Saturday, January 24, 2009

Free America

A page I did on the 15 part limited edition series...


In the fall of 2004, Verve music in France reissued 15 long out of print free jazz titles from the long defunct America label, based in France. The label specialized in the most avant garde of free jazz and this set mostly focuses on American musicians who were visiting European soil. The titles in the set range from semi-well known material by well known groups, to utter obscurities that obsessive fans like me didn't even know anything about before the series' release. I will be discussing the entire set, in the order which they are numbered. All of the titles are beautifully packaged in mini-gatefold digipacks with spectacular new artwork by the French Painter Jerome Witz. Fantastically annotated with insightful and informative newly written liner notes by French journalist Philippe Carles (though the english translations are sometimes a bit difficult), they also include facsimiles of the original album covers and reprinted original liner notes. These were limited, individually numbered packages that have most likely gone out of print by now but are, regardless, an invaluable historical and musical document. I believe 3,500 copies of each release was pressed (I have seen no numbers above 3,500, so this is entirely an assumption on my part) and I will note which number I have.

Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago
Certain Blacks (#0299)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Certain Blacks 'Do What They Wanna'"

This album starts out with a repeated chant of the title track and then just when it changes to "Certain blacks, dig they freedom!" things explode into all out chaos until nearly two minutes later when the group works into a beautiful Coltrane Quartet-inspired groove. After a break for another repeated chant, the band breaks the tune down and calmly (yes, calmly) meditates on the theme for a few minutes, at times reaching a beautiful melancholy tone. From there, the band builds up and breaks down several times, with a lot of solos and feature sections; the duet between Malachi Favors (bass) and Edward Mitchell Jr. (bass sax) is my favorite portion and an entertaining conversation. Indeed, Favors anchors this whole set exceptionally. There are all kinds of miscellaneous instruments employed, from chimes to harmonica to all sorts of hand percussion instruments. "One For Jarman" is a meditative, feel good song. At seven minutes, it's the album's shortest piece. It's also the record's most restrained, as it pretty much sticks to the main piano theme for the duration. Things are closed out with the romping "Bye Bye Baby", which sounds like a Chicago blues jam crossed with an early New Orleans swing sound. It's a rare moment of funky accessibility in this series and an all around great ending to an album that starts out uncompromising and gets progressively more fun as it plays. One of the more enjoyable and listenable releases in the series.

Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago
Album: Phase One (#3147)
Year: 1971
Best song: "Ohnedaruth"

Only two tracks, clocking in at about twenty minutes a piece, they are quite contrasting numbers. The opener, "Ohnedaruth" starts out very spiritual and meditative with lots of droning sounds from gongs and a bowed upright bass, but then revolves into a swinging Ornette Coleman-esque groove. The band rollicks, but never gets noisy. And that goes for the entire record; making this one of the Art Ensemble's most restrained albums. Side two is even more sparse on "Lebert Aaly (Dedicated to Albert Ayler)", where no solid rhythm is to be found. However, for a quintet, the band is making a wide array of diverse sounds. Indeed, the fact that, in addition to the fourteen instruments credited to members of the group, each band member is also credited with "Etc." (and furthermore, Lester Bowie is the only band member not credited with "percussions" — notice the pluralization). The song, however, is a surprisingly quiet one, save for a few more aggressive moments during the reeds solos. Overall, it's a really strong album that is representative of the Art Ensemble's progressive leanings, but it's not so avant garde as to exclude more conservative listeners. An album that almost perfectly balances more spiritually accessible moments with a definite radical slant.

Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago
Album: Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass (#2185)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Part One : How Strange/Part Two : Ole Jed"

In a strong case for their diversity, the Art Ensemble starts off this album with a completely percussive beat that soon develops into a traditional African chant. After three minutes of an intense percussive build up, the band falls silent and Roscoe Mitchell and the rest of the band makes it entrance. Singer Fontella Bass —mostly known for her rhythm & blues ditties and for being Lester Bowie's wife— makes her appearance, singing about how strange it is that someone named Ole Jed fell into the well. Fontella's otherwise technically proficient jazzy vocals sound surprisingly at home atop the mellow, yet unmistakably eerie sound he band crafts. When the proper drum kit finally makes its first appearance nearly ten minutes into the song, things quickly swell into up into all out freedom. But, as the Art Ensemble often did, the songs builds up noisy passages into sudden silence over and over again. "Horn Webb" starts out very similarly, with a nearly four minute long drum solo, except played on a proper drum kit by Don Moye. A few moments of silence and then the band slowly enters, seemingly practicing an exercise in restraint, as the song never really gets as loud again as it does in the first few minutes. The sound is diverse, as no less than forty instruments are credited to the various band members (and even then, Malachi Favors is credited with the ambiguous tags of "others" and "percussions"). Overall, it feels like an unfinished piece, ending quite abruptly. Lester Bowie's solo is quite good, but the song as a whole feels incomplete. Indeed, a strange ending to one of the Art Ensemble's weirdest records.

