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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fire Music: A History of the Free Jazz Revolution


The blog has a pretty solid policy regarding crowdfunding and promotional requests - that it is just not our goal - we want to share information on the music and musicians who have something important to contribute to free jazz and improvised music. However, sometimes a project comes up that just seems right - like Tom Surgal's in-progress documentary on Free Jazz 'Fire Music: A History of the Free Jazz Revolution'.

Surgal, along with executive producers Nels Cline and Thurston Moore, has been working on securing funding to finish the film. The Kickstarter campaign, as of writing is less than $4,000 short of its goal but there are only a few days left to go.

To help spread the word, we took the opportunity to ask some questions to Surgal (who incidentally is a musician himself and is releasing an album with his group Whiteout and Nels Cline this fall) about the project and (maybe even more importantly) his music collection. For more in-depth information about the documentary, visit the funding page and check out the video

FJB: Why make this film?

TS: In order to expose the world to one the most important and radical musical forms in cultural history. 

What does the title 'Fire Jazz' mean?

Fire Music was a term from the 1960s to characterize an incendiary new brand of avant-garde Jazz.

What can we expect to see in the movie (free jazz, free improv, etc.)?

Electrifying performance footage combined with in depth interviews with the originators of some of the most important music of the twentieth century.

The name suggests a certain approach to free music, do you also consider the type of free jazz pioneered by the AACM and furthered by lowercase artists? 

Fire Music is an umbrella term used to initially describe the inflammatory music emanating from the streets of New York. Once the creative spark was ignited, the music took root in all sorts of places and metamorphosed in the process. St. Louis had the Black Artist Group, Holland had the Instant Composers Pool, Germany had the Globe Unity Orchestra, England had the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and indeed Chicago had the AACM. All these musical entities are as essential to the story that I am trying to tell as anything that ever came out of the New York area.

How would you describe your approach to making the film?

The same approach I've used to make music videos all these years, run and gun. Try and create as much beauty as is humanely possible with the money allotted. I've never had the luxury of big budgets, poverty is my idiom.

Since the blog focuses on album reviews, we'd love to talk about albums. So, what album or musician opened your ears to Free Jazz? When?

When I was 13 years old I heard an interview with the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was in the news because he and a group of fellow activist/musicians had been storming the sets of locally produced talk shows in order to demand more Jazz on the airwaves. Rahsaan in interview talked enthusiastically about  artists like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. His extolling on their musical virtue would forever change ( enrich ) my life.

How much - ballpark figure of course - of your personal collection of music is dedicated to 'fire' Jazz?

I own many thousands of Jazz albums, and I probably posses almost every avant-garde record of note that has ever been released. That being said I also have an enormous collection of straight ahead Jazz. I also collect a wide variety of other musical genres, everything from Tropicalia to Contemporary Classical to Algerian Rai, anything that strikes my fancy. It's all one just one continuum. In the words of Charlie Parker : " It's all music. "  

What are some of the albums that you feel are particularly important to the music?

( In alphabetical order by artist ) 

1 ) Bells: Albert Ayler

A one-sided live LP that captures Ayler at his most gutturally emotive.  Ayler's typically anthemic themes are punctuated by torrid solos and wildly improvised ensemble sections. The album radiates with electric energy.

2 ) BAG (Black Artists Group)
Classic release from the St. Louis ensemble that is rife with all the earmarks of the midwest Free Jazz continuum : heavy dense blowing contrasted by quiet sparse sections with a liberal dose of exotic miscellaneous percussion interspersed throughout. Mysterious as it is potent.

3 ) In Search Of The Mystery : Gato Barbieri

Argentine transplant Barbieri erupted on to the scene with this maiden release. Armed with his poignant, gruff tone, Gato managed to fuse Latin Intensity with the New York energy to create his own signature sound..

4 ) For Alto : Anthony Braxton

Four audacious sides of unaccompanied alto saxophone. The album that challenged the very concept of the saxophone's role in contemporary music; naked, virtuosic, powerful.  

5 ) Macine Gun : Peter Brötzman

Early recording of a summit of prime avant garde players from throughout Europe. Germans, Dutch, a Belgian and a Brit join forces to create a marvel of bare aggression. Han Bennink told me that that they recorded in the dead of night, in a kind of bunker like setting. Conditions that may have fueled the musicians' collective fire.

5 ) Intents and Purposes :  Bill Dixon

Key organizer of the "October Revolution,"  Dixon conjoins Third Stream with New Thing in this seminal release. Unique instrumentation includes cello, flute, english horn, and clarinet. Evocatively structured compositions that vary in dynamic range from delicate to unbridled. 

6 ) Where is Brooklyn? : Don Cherry

Essentially an Ornette Coleman quartet album without Ornette. (Ornette does however pen the liner notes.)  Pharoah Sanders blows mightily, his rough hewn tone the perfect compliment to the quixotic playing of Cherry and company. 

7) Interstellar Space : John Coltrane/ Rashied Ali

Maximalist master Coltrane in his most stripped down setting, accompanied by a young Rashied at his multi-directional best. Arguably the greatest duet album ever recorded.

8 ) Out To Lunch : Eric Dolphy

Definitive recording of five originals by multi- instrumentalist Dolphy, that highlight his inimitable Free Bop style. All star ensemble that includes Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams.

