Heat Suite
Konnex KCD 5122

The Concept
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1162

Think of Energy Music in the United States like the committed American Left.

Although denounced as an unfashionable anachronism or a contemptible spent force by bombastic conservative commentators, grass roots organizations unexpectedly assert themselves at the local or national level when events swing too far towards the Right.

It’s the same thing with so called Energy Music, Free Jazz or what in the 1960s was called the New Thing. Always treated with contempt by the established mainstreamers of the day, it was derided as a passing fad almost from the time it was first heard. Today jazz’s neo-cons call it old hat with the same disdain that political neo-cons dismiss the New Deal and the unionization.

But as these two CDs, recorded in different parts of U.S. reveal, although a so-called underground movement, Energy Music, like a belief in social justice, has more adherents than most realize. It flourishes in its own enclaves and comes front and centre when least expected.

HEAT SUITE, for instance, is a showcase for Western Massachusetts’ creative improvisers’ scene. Two of the musicians — percussionist Ben Karetnick and saxist Cliff White have mostly a local reputation, though Karetnick, an organizer as well as a creative drummer has worked with folks like New York multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and Vermont trumpeter Raphe Malik. Ashfield, Mass.’s White was featured on the first record by bassist Joe Fonda. Fonda, a voluble, committed stylist, who now works in bands with pianist Michael Jefrey Stevens and violinist Billy Bang, among others, returned to the area for this gig.

Another distinguished participant is upstate New York’s Joe McPhee on tenor and soprano saxophones and pocket trumpet. Someone who has been propagating free music since his first record in the mid-1960s, McPhee is a citizen of the world, as apt to add his horns to an established jazz group in France as an ad-hoc situation in the U.S.

Lesser-known, perhaps because of their California location, are the five members of Jim Ryan’s Forward Energy band. Bay area-based Ryan, who plays alto and tenor saxophones, is a poet and writer who was drawn to Free Music in the 1970s. Since then he’s performed with veteran jazzers like trumpeter Eddie Gale and drummer Donald Robinson as well as younger improvisers like the ones here. Bassist Adam Lane is the best known sideperson, having worked extensively with Danish reedist John Tchicai. Pianist Scott R. Looney, who also recorded, mixed and mastered this CD, has worked with British bass saxophonist Tony Bevan and locals such as bassist Damon Smith. Both tenor saxophonist Alicia Mangan and drummer Marshall Trammell have been in bands led by altoist Marco Eneidi.

If there’s a difference in approach to these slabs of Free Music, it’s that contrary to stereotypes of the frenzied East and the laid-back West, it’s the Massachusetts four who mix gentle, nearly pastoral passages with hearty New Thing skronk on this four-part suite. Meanwhile the Ryan five are unreconstructed Energy players from the start of The CONCEPT to its end, nearly 71 minutes later.

Although divided into four tracks, HEAT SUITE is really one continuous live performance that shows off the talents of each of the participants. Especially impressive is “Part3”, for Fonda’s formidable technique. Humming and barking exhortations as he solos — like a combination of Jack Kerouac and Slam Stewart — Fonda rattles timbres near the tuning pegs, then moves up and down the strings, thumping, bumping and walking. At points it sounds as if he’s doing a literal tap dance on the wood, but it may just be another percussion entry from Karetnick.

To add to the interest, the drummer rattles a few chains, slithers over his drum tops and amplifies his flams and rolls in true post-modern style. Yet when he uses sturdy cylindrical sticks on the snare or sounds the sizzle cymbals with wire handled brushes, he develops a Big Sid Catlett Swing Era cadence. Meanwhile White moves from staccato baritone basement blasts to smearing, pitchsliding higher tones. McPhee contributes broken chords in the form of chromatic trumpet runs and finesses a dramatic extended grace note at the end.

On the other pieces, White’s output on any of his three horns ranges from squeals in the altissimo range to lowdown, echoing honks and continuous flutter tonguing. With pitch vibrato and split tones, he sometimes creates ney-like timbres. Whether he’s using his pocket trumpet, soprano or tenor saxophone, McPhee fuses his output to that of the other hornman so that the harmonies fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. At the beginning White’s dulcet lines meet up with sluiced, delayed notes from McPhee, playing trumpet with quicksilver grace. In the last section, a duet features the two hornmen moving from bucolic, unison harmony to a pitchsliding circle of blats and honks from tandem saxes, with the odd tongue slap thrown into the mix for good measure. Fonda’s polyrhythmic pedal point keeps things together. More sensed than heard throughout, Fonda’s dense bass underpinning is one of the secrets of the session’s success, along with Karetnick’s bouncing motions.

Things are a little more hard core on the Oakland, Calif. session, with wild and wooly unrelentless smears and honks, flutter tonguing and skyscraper altissimo heard

from beginning to end. Ryan and Mangan continuously demolish anything as mundane as bar lines and tempos, squeezing as many timbres as they can into each sound. Adding whistling doits, false fingering and exploding tones to just about everything they play, it’s often hard to tell the saxes apart. When one reedist honks like a foghorn it’s probably Mangan’s tenor, and those shrill police whistle tones are probably from Ryan’s alto.

Lane holds up his part of the rhythm section with energetic, prestissimo resonation and double-stopped woody ponticello, while Trammell’s conga-like polyrhythms and ringing cymbals help as well. Looney’s most impressive display occurs on “How Are You”, where between Trammell’s bashing and Lane’s walking bass, he rappels over the keys at warp speed. Using contrasting dynamics to expose the vibrations and overtones on the keys, he often dips inside the frame to stop the action. By the end he has taken tremolo playing to its logical, exciting conclusion.

Of course the showpiece is the more-than-25 minute title track, Energy Music by definition. Starting with an a cappella pulsating trill from Ryan on tenor, the next notes slide into the basement and continue in the foreground or background as he tune unrolls. As Mangan produces screeching altissimo lines and the rhythm section thumping continuum, Looney unleashes repetitive, high frequency stride cadenzas and broken chording, as if he was a modern version of Cal Cobbs, Albert Ayler’s favorite pianist.

Like Fonda on the other disc and Jimmy Garrison’s steadfast accompaniment in John Coltrane’s larger band works, Lane’s patterns cement the content of this piece. As the ostinato surges, the other players create waves of sound that escalate up to the peak of inventiveness and fall down from the precipice without losing dynamism or fervor. You get a mental picture of the five driving bumper cars in a carnival ride, joining together in twos and threes, then splitting up and going their separate ways again.

With unvarying sizzle cymbal resonation, triple stopped shuffle bowing and harpsichord-like wire scraping from the strings, the composition reaches a crescendo that features Ryan overblowing an auxiliary version of his original theme, then whittling down the sound to a single tone.

Like the Left, Energy Music still lives and thrives.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Concept: 1. Oaktown Sunrise 2. The Concept 3. Bird Watchers 4. How Are You 5. Wisteria

Personnel: Concept: Jim Ryan (alto and tenor saxophones); Alicia Mangan (tenor saxophone); Scott R. Looney (piano); Adam Lane (bass); Marshall Trammell (drums)

Track Listing: Heat: 1. Heat Suite Part 1 2. Heat Suite Part 2 3. Heat Suite Part 3 4. Heat Suite Part 4

Personnel: Heat: Joe McPhee (tenor and soprano saxophones, pocket trumpet); Cliff White (alto, tenor and baritone saxophones); Joe Fonda (bass, flute, voice and percussion); Ben Karetnick (drums and percussion)