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Monday, June 4, 2018

Traditional free jazz? Ten albums with deep roots

By Stef

Can we speak of "traditional free jazz"? I know, some question our use of the word "free jazz" even, as if it did not exist. Yes, free jazz exists, even if its boundaries are fuzzy. There is some improvised music, that is rooted in jazz, and that goes beyond the thematic and rhythmic structures of bop and modern jazz. And the genre exists for more than fifty years now, enough time to create a solid foundation and even a tradition. A little later than expected, but here are some albums that really cherish the free jazz tradition. They have a direct genealogical line to Ornette Coleman, Ayler and Cecil Taylor.

Detail - At Club 7 (Not Two, 2017) ****

The music on this album is by the wonderful band "Detail" with Johnny 'Mbizo' Dyani on bass, Frode Gjerstad on sax and bass clarinet, Eivin One Pedersen on piano and ARP synth, and John Stevens on drums. The performance was recorded in Oslo in September 1982 at the iconic Club 7, a smoky place where many of the jazz greats of that time performed. This is the original line-up of the band, which released five albums in the early 80s, later with the addition of Bobby Bradford on cornet. When Dyani died in 1986, the band continued with Kent Carter on bass.

It is amazing to hear the original quartet now on this album. Their music flows openly, without clear structure or rhythm, but rather evolving like rolling waves through moments of calm and high intensity, full of lyricism and cohesive interplay. Kudos to the label for releasing this little gem from the past.

John Tchicai, Vinny Golia, Bill Smith Quintet with Clyde Reed & Gregg Simpson - Live at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, 1988 (Condition West Recordings, 2017) ****

Now this is a find. Recorded at the Vancouver Jazz Festival in 1988, the band are the late John Tchicai, Vinny Golia and Bill Smith on reeds, with Clyde Reed on double bass and Gregg Simpson on drums ... another multi-country band (Denmark, US, UK, Canada).

Both tracks are called '"Fêtes" (feast, celebration), and that's exactly what it is. On the first track the rhythm section goes wild from the start and keeps the energy up for the full fourteen minutes. The three soloists alternate, or scream in multiphonic chaos, trying to keep up with the mad speed. The second track is over twenty minutes long and has an equally energetic, albeit somewhat slower, boppish tempo. It's again freedom galore, but in a very cohesive way, built around a simple theme, more a vamp actually, yet the energy and the interplay are great. In the mid sequence, the tempo goes down for a much slower bass solo, and a short duet with - I guess - Tchicai's tenor, who invites the other reeds in for a slow theme, created on the spot, even when he increases his speed regardless. Simpson joins and he seems to know only one way of playing the drums: hard and fast, resulting in a continuation of the screaming fest it was before, which oddly comes together again in a theme, now reinforced by singing by two band members. It all sounds pretty chaotic, yet at the same time, it is so incredibly genuine and straight from the heart and soul, that you cannot but admire and enjoy what's happening.

The album can be downloaded from Bandcamp. The album is not a CD, it only exists digitally.

Test - Always Coming From The Love Side (Eremite, 2016) ****

We're a decade later now. Despite the fact that the quartet consisting of Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen on winds, the late Tom Bruno on drums and Matthew Heyner on bass existed only for a few years in the second half of the '90s, they released several albums, again in the best of free jazz traditions. Bruno and Heyner may not be familiar names, but their rhythm section is very energetic and intense, and both Carter and Mateen are having a ball on their saxes. Carter's occasional switching to trumpet adds variation. 

The band was known for its street performances in New York,  competing with all other diversions for the attentions of the passers-by, which explains their need for raw energy and power. This album collects several performances during a tour in '99, including one at the original Velvet Lounge in Chicago. The fact that it's performed "live" comes across very well. Great stuff. 

Again, great that Eremite has had the courage to release this double album. 

