I don’t know much about free jazz, but as with the old-school funk that hip-hop samples, I don’t have to know much: Nearly everything important comes through within a few breaths. Forget “thematic soloing”—here the setup is the payoff. “Red Cross,” the piece by drummer Sunny Murray that launches this survey, climaxes with the three alto blasts that begin things so abruptly someone must have razored into the master tape. Smoke and rumble follow, as at any implosion, and then the alto hits again. Aha. So this can be maintained. Nothing has collapsed at all. Even better. “Red Cross” stops before eight minutes; other tracks on this triple disc culled from the French BYG/Actuel label run over 20. The effect isn’t appreciably different, which isn’t to say that the longer versions are duller than the shorter versions, or than the instant hit you could get plopping a needle down anywhere on the original vinyl. I know the latter feeling well from cuing up hardcore compilations on college radio. No surprise that this box was curated by a couple of hardcore devotees: Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Forced Exposure propagandist Byron Coley. Same edge—different cliff.
The year is 1969 and a Pan-African Music Festival in Algiers has brought the fringe-jazz elite overseas, where BYG/Actuel invites them to record. Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Dewey Redman, and many lesser-knowns, from Europe as well as America, are captured at a moment of absolute enthusiasm, with contributions by Sun Ra, Sonny Sharrock, and even art-rockers Gong pulled from other portions of the label’s 52-album catalogue. Coley and Moore aren’t interested in black nationalist politics or a responsible overview—they’re record collectors on a freak (out) quest. One liner note celebrates Acting Trio tenor Philippe Maté, then jokes: “Naturally, the track featured on this sampler shows none of Maté’s skills but focuses on the amazing cello discordato of the Acting Trio’s Andre Maurice. Now, whatever happened to that cat?” I couldn’t say what jazz scholars will think, but Coley and Moore scarcely invoke jazz: They prefer “fire music.”
The results, though, avoid unmitigated squonk-BLAM purgatory. Disc one might have been subtitled “Shouts and Invocations”: Besides Murray, Shepp’s “Blasé” features a vocalist chanting, “You shot your sperm into me/But never set me free,” Gong’s Daevid Allen covers Soft Machine, Linda Sharrock out-Yokos her husband’s sturm-und-twang, and Clifford Thornton goes tribal. Disc two maps free variations with a high-low subtext: Paul Bley refitting Ornette Coleman, Burton Greene’s “From ‘Out of Bartok,’ ” an Andrew Cyrille percussion solo with whistles, Redman’s Middle Eastern “Tarik,” a Solar-Myth Arkestra blowout, and vaudevillian Art Ensemble. Disc three emphasizes drones, with excerpts of looping pieces by Cherry and Braxton, tape-saturated glop from Musica Elettronica Viva, and a sax/flute/well-worried-bass ensemble led by Kenneth Terroade that proceeds from bird-sanctuary whistles to a sort of hive state.
Jazz had long since stopped being pop music, but this stuff carries itself like pop: Even the more erudite players sound absolutely sure of their own radical chic, which gives their experiments a cock-and-tilt missing from more academic avant-gardes. The “superstar” Warholian sheen wouldn’t last. By 1976 and the New York loft-scene sessions reissued on another recent triple CD, Wildflowers (Knit Classics), many of the same players had come back to jazz jazz jazz. Dave Burrell, whose 20:02 “Echo” is the “Sister Ray” of JazzActuel, renounced noise altogether; Sunny Murray headed “Over the Rainbow.” Only Roscoe Mitchell’s “Chant,” a 25-minute mantra with side trips, nods to the ecstatic. On its own ruminative terms, admittedly, Wildflowers suits just fine, with Hammiet Bluiett (baritone sax, clarinet) and Olu Dara (trumpet) heading deep into the pocket on a relaxed New Orleans blues that’s as permanently modern as anything on the free box—and come to think of it exemplifies the one musical form that Moore’s broadband experimentation has always ducked.
How much blues essence from the full range of BYG/Actuel recordings was left off by the compilers? It would be tedious to find out, and if this set says anything it’s that jazz needn’t ever be boring. Doesn’t even have to be jazz, exactly, no need to split genres like that, when avant, free, and psychedelia fuse at high volume. Rather than dwelling on all the wider implications of these assemblages, Coley and Moore just ID, gush, and reference wilder obscurities in the wings. The approach might not work with a moment less self-consciously mythic than 1969, or instrumentalists less completely versed in the rules they’re setting aside. But here the illusion is complete: A trombonist named Grachan Moncur