“Dr. Nunez”, the first track, displays the pattern for the rest of the album. The first thing that hits you is the sound. It is unlike anything you have ever heard before. There is a free jazz approach, that’s for sure. But there are no drums, instead there are hand drums which are mainly played at the bottom end having the effect that they sound like an African war rhythm. Even more confusing is the bass guitar. The wind seems to carry over faint echoes of Michael Henderson’s wah-wah-bass on Miles Davis’ “On the Corner”. But it sounds even wobblier, muddier and … sicker. You can hear the primordial soup bubbling. Above the brew flutters a clarinet (b-flat or alto), very often in a falsetto register. The blues is whispering its mournful melody. Is there communication or is everybody playing independently of each other?
When Henry P. Warner (clarinets), Earl “Goggles” Freeman (bass guitar, piano), and Philip Spigner (hand drums) decided to press 500 LP copies of “Freestyle Band” in 1984, the world was changing. Ronald Reagan was about to win his second presidential election and the costs for weapons of mass destruction were at an all time high. The US was still suffering from the Vietnam trauma. The Republicans bid farewell to Johnson’s idea of a “Great Society”, instead the liberalization of the markets and the cutting of welfare programs led to immense wealth for a small upper class and extreme poverty for the already dispossessed. A whole society was de-solidarized and de-stabilized. It was sick, too.
This album reflects these social conditions.
This is why there is this deep melancholy buzzing over the tracks, this is why there is hardly any interaction between the musicians, this is why the bass is so spooky and wavering. Like a world that is torn apart and desperately tries to find together again, the music tries to be one as well although it has to fail in the end. It is like Hermann Hesse’s poem “In the Mists”: “None to the other exists / Each one stands alone”.
“Pelican” tops this concept when Freeman’s bass starts alone, bubbling like before, helplessly looking for the others - before it immediately stops. Then Warner’s clarinet takes over and you can hear him praying and hollering to somebody who might be out there. He abruptly stops, too, and Spigner’s hand drums come out of the blue, sharper, but more fragile all the same. The drumming is forcing up, it is a trance, a new climax before clarinet and bass come back and flow into something like interaction. All of a sudden the bass stops, as well as the clarinet and the hand drums and the tune fades out with a few piano chords.
The new CD version of the album is sourced from a mint copy of the original LP, supplemented by two pieces from the same session. “Bird Knows”, the last track, continues where “Pelican” has stopped. There might be more interaction when Freeman plays the piano but in the middle of the track he drops out and takes the bass guitar and we are back at the beginning again. Although this might be a very gloomy vision of the world, the concept and the music are absolutely great.
And there is not only the music. Ed Hazell's excellent, detailed and informative liner notes provide background on the musicians and set the music in its cultural context.
The wonderful Lithuanian NoBusiness label has rescued this gem from the depths of oblivion, something they did with Black Man’s Blues / New York Collage by Billy Bang’s Survival Ensemble as well – an album from the same era. Thank you, treasure hunters.
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