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.