Artist: Paul Bley
Album: Improvisie (#3400)
Year: 1971
Best song: "Improvisie"

First off: this album is seriously meditative. There are only three people playing the entire time and there is no proper drum set (well, not until much later on in the album). Those three people, however, do try to fill up the inherent space with, as in the cases of Paul Bley and accomplice (soon to be wife) Annette Peacock, various keyboards (although, it should noted, none too much acoustic piano). Han Bennink's constant stuttering clangs and thumps provide a very elastic base for the surprisingly melodic title track. I mean, the thing actually has a theme. An honest-to-goodness refrain. Because the melodic sounds utilized here are all keys, there are little to no abrasive moments. Sure, Paul's playing entirely off key, but it doesn't sound abrasive, y'know? "Touching", the second of the album's two tracks, goes much closer to that description. Annette freaks the knobs and switches on her Moog to make some... uhh, interesting sounds. About fifteen minutes in, you might ask yourself, "Hey is this the new Sonic Youth noise record?" No, STUPID!!! She actually takes vocals for a while, and, well, is she one heck of a screamer or what? If pressed, I'd take the title track over "Touching" because it accomplishes the same thing in roughly half the time. Overall though, this is one of the most sparse albums in the series. Surprisingly accessible, outside of the last ten or so minutes.

Artist: Anthony Braxton
Album: Donna Lee (#2402)
Year: 1972
Best song: "You Go To My Head"

Confession time: I actually have a very passionate dislike, arguably a mild hate, for Anthony Braxton. That said, I think this is one of the better volumes in the series. Recorded on my birthday in 1972, it's easily the best Anthony Braxton album I've ever heard as it starts off very conventionally with the title track. An homage to the bebop classic, it steadily descends/elevates (circle one) into all out freedom and by eight minutes in, it's a free-for-all. However, it's a very convincing rendition of the tune. By the time it abruptly ends amidst a Braxton solo over nine minutes in, you may be kind of mad that it wasn't left alone to develop. I certainly was. The next song, ridiculously titled a combination of uncommunicable mathematical symbols (along with the last track), offers a stark contrast with its menacing sparseness. Braxton grabs a flute to start off with but eventually picks up a bass clarinet to squeeze out an engaging solo, complete with twisted "is that a horn?" sounds. The two variations of the standard "You Go To My Head" are just fantastic. The first sticks very closely to the tune in its most classicist sense. The second rendition picks up the tempo slightly and again evolves into complete freedom, again, also, very convincingly. The bass breakdown, which morphs back into a reiteration of the theme, is very Coltrane Quartet, and a really chill-inducing moment. The last track is even more menacing and sparse than the second track and a fitting end to the album. Like I said, the best album I've ever heard with Anthony Braxton's name on it. Really a wonderful experience.

Artist: Anothony Braxton
Album: Saxophone Improvisations Series F (#0138)
Year: 1972
Best song: ?????

This is why I dislike Anthony Braxton. Recorded just a few days after the previously discussed Donna Lee album, this is a series of noodly, totally random, incoherent, derivative solo saxophone ramblings and —you better believe it!— lotsa mathematic symbols passed off as song titles. Squeaky skronky goodness(?) from the guy that wishes he invented it. Two discs worth, in fact. Yikes. At some points, I feel like I was sitting through Metal Machine Music or something. It starts nowhere, goes nowhere and ends up absolutely nowhere. Sure, there are a few intriguing melodies here and there. But, with tracks ranging from two to nineteen minutes long, there isn't a whole lot here that requires repeated listens. As a person who has attempted to play many instruments, I can surely appreciate the virtuosity and creativity it takes to explore some of the sounds found here, but half way through disc two, it feels very self-congratulatory. Probably my least favorite of the series.

