London Review of Books’ Adam Shatz can’t seem to free himself from hyperbole or using every cliché he can about Free Jazz, but his article does provide a useful introduction to The New York Art Quartet (NYAQ). Using as his hooks the UK release of The Breath Courses Through Us, a film about the NYAQ, plus Call It Art, a boxed set of unreleased NYAQ LPs, Shatz tries to recreate the time in the early 1960s that brought together saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd, drummer Milford Graves and several rotating bassists, to make music still remembered today. However, once he starts outlining the players' subsequent careers, political myths plus the band’s short affiliation with radical poet Amiri Baraka detract from the significance of the sounds.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE
One of the oddest and most heartening aspects of Free Music is the establishment of adroit improvising ensembles far from major population centres. One of the most notable instances of this trend, says Point of Departure’s Stuart Broomer, is the establishment of GGRIL or Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée. Located in Rimouski, Quebec, a rural town of about 46,000, 330 miles northeast of Montreal, the 15-piece GGRIL and its leader, bassist Éric Normand, not only organize weekly improvisations, but have also played and recorded with better-known improvisers such as bassist Joëlle Léandre, saxophonists Evan Parker and Jean Derome and violinist Malcolm Goldstein. Now GGRIL's CDs are being distributed world-wide and it is giving well-received concerts far from its home base.
Although reams of words have been written about the influences and influence band leader Sun Ra experienced and propagated when he lived in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, his experiences in Birmingham, Ala. are little known. Little-known that is until this series of articles written by Burgin Mathews for the publication Weld for Birmingham. Mathews painstakingly reconstructed history by speaking to some of the few living musicians who knew Ra in Alabama and going through the archives. It turns out that from his "arrival date" in 1914, until he left for Chicago in 1946, Mathew notes that Ra, then Sonny Blount, was part of the burgeoning Birmingham music scene. Thoroughly trained in big band Swing, which he would later celebrate with the Arkestra, Ra was also experimenting with early electronic keyboards at the time. In the north not only would Ra sometimes compose pieces related to Birmingham, like the Magic City, but over the years a few Alabama musicians such as his old friend, trumpeter Walter Miller, saxophonist Arthur Doyle, who had played with Miller, and trumpeter Jothan Callins were featured in the band.
Seems that every jazz fan in the world loves to make some kind of “best-of” list and the San Jose Mercury News’ Richard Scheinin is no different. His list of “Jazz's 12 most important musicians” provides a pretty accurate picture of how the music’s practitioners are viewed by Americans only attuned to the pop music industry. There are some signs of hope though. Among the usual suspects of Cassandra Wilson, Wynton Marsalis [!] and Robert Glasper [!!], he does find room for a few experimenting players such as Jason Moran, Joe Lovano and … right at the very end William Parker.
With all the (belated) interest in pianist/bandleader Sun Ra during the 100th anniversary of his arrival date, many forget to mention that his Arkestra is still extant, constantly working under the direction of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, 89, who has been a major contributor to the band sounds from the early 1950s. Electronic Beats' editors Andre Vida and Max Dax conducted an extensive interview with Allen touching on his own experiences, his years with Ra, a glimpse into Ra’s unique futuristic musical philosophy, and how commited Jazzman Allen doesn’t mind playing with other musicians – even rockers and those involved in electronics.
Stepping into the quagmire of defining a music that has long had its fanatical partisans with exclusive points of view, is Sound American’s editor, trumpeter Nate Wooley. He dares to ask 50 contemporary improvisers to come up with their personal definitions of “Jazz”. Carefully outlining his methodology and strictures in the introduction and admitting he plays devil’s advocate throughout, Wooley elicits thought-provoking and sometimes unexpected replies from a group of committed players in Europe and North America who range from British saxophonist John Butcher and American reedist Darius Jones to German pianist Magda Mayas and Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstaedt.
Although his thesis seems to be that guitarist Nels Cline, now a 10-year veteran of the pop band Wilco, doesn’t fit the profile of a usual rock guitarist, The Los Angeles Times’ Chris Baryon tries to define him as an experimenter who happens to also play Rock among other sounds. Outlining the apprenticeship the guitarist and his twin brother, drummer Alex Cline followed in Los Angeles’ Free Jazz circles with the likes of violinist Jeff Gauthier and alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill, the guitarist’s non-Rock affiliations are also highlighted. There’s even mention of Cline’s own Avant-Jazz band with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola.
