October 13, 2019
Graz Live 1961
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 060
NoBusiness Records CD 114
The Unlonely Raindancer
Discus 81 CD
Sounds of Liberation
Sounds of Liberation
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 057
Something in the Air: Reassessing 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Jazz through via New Reissues
By Ken Waxman
Reissues of recorded music serve a variety of functions. Allowing us to experience sounds from the past is just one of them. More crucially, and this is especially important in terms of Free Jazz and Free Music, it restores to circulation sounds that were overlooked and/or spottily distributed on first appearance. Listening to those projects now not only provides an alternate view of musical history, but in many cases also provides a fuller understanding of music’s past.
Little noticed in North America at the time of its 1977 release, Tetterettet (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 060) by the Amsterdam-based ICP 10-tet was a confirmation of the high quality improvised music gaining prominence in Europe. Listening to the 11 selections played by such subsequently renowned players as pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink from the Netherlands plus saxophonist John Tchicai of Denmark and Germany’s Peter Brötzmann, the high level of musicianship stands out as well as the freedom composers had to inject broad or subtle humor into the tracks – a concept shied away from by deadly serious experimenters on this side of thr Atlantic, Two of the emblematic tracks are “Alexander's Marschbefehland” and “Ludwig’s Blue Note”. On the latter Mengelberg cycles through an assemblage of properly inflected keyboard motifs from so-called classical music while around him the band, following the energetic lead of one of the saxophonists double-times a pseudo-tango. On the foot-tapping “Alexander's Marschbefehland”a march time variant is subverted with peeping and blaring horn parts as well as a clattering percussion display from Bennink, while the pianist provides pseudo-impressionism with one hand and honky-tonk inflections from the other. As much fun as these and other tracks are, the disc’s showpiece is Mengelberg’s five part title suite. Managing to encompass echoes of Middle European salon sounds, Latin dance rhythms and pure improvisation, the sequences encompass outer-space-like tweaks from Michael Waisvisz’s electronics, plunger spills from Bert Koppelaar’s trombone, fierce or furtive split tones from the four saxophonists and Bennink’s ruffs, rebounds and rattles while hitting every part of his kit to ratchet up excitement But the theme, which speeds up and descends in sections, maintains a steady pace due to Alan Silva’s bass holding the beat. As the reed players’ striated vibrations mock their earlier excesses and the drummer turns the beat around, surgically inserted keyboard clicks create a finale that references the introduction.
Less brash and all-encompassing, but as remarkable a session recorded in Norway in 1982 is Detail Day Two (NoBusiness Records CD 114). The first trio iteration of that long-running group, it also demonstrates the pan-nationalist ethos of Free Music. That’s because this multi-layered, intricately balanced 42-minute improvisation was created by Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, British drummer John Stevens and South African bassist Johnny Dyani. Practiced and matured in his percussion skills, the drummer never takes a solo, but allows his rattling drum tops and singing cymbal lines to intuit the rhythm so that the beat appears inevitable. Dyani, who had long established himself in Europe, boomerangs from volleying consistent plucks, which help push forward the narrative, to intricate stretches, picks and pulls to pinpoint individual string pressure or suction as he solos within his rhythmic functions. Adapting to this barrage from the bottom, Gjerstad starts off with tongue wiggles and intensity vibrations radiating from soprano saxophone, and as the exposition become more pressurized switches to the deeper-toned tenor saxophone. Moving up from breathy snorts his growling ghost notes and palindrome vibrations sound at various speeds and pitches to parallel Dyani’s strums and later bowed buzzes. Slowly, during the sequences second section, the saxophone digs deeper into the theme and exposes all of its possible variables as he’s doubled by ricochets from the string set, with Stevens’ press rolls and bounces providing controlling and comforting accompaniment. Variations explored from all side of the sound triangle, spidery fingering, positioned reed smears and drum clatter cease at the appropriate moment, never climaxing, but suggesting further trio explorations lie ahead.
