Henry P. Warner/Earl Freeman/Philip Spigner

Freestyle Band
NoBusiness NBCD 41

By Ken Waxman

Notes from under the underground, this CD gathers all the tracks by a trio of improvisers whose five tracks of chamber-skronk never received the attention they should have in 1984, when free jazz was supposed to have given way to fusion and the Neo-Cons. Now the Freestyle Band’s LP has been reissued with nearly 22 additional minutes of music.

Despite the quality of the session one can understand the reason for the group’s obscurity. For a start, the best-known player was bass guitarist Earl “Googles” Freeman (1939-1984), sideman with Noah Howard, Sunny Murray and Archie Shepp, who would die within the year. Philip Spigner creates his beats with nothing but hand drums, at a time when mammoth percussion kits were the norm; while the only horn was that of clarinetist Henry P. Warner, who worked with William Parker and Billy Bang, but soon afterwards traded New York’s Lower East Side for Mt. Vernon, N.Y.’s local scene.

What were missed at that time though were improvisations far more unique than those played by other unpretentious experimenters such as Jimmy Giuffre with his trios. Jumbling the stridency of Energy Music with the sonic circumspection of minimalism, the textures of these all-original compositions were both ahead of their time and behind them. A track like “Pelican” demonstrates this. On it Spigner’s constant slaps, taps and smacks, ignore conga conventions and rarely settles on a steady backbeat. Still his arrhythmic interface is constant enough to suggest African drumming. Freeman’s distorted resonations on tunes like ”Dr. Nunez” not only emphasize both definitions of his instrument – with arpeggio filigree at times and rhythmic flanges elsewhere – but his timbres also ape organ-like resonation and thumb-piano twangs. Meanwhile Warner’s powerful tremolo trills build to strident irregular vibrations or sink to juddering chalumeau to make emotional points as on “The Roach Approach”.

Essentially as the three change positions moving from foreground to background and then up front again from one track to the next, the thematic centre shifts frequently. Besides unaccompanied passages, there are many instances when each man sounds as if he’s playing parallel yet unaffiliated lines. Yet somehow through sequence repetition and bravura tone bending, cohesion is achieved. Listening to Spigner’s sometimes erratic beat dribbles, Freeman’s popping reverb and Warner’s fluctuating reed mastication, tongue stops and fortissimo shrills, some may still fault the trio for not following even spirited free jazz patterns.

Yet as the instrumentation and band name make clear, individuality is exactly the band’s aim. That’s why this nearly 30 year old session deserves a hearing.

Tracks: Dr. Nunez; The Roach Approach; Beef Thrust; Pelican; Bird Knows!

Personnel: Henry P. Warner: B-flat and alto clarinets; Earl Freeman: bass guitar and piano; Philip Spigner: hand drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2013