One of the busiest double bassists in Free Jazz, London’s John Edwards tells Something Else’s Sammy Stein that Free Music is hated by so many because it’s the antithesis of political power: it lets people play as they wish without fear of making mistakes. Edwards isn’t afraid of staying away from commercial considerations either. Self-taught and someone who left school at 18, Edwards was a member of pop-punk-jazz bands like the Pointy Birds and B Sharps for the Poor, before committing himself to the group dynamics and social change implicit in Free Jazz. Today he works with everyone from saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist John Russell to saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Steve Noble. And, as he realizes he can still help change situations, he doesn’t even mind playing door gigs.
Cerebral and committed, British double bassist Barry Guy is celebrated for his playing, leadership of large Improv ensembles and his composing. This interview with Music and Literature’s Benjamin Dwyer mostly deals with Guy’s approach to composing, the teaching of improvisation, and notated composers' view of improvisation. As well Guy tells of the time he performed one of Iannis Xenakis' compositions for the composer himself. Along the way, the double bassist discusses his evolution from a Skiffle-style one-stringed tea-chest bassist, to after hearing Charles Mingus and further study, becoming a stylist equally at home playing Bach as well as improvisations with the likes of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Paul Lytton.
During the past half-century some discussion about so-called Free Jazz is that it’s an overly intellectual sham foisted on the roots Jazz community. Saxophonist Ras Moshe, who comes from East New York, dismisses this supposition in this interview with Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley. Moshe, who has been curating a music series in New York since 2000, points out that while he was growing up in East New York exploratory musicians such as bassist Reggie Workman and tenor saxophonist Bill Barron were teaching at a music school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, while innovators like trumpeter Lester Bowie and violinist Leroy Jenkins lived in the neighborhood. Moshe, whose musical background includes Reggae as well as Jazz, says that playing Free Jazz was no stretch for someone from his background. Today he works with a shifting group of collaborators from around the city including trumpeter Matt Lavelle, bassist Matt Heyner guitarist Tor Snyder and many others without any sort of tension.
No gunslinger, but an art lover, bassist Damon Smith has made his presence felt on the scene since he moved to Houston four years ago. Writing on the occasion of a visit to his former home town, the East Bay (California) Express’ Andrew Gilbert discusses the influences that shaped Smith’s career, ranging from the Minutemen's Mike Watt to pioneering German Free Jazz bassist Peter Kowald. A valued presence as a collaborator, the article underlines Smith’s versatility that allows him to play alongside Punk-Jazzers such as drummer Weasel Walter as well as sophisticated composer/saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell with equal ease.
Playing up the musician’s Lone Star State background, The Houston Chronicle’s Andrew Dansby chronicles the long, productive career of Dallas-Fort Worth-area born trumpeter Bobby Bradford. A long-time Los Angeles resident and educator, Bradford has worked with fellow ex-Texans who advanced the music, such as alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and clarinetist John Carter. Unfortunately army service meant that Don Cherry, rather than Bradford was featured on Coleman’s revolutionary recordings of the early 1960s. Recently though, his prominence in bands with his former student, tenor saxophonist David Murray and now with Norwegian alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, shows that at nearly 80 Bradford is playing as well as he ever did.
Trying to find a way to build Jazz audiences by having more women appreciate the music, is a topic that gets New Music Box’s Willard Jenkins tied into some rhetorical knots. His thesis seems to be that if more women instrumentalists played Jazz, then more women would attend Jazz concerts as self-identification. Although he cites example of women players who have inspired others from trombonist Melba Liston to pianist Gerri Allen to bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding as well as educators who propose this concept, something rings false. Others speak about Jazz’s universal appeal and the danger of creating women’s-only ghettos within the music and still not increasing the audience.
Having recently turned 70, German pianist Joachim Kühn tells Deutsche Welle’s Stefan Rheinbay that he has liberated himself from everything but playing. Now living in the island of Ibiza, Kühn has no partner, children, pets or religion and his hobbies are painting – and playing saxophone. The first and best-known Jazzman to defect from East Germany in the 1960s, the Leipzig-born pianist, plus his clarinetist brother Rolf Kuhn, were already DDR stars, but he wanted to immerse himself in a less-restrictive environment. He did so, first in Paris as a Free Jazzer and later in Hollywood as a Jazz-Rock Fusion star; the latter which he regrets mightily. However it was a 1999 duet encounter with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman which freed his thinking about music and led the pianist, who has never played standards, to concentrate on pure improvisation.