Artist: Dave Burrell
Album: After Love (#2105)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Questions and Answers"

The title track here is actually split into two separate 'movements', I suppose you could call them. The first, subtitled "Questions and Answers", is, within this series, standard fare. But, pull it outside of this collection, and you have a startling performance. Over twenty minutes of two drummers creating a low roar for a rhythmic foundation, two bassists playing a composition entirely their own and melodic improvising from the rest of the band that could only be described as 'liberating.' Dave Burrell is actually very supporting cast in his role on the song. Split into two sections, almost western music versus eastern music in their tonality, it is a truly involving and rewarding listen. Part two ("Random"), is much more serene in comparison. If less aggressively abrasive, it is certainly as thought provoking in its melodic meditative theme. The other song, "My March" is a showcase for Dave, as he displays an interestingly melodic solo vamp for the first four or so minutes and then the tune slowly picks up speed after a few solos. It is indeed taken at a march tempo. But it is perhaps the most demented-sounding march I've ever heard. Amongst unintelligible dialogue and/or chants (I can't tell which it is), the song comes to a close courtesy of a Roscoe Mitchell solo and it feels incomplete. A good album amongst this series, to be sure, but, outside of the first track, it just feels unrealized.

Artist: Emergency
Album: Homage To Peace (#2170)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Kako Tune

A live, four song, fourty-five minute set from this ludicrously obscure quintet. Consisting of two African Americans, two Japanese travelers and one native Frenchman, the lone album by this mysterious one-off group has got to be one of the great lost wonders of the ancient jazz world. An otherwise acoustic quartet is augmented by the Frenchman Boulou Ferret's electric guitar through some inspired —and very inspiring— playing. There are moments of abrasiveness and dissonance here, but they make absolute sense in the context of the songs. The sparse Takashi Kako (piano) feature "People In Sorrow" is a definite highlight, as is the pianist's own composition "Kako Tune". You know something's up when you can hear shades of Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal on a free jazz album. Really, this is the kind of thing I am constantly searching out new music for: a wonderfully free expression and exploration of new sounds and ideas. Challenging, to be sure, but equally, if not more so, as rewarding. Absolutely fantastic music.

Artist: Steve Lacy
Album: The Gap (#2092)
Year: 1972
Best song: "The Thing"

BLAM! Right away, this album hits you with the abrasiveness. And the album-starting title track is rather underwhelming, to say the least. There's not much in it that's all that interesting or original. Honestly, not that much happens for most of this album. It's not bad, it's just very by-the-books for a free jazz album. I can't really think of another moment, outside of the first 'squawk!' that really struck me. Everything is competently played, it just sounds rather predictable.

Artist: Roswell Rudd
Album: Roswell Rudd (#1592)
Year: 1965
Best song: "Respects"

So, this is the earliest date in the series, and, as would be expected, it is one of the most tame and best. Certainly, this quartet is playing free jazz, which, by its very conventions, disregards keys and scalar traditions, for a more melodically searching output. All of the songs here were composed by the trombonist and leader Roswell Rudd, save for alto saxophonist John Tchicai's "Jabulani" and Monk's should-be standard "Pannonica". The opening tune, "Respects", is a good manifesto for this album, as it introduces a theme and definitely explores outward from that theme, without ever fully abandoning it. There are mostly very catchy themes presented here, followed by searching, but never all-out noisy, sounds. Roswell sounds rather inspired for the duration, as this was his first proper album as a leader. It's definitely one of the more interesting, and better, titles in the series.

Artist: Archie Shepp
Album: Black Gipsy (#3236)
Year: 1969
Best song: "Black Gipsy"

Starting off with the revelatory epic title track, this album is like a less successful version of Archie's Attica Blues album on Impulse. I say less successful because it partially lacks the energy and immediacy of that album. But, just taking the title track on its own and disregarding the other two tracks, it's still a strong record. A constant blues thump provides the base for noisy solos and some interesting world music-inducing sounds from Leroy Jenkins on viola and Julio Finn on harmonica. It's deeply spiritual music, being so rooted in blues, but with Sonny Murray's inventive percussion and intriguing solos from Archie (soprano), Noah Howard (alto) and Clifford Thornton (trumpet), topped off by some sporadic philosophic rants by Chicago Beauchamp, it's a strange concoction that is as fascinating as it is unique. The second track, titled "Epitaph of a Small Winner: Rio de Janeiro, Casablanca, Chicago" is even more epic in its scope, as it travels through the indigenous music forms of each of the locales named in the title. Scattered and stopgap, but definitely a commendable effort. "Pitchin' Can" closes things out on a fairly conservative bluesy note, considering its predecessors, but is a nice comedown after their intensity. A good album, but definitely a scattered affair.