One of the progenitors of free-form improvising that was little noticed at the time but proved highly influential for exploratory music’s future, was the European tour of American clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre’s trio with Canadian pianist Paul Bley and American bassist Steve Swallow. A previously unreleased Austrian radio broadcast of almost 75½ minutes, Graz Live 1961 (ezz-thetics 1001) shows what baffled, energized and/or influenced contemporary musicians. Running through 11, mostly Giuffer-composed tracks, encompassing multiple moods, speeds and pitches, the trio uses the concert setting to extend performances. A later classic like “Cry Want” for instance benefits as the heartfelt compassion in the title is made more palpable in the clarinetist’s a capella introduction, framed by Bley’s dispassionate comping and Swallow’s swaying pumps so that Giuffre’s ultimate shrills become that much more rending. It’s the same with the sequences that make up “Suite for Germany”. With a piano countermelody challenging the reedist’s initial high pitches it’s Swallow’s unselfconscious walking which keeps the pieces together. Keyboard coloring helps slide the next section into an expression of carefully weighed tones from Giuffre with circular breathed continuum. Yet the subsequent fills Bley feeds into the narrative confirm an elaboration of mid-range swing. Reed peeps and piano slashes harden the following line but without compromising the rhythmic impetus, concluding with widening clarinet lows and a double bass strums. Subverting the accusation of effete chamber-jazz, the set includes a collection of clattering from the plucked and stopped strings of a prepared piano; climbing shrills and soaring peeps from the clarinet and guitar-like facility in expression and rhythm from the bassist. Pauses and hesitancy allows the trio to savor and stretch more beautiful motifs, yet at the same time, as on “Trance”, Bley backs Swallow’s string finesse with piano-lid slams that create extra percussiveness.
Another pianist, who like Bley has been thoroughly involved with a variety of styles and ensembles, is Briton Keith Tippett, although there’s no record of him utilizing the back-fall for its rhythmic qualities. However on the title track of The Unlonely Raindancer (Discus 81 CD). the sheer audacity of his improvisation reaches such a height that his vibrations on the keyboard and inner strings become so inadequate that he repeatedly smacks the instrument’s wood and lets loose with couple of rebel yells. A reissue of his first solo set from 1979, the 78 minutes of what was a two LPs give him ample scope for full expression. Dynamically ranging through all layers of the piano with tropes that refer to Bop, modal, swing and free playing his interpretations range from sympathetic voicing which presage intertwined stops and transitions (“The Pool”) to spun out story-telling, expressed in widening spurts of emphasized textures and concentrated tonal color-melding climaxing with echoing forward motion (“Torthworth Oak”). The key(s) to his creativity though are subsequent tracks that in execution and exploration are mirror images of one another – one centred around treble pitches, the second the ground bass. The latter, “The Muted Melody” swiftly sweeps from kinetic to moderato as bouncing notes follow one after another in random rushes, often dipping into the deeper part of the soundboard. Further vibrating harmonics bolster and expose the playing which gallops to the end in speed mode. Concentrating on the harshest pitches that can be reverberated by concentrated on the highest keys in the first section of the more than 19-minute “Steel Yourself, the Bell, the Gong, the Voice”, Tippett creates Big Ben-like bongs from the wound string set. Ultimately reaching the mid-way mark he switches strategies from chord plucking to sweeping to a groove that highlights strength as well as swing. As his power voicing reaches a point where the sequence can’t become any thicker or cramped, he sophisticatedly diminishes the pressure with responsive strumming that echoes even after the final pluck.
While this search for the new was proceeding in Europe, North American Free Jazz musicians faced a commercial atmosphere that promoted soul-jazz and jazz-rock above all else. As fascinating sociologically as musically, 1973’s Sounds of Liberation (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 057) details how one Philadelphia-based sextet attempted to affect a musical détente between progressive and pop. A song collection driven by fluid foot tapping rhythms from drums, congas and percussion, the tracks often contrast power-slaps from Khan Jamal’s vibes with glossy picking from guitarist Monnnette Sudler. Seconding both, Byard Lancaster’s silky flute puffs fasten onto poppy Herbie Mann-like tropes, while his alto saxophone split tones on tracks like “Sweet Evil Mist” are raunchy enough to fit any James Brown disc of the era. If this face-off between funky and freedom wasn’t enough, “Backstreets of Heaven”, the longest track, goes a step further than the then-popular so-called spiritual jazz and the likes of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and vocalist Leon Thomas, by adding unnamed male and female vocalists on top of the chugging guitar riffs, clanking vibes and overblowing reed snarls. With a call-and-response Motown-smooth delivery, the track seems aimed at the R&B singles market – that is if it wasn’t nearly 11 minutes long.
Listening anew to these discs provides a rethinking and better understanding of the musical currents of those times.
-for The Whole Note October 2019