After many well-received ensemble sessions, California-based pianist Myra Melford has finally released a solo CD. She tells Luke Stewart of Capital Bop that it was recorded following the death of artist Don Reich, with whom she was to collaborate. Still using his paintings as inspiration, Melford speaks about working to distinguish her solo playing from that of master piano improvisers like Cecil Taylor, Don Pullen and Andrew Hill. Although she is initially from Chicago, and has worked with Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians-affiliated players such as alto saxophonist Joseph Jarman and violinist Leroy Jenkins, it's the AACM’s idea of community which most attracts her. She also notes that after studying in India and listening to much Latin American and African music, these non-American influences seep into her Jazz compositions.
From Fayetteville, Arkansas, but now located in Chicago, Keefe Jackson who plays tenor saxophone plus bass and contra bass clarinets, is the very epitome of the modern-day reedist. As he tells Point of Departure’s Troy Collins, he’s one of the many young musicians who have been influenced as much by non-Jazz as Jazz music. At the same time, in his projects – whether they be the all-star Fast Citizens group with, among others, cornetist Josh Berman and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm or the Likely So all-reed septet including Swiss reedist Peter A Schmid, Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel and Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis – he tries to attain proper dynamics between notated and improvised music as well as integrating the same feel on live and studio dates. He is also so-called conservative enough to appreciate a physical CD or LP as an art object in itself, noting that the “sonic constraints of an LP or CD or cassette or whatever are really important” in the creative process.
Maintaining its now corporate role of reporting on music trends about a decade after they happen, The Village Voice has finally discovered the burgeoning DIY-music scene in Brooklyn. While writer Matthew Kassel seems to see the move from Manhattan clubs across the river as generational, rather than economic, at least he names some of the prominent new music spaces there as well as name checking musicians such as clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Jesse Stacken and trombonist Brian Dry who play at, organize or curate these grass roots locations.
The Wire`s Richard Thompson visits some of London`s Free Music venues after a lengthy hiatus and claims that most of them are dying, victim of high rents, unsympathetic landlords, new licensing laws and lack of promotion. Thompson, who at one point played with guitarist Derek Bailey in similar back-of-pubs music spaces, insists that the audiences are so small and the venues so out-of-the-way because no one bothers to properly promote gigs via social media. He says new commitments and strategies are needed as existed in earlier days with the London Musicians Collective the venues curated by the likes of Adam Bohman and his brother. E-mails (at bottom) disagree.
Baritone saxophonist/composer/bandleader Fred Ho may literally be dying of colorectal cancer, but that hasn’t stopped him from music making or intensifying his criticism of modern North American society. Ho, 56, who has been influenced by progressive jazz musicians like saxophonist Archie Shepp and trumpeter Cal Massey, explains NPR’s Kat Chow in this sympathetic profile, that he has never internalized his anger. Instead his works, which he characterizes as Afro-Asian Futurism, because he feels “jazz” initially denigrated Black musicians, strike out against the abuses of capitalism in musical form. While Ho will not live to see his concepts come to fruition, a band, directed by fellow saxophonist and student Ben Barson continues to perform his music. [Addendum: Fred Ho died of colorectal cancer at 56, at his home in Brooklyn on April 12, 2014 .]
While a good part of the post-Putin Russia appears to have accepted Western capitalistic values, in the main improvised musicians are still marginalized. You wouldn’t know this from the mostly positive article by Vasily Shumov in Russia Beyond the Headlines. While also chronicling the history of trumpeter Eddie Rosner, the Soviet Union’s best-known Swing musician who was arrested in 1946 and didn’t escape the Gulag until 1954, Shumov then insists acceptance of Jazz has steadily grown over the years. Mentioning some of the major improvisers of the 1970s and 1980s, including pianist/guitarist Sergey Kuriokhin, drummer Vladimir Tarasov, pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin and saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin, who he thinks is a vocalist [!], he seems unfamiliar with the most recent improvisers however. Some illuminating videos are embedded though.