9 ) Nommo : Milford Graves featuring Don Pullen

An immortal pairing of these two perennial stalwarts of the New York avant garde. The music achieves maximum density while still retaining an airy sense of space. Milford is at his most melodically inventive, and Pullen is ceaseless in his percussive attack.

10 ) The Black Arc : Noah Howard

A vibrant release that showcases Howard's pronounced compositional skills and wailing horn solos with tight rhythmic interplay throughout.

11 ) Black Beings : Frank Lowe 

Extreme, histrionic, unrelenting, Lowe and Joseph Jarman burn with visceral intensity while a frenzied Rashid Sinan pounds up a polyrhythmic storm 

12 ) Topography Of The Lungs : Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Han Bennink

The coming together of  the two leading lights of British avant garde with Dutch master percussionist Han Bennink was an event of historic proportions. Evan and Derek's aggressively pointillist lines are perfectly accompanied by Han's spastic pummeling. Frenetic bursts of wild sound are punctuated by dramatic stops and starts; the silence between sections often resonating the loudest.

13 ) Tauhid : Pharoah Sanders

A mysterious masterwork filled with bells, balafons, and other exotic miscellaneous percussion. The best example of Pharoah's inimitable blending of ethnic sounds and polytonal abandon.

14 ) Life At The Donaueschingen Music Festival : Archie Shepp

A live recording that captures Shepp at his most blistering. The album is comprised of one long track entitled "One For John" which serves as a musical tribute to then recently deceased John Coltrane.The double trombone combination of Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur lends the session a kind of Dixieland gone amok quality.

15) Burning Spirits : Sonny (Huey) Simmons

Sonny' s acutely lyrical style is supremely augmented  by a driving sextette that includes the greatest bass tandem ever recorded in Cecil Mcbee and Richard Davis.

16) Astro Black : Sun Ra

Self proclaimed native of Saturn and mystical svengali Sun Ra, mixes wailing horns, other worldly synthesizer sounds, and driving percussion, into an intergalactic stew of mind altering music.

17) The Giant Is Awakened : Horace Tapscott

Tapscott was  a key figure of the criminally unsung Los Angeles avant garde contingent that at one time included Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, before they made the moved to New York and ascended to fame.This record is an exemplary example of Tapscott's angular compositional forms and cinematic arrangements. The album is also notable for being Arthur Bythe's first recorded effort. 

18 ) Unit Structures : Cecil Taylor 

Cecil at his most percussively explosive, propelled by a large ensemble comprised of double sax, double bass, trumpet, and drums. Each selection is so endowed with thematic complexity, that they resemble miniature suites.

19 ) Afrodisiaca : John Tchicai

A massive work recorded by Danish Congolese Tchicai upon his return to Europe after his much storied stint in New York. Twenty Six musicians are employed to create the mammoth title track alone, playing a wide range of instruments that include tympani, organ, balafon, ophicleide, and glockenspiel. A work of great artistic depth that combines one of a kind orchestrations with hellaciously improvised sections.

20 ) The Frank Wright Trio (self titled)

The good reverend Wright rings forth with his singular brand of soulful ferocity, accompanied by the always eminently inventive Henry Grimes on bass.  

If you were to pick one quality of improvised music that speaks to you the most, what is it? Why?

The raw visceral quality of the jams. Because the courageous act of giving vent to your inner most feelings through your instrument is a thing of beauty. 

What do you want the people who see this film to walk away with?

To appreciate the radical innovations of the original mavericks who created this form. To revel in its naked fury and bask in its artistic complexity. To appreciate the commitment and pure audacity of these sonic radicals, who without popular or critical support, would soldier on and in the process create some of the most sublime music of all time.

Visit the Kickstarter page to learn more. 

Just for the record, the blog is not anyway connected with this project, except that we are excited to see it when it's released!

3 comments:

Colin Green said...

Just a small point, but it's as good an opportunity as any to correct a common error, which I also made when writing my Coltrane review last year. Coltrane never said that Ali's drumming was multi-directional, but that his drumming allowed others to be muti-directional, ie: the absence of a fixed pulse meant they could play at an tempo, and switch at ease. I came across the original quote in "The House that Trane Built: The History of Impulse Records" which I read shortly after my review. This also explains why Ali never understood the description of his drumming as multi-directional. The point was misquoted when put to him.

tom surgal said...


Actually Rashied was a good friend of mine and often used the term to describe his own playing.

See this excerpt from a 1990 interview :


I’m Rashied Ali, and I play drums and how I can relate myself with John is . . .
well, for one thing he put the name on the type of drums I was playing. I
didn’t know what it was, but he called it multi-directional rhythms. Which I
looked up in the dictionary and found that it means playing three or four
different rhythms at the same time. And I guess I can relate to John as trying
to be the best that I can be in whatever I do. Because just the thing that he
seemed to instill on me and on people around him as to try to be really be the
best at what you do. So I can relate that way to him.

Colin Green said...

I stand corrected, although I was sure I read an interview where he said he wasn't really sure what the term meant when applied to his drumming. Perhaps his views changed. I am sure however, after coming across Coltrane's original quote - made late in life - that he wasn't using it to describe Ali's drumming, but the rhythmic freedom it conferred on the other musicians.