Artist: Alan Shorter
Album: Tes Esat (#1302)
Year: 1970
Best song: are any of these really songs?

A drum roll introduces a brief, subtly skronky Gary Windo tenor solo and then a menacing bassline revolves around to introduce the maniacal theme of the album's opener "Disposition". After a few variations of the theme, three minutes into the tune, Alan Shorter and Gary Windo combine for a squealing high note that is terrifying. Not long thereafter, things explode into all out insanity. During Gary Windo's initial solo, it may occur to the listener that this may be the single most offensive sounding piece of music in existence. He makes sounds come out of his horn that seemingly do not have terrestrial origins. It never lets up and nearly thirty minutes later, when the band restates the theme, it would make the most sense to call this album's opening tune the single most abrasive moment in the entire series. Split up the middle by the sparse "Beast of Bash", the album closes with "One Million Squared". An abrasive moment on its own, it's nothing compared to "Disposition". An album notable for a few things: Alan is indeed the older brother Wayne, this is one of only two albums Alan was a leader on and it is one of the single most challenging records I've ever heard.

Artist: Clifford Thornton
Album: The Panther and the Lash (#1272)
Year: 1970
Best song: the whole thing

First of all, I'm biased. Clifford Thornton was a favorite before I checked out this series. And this album was the one from his discography that I was missing. So, when I was finally able to obtain it and I heard the absolutely gorgeous opening to "Huey is Free", I had already found my favorite installment in this series. As an ethnomusicologist, Clifford Thornton understood folks forms from all over the world and, much like John Coltrane —who Thornton was an astute follower of—, he was able to accurately incorporate atonal eastern music themes into jazz, while still making the notes sound purposeful. Though dating from 1970 —which is otherwise regarded as the doldrums of free jazz where any kid played whatever notes he wanted without understanding anything about scales or forms— Thornton's vision is fully realized here. Essentially an hour long live performance, the band runs through five originals and two folk songs from northwest Africa. The songs are played without breaks between them and the longer tunes build and swell up to a breaking point where things feel like they are about to explode into complete insanity, but it's always just the finale and the band breaks apart to build up the next song. The employment of exotic instruments enhances world music sound, despite the music ranging from traditional bop, to freedom, to African folk forms, to funk shuffles and nearly post-modern classical atonalities. Intense and powerful music that is certainly at home in the free jazz column, but far too soulful and unique for even that crowd. The band is absolutely on fire and in perfect sync, especially the rhythm section of Beb Guérin on bass and Noel McGhie on drums. Despite the whole thing being one of the most cohesive albums I've ever heard, the last two tracks feel especially genuine. The heart wrenching sadness of "Shango/Aba L'Ogun" and playful, but melancholy "Mahiya Illa Zalab" reflect the times and atmosphere of the frustration of the world at the end of the 60's. Really a wonderful and beautiful climax to an already fantastic album. Easily the tops of the whole series. Arguably Clifford Thornton's best album as a leader, as well.

Artist: Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy
Album: Mal Waldron with the Steve Lacy Quintet (#2307)
Year: 1972
Best song: "Blue Wee"

A strange pairing, maybe just for me because I like Mal Waldron and have never been all that enamored with Steve Lacy. The introductory meditation on the opener "Vio" is a nice showcase for Waldron's sympathetic tone. Things develop into the usual Steve Lacy headiness. There's more head than heart in these songs, but maybe it's Waldron's presence that makes this album a little more bearable for me. "Blue Wee" builds off of a Waldron blues vamp into an evolving tune that is probably the most interesting thing here, because it feels like the band is genuinely having fun, without thinking too much. Alternate takes of "Vio" and "Jump For Victor" are included.

Artist: Frank Wright
Album: Uhuru Na Umoja (#3155)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Aurora Borealis"

A fairly concise album, a standard bass-less quartet and no songs longer than nine minutes. "Oriental Mood" has an interesting theme, but feels squandered because of Art Taylor's relentless drumming in the following minutes. He never really lets up and it feels annoying, like he had to be playing all the time because there's no bass. Dah well. The rest of the album's good. "Aurora Borealis" stays spacious and is one of the most interesting pieces in the entire series, simply based on its sometimes over-the-top prettiness. The short, goofy "Pluto" closes things out and the album does feel a little too one dimensional. It's a little too aggro most of the time and could've benefited from a few more sparse moments. As it stands, it's one of the more listenable installments in the series and a good —but unfortunately not great— note to end things on.

Have a squealy good time.


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