploading of almost all of his Duns Limited Edition recordings, an incredibly generous gesture. For those who can’t afford the air fare to Utrecht, or some of the silly prices on Discogs, this is the only place to find many of the albums covered by the book – and a lot that aren’t – some crucially important. Perhaps ironically, given the ever diminishing copies of these LPs that are still out there, and that most hold little commercial attraction for re-release in any format, computer audio affords the only realistic means by which a great deal of this legacy can live on.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Lester Bowie - The Great Pretender (Jazzwerkstatt, 2014) *** & ****½

By Stef

In 1981, ECM released the much acclaimed "The Great Pretender" by Lester Bowie and his band interpreting gospels in a contemporary and jazzy way, mixing tradition with humor and avant-garde outbursts.

Now, Jazzwerkstatt releases a double CD with the same title and with an almost similar concept. The first CD is fully in the same vein as the ECM album, with a band consisting of Fontella Bass, Martha Bass and David Peaston on vocals, Ari Brown on sax, Art Matthews on piano, Fred Williams on bass, Philip Wilson on drums. The live performance was recorded in Berlin in 1982. 

The concept is almost the same : well-known gospel songs and hymns such as "Jesus Loves Me", "He's Got The World In His Hand", "I'm So Grateful", tracks which are also played like you would expect in any church, without trumpet or sax, just piano and vocals. But then you have the other tracks, "Mother's Mode + Peace", which is a long and jubilant free jazz piece, "Tobabo, Tobago" with its fun Carribean rhythm, the slow blues "It's A Mean Old World", and the rock'n'roller "Let The Good Times Roll", and ending with the hair-raising "The Great Pretender". 

And you're right, this is a quick journey through the history of African American music, reverent, soulful, joyful and fun, and it will be a great addition to the fans of the ECM album. 

The second CD is a totally different thing, and you can even wonder why both albums are sold together, because they have absolutely nothing in common, and with absolutely, I mean absolutely. 

Next to Bowie on trumpet, we have William Parker on bass, and Philip Wilson on drums. The performance was recorded in New York in 1991, to my knowledge the only trio performance of Bowie, next to Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio album "The Ancestors Are Among Us". 

The CD starts with "Cool", a bluesy duet with William Parker that will please everybody for its beautiful and sad sound, and great pulse. "Philadelphia" is a very nervous improvisation on which Bowie's sound is raw and percussive even and soulful and inventive, a real joy to hear for fans of the master.  "Steel And Breath" has Wilson in a star role, thundering away on his kit, with Bowie taking up the challenge for some fantastic dialogues, reminiscent of their duo album. 

How record labels present and promote their music is often a mystery, and this is again confirmed here by Jazzwerkstatt (which is for any interested buyer an absolute disaster website to find information), but that should not deter interested fans. If you are a fan of free music, just download the second CD from the usual sites. If you are a fan of Bowie, buy the whole thing. 

Here is a nice example of CD1 with a similar band and similar sound.