The Nu Band - The Final Concert (NoBusiness, 2016) & Live In Geneva (Not Two, 2017) ****

Another band that works within the 'free jazz tradition', even if more boppish than the previous three albums, is The Nu Band, reviewed and praised often before on this blog, and a band consisting of the late Roy Campbell on trumpet, flugelhorn, pocket trumpet and flute, Mark Whitecage on alto and clarinet, Joe Fonda on bass, and Lou Grassi on drums. "The Final Concert" is the last performance of the band with Roy Campbell, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 61. As on their other albums, the band starts with pre-written themes, one composed by Whitecage, one by Fonda, one by Campbell, and the fourth track is a collective improvisation. The themes act as springboards for lengthy improvisations, but with a clear and maintained focus on the theme's ingredients. The quartet swings and dances, and to hear Campbell's soulful and bluesy tones makes it all even more sad, despite the music's inherent joyfulness. The great thing about The Nu Band is that it's a band of equals making great fun and great music. They give each other space, they encourage, they interact in a playful and respectful way, attentive and creative at the same time. They have nothing to prove. No aesthetic or egos to defend. No statements to be made other than enjoy themselves and the audience. The whole album is a great tribute to Campbell. 

After Campbell's passing away, he was replaced by Thomas Heberer.  Heberer is a wonderful trumpet player, extremely versatile and comfortable in the most avant-garde and traditional contexts. To his credit, he keeps his own sound and approach, slightly changing the overall tone of the band from soulful to more adventurous, yet the end result is equally compelling and infectious. The first three tracks are quite subdued and maybe even sad, but then at the end all hell breaks loose, with the long "5 O'Cock Follies" turning the mood into an uptempo unison theme romp with alternating roles for the soloists against a breakneck speed rhythm section. The last track keeps that momentum going, a little more hesitant maybe, but great nevertheless. 

Trio X - Craig Kessler, Green Bay, Kerrytown & Sugar Maple (CIMPol, 2016) ****

One of free jazz's great trios was without a doubt Trio X, the trio of Joe McPhee on sax and pocket trumpet, the late Dominic Duval on bass, and Jay Rosen on drums. In 2016, CIMPol released four CDs at the same time, but seperately, in contrast to their earlier and equally highly recommendable boxes "Live On Tour 2008", and "Live On Tour 2010". The four new albums - and I expect them to be the last releases by the trio - are called "Live At Sugar Maple", "Live At Kerrytown", "Live In Green Bay and Buffalo", and "Live At Craig Kessler and Janet Lessner's". 

Most of the pieces are fully improvised, but time and again the trio gets back to some of their 'standards', such as "Going Home", "The Man I Love", "God Bless The Child", "Heavy Lifting Heavy Voices", or McPhee uses phrases of other standards during his solos. Even if the band can switch occasionally to highly energetic power play, the atmosphere is most of the time quite calm and gentle.  Trio X loves to use the American musical tradition of gospels, blues and old jazz, and turn them into something wildly new, fresh and authentic. There are moments when you think that this is the absolute essence of music: simple on the surface but deeply felt and technically brilliant. 

Some could say that when you've listened to several Trio X albums, that you've heard them all, but that is not the case. Even if their overall sound and approach is the same, each and every performance by this band is a kind of musical gem, unique and special. 

My only negative is the CIMP recording level - which I've complained about earlier - and which is so low that even on the maximum level of the sound system in my car I have to make a real effort to hear what's going on. 

Generations Quartet - Flow (Not Two, 2016) ****

The last in the series is "Flow" by the "Generations Quartet", with Oliver Lake on sax, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass, and Emil Gross on drums. I guess the Austrian drummer is the one who determines the "generations" in the band's name. Lake (°1942), Stevens (°1951) and Fonda (°1954), are clearly the older parts of the band. Stevens seems to be the anchor point in the quartet, not only because he's played with Lake and Fonda for decades but in parallel ensembles, but especially musically on this album. Stevens keeps it all together, but his more traditional sound and approach on the piano are interestingly enough the perfect match with Lake's unpredictable playing, Fonda's precise bass-lines and Gross rock-steady drumming. The four musicians are indeed completely different in musical character, yet they find each other. Despite being built around composed themes and structures, the overall sense of freedom is high, much more than on what is typically called 'modern jazz' or 'contemporary jazz'. Somehow it manages to find the ideal match between sophistication and rawness, between structure and freedom, between restraint and abandon.

Despite the band's name, it's not music that 'young' musicians would make these days. It is too anchored in the concept of free music of the seventies for that.

Like all the other albums reviewed here, the performance was recorded live, this one at the Bunker Ulmenwall in Bielefeld, Germany on October 30, 2015. It's only too bad that some of the tracks are cut, so that the applause of the audience is absent. That's strange for a live performance. In any case, it is more than worth checking out. 


Colin Green said...

The point you make about the low level of CIMP recordings is an interesting one. Here’s what the label says about such matters:

“CIMP records are digitally recorded live to two tracks. Digital recording allows for a vanishingly low noise floor and tremendous dynamic range. There is no compression, homogenization, eq-ing, post-recording splicing, mixing, or electronic fiddling with CIMP performances. Compressing the dynamic range is what limits the "air" and life of many recordings. Our recordings capture the full dynamic range one would experience in a live concert; many of them have a dynamic swing of over 85dB.

We set our levels so that the maximum signal will not overload the recorder. This means that the average level will be much lower than you are used to. If you set your levels during the loudest passages to be reasonably loud, the rest will fall into place. You may find passages where the signal is almost inaudible. Resist the temptation to turn the volume up; this is the way it sounded when it was recorded and was the dynamic intention of the musicians. In this regard these recordings are demanding. The quieter your system and the lower the noise floor of the listening area the more impressive they will be.”

This all sounds fine, and is a reaction against the compressed sound levels that developed in many recordings, right across the board, dubbed by Greg Milner in his book “Perfecting Sound Forever – The Story of Recorded Music” (Gratna, 2009) as “the loudness war” – compressing sound levels so that the differences between loud and soft are reduced to make music more up-front and punchy in noisy environments, such as a car. So, is the moral that you shouldn’t be listening to CIMP recordings in your car?

I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Even listening at home, they often sound like they’re cut too low, and are somewhat muted. I’m no expert, but I think the problem is that although this purest approach makes sense in theory, in reality few, if any, hi-fi systems are able to reproduce a mirror image of the dynamic range of the recording – everything’s scaled down from the real thing, so that although the proportions may be about the same, the louds are not nearly as loud and the softer passages are much quieter. In short, I think that some compression probably is necessary to reproduce a convincing facsimile in the home, but that won’t be the same as the real thing. Nothing sounds like live music but the brain can easily adjust to take account of the differences, and some recordings, and systems, are better at closing the gap than others.

In addition, I’ve heard a number of audiophile recordings which adopt a similar purist approach, and they don’t seem to suffer the same problems as CIMP albums.

Stef said...

Hi Colin, thanks and indeed, I'm aware of this CIMP statement, which is on every record they sell. I'm not a sound technician, but the live performance, even if not amplified, is always louder than what you can listen to on a CIMP album. I understand the importance of keeping and respecting the difference between soft and loud sounds, but I do not understand why they lower the volume of everything. Can't they just keep the differences and increase the volume? Anyway, it's great music, and listening at home (alone!) solves the problem. Thanks, Stef

James Allen said...

I have over 70 CIMP CDs in my collection and have always found it hard to understand the often disparaging comments made about the sound of these releases.The Penguin Guide compilers were usually unable to review a CIMP CD without being negative about the recording technique used which,to my ears,on a fairly high end system,reproduces the music of the artists as accurately as possible.
Bob Rusch,the producer and publisher of the excellent Cadence magazine,has always had a very ethical and down to earth attitude to recording and our music in general and I remember hearing the early issues,Sonny Simmons and Frank Lowe in particular,as a breath of fresh air after some of the artificial sounding releases from the more mainstream labels.
Just turn up the volume a little and enjoy the, almost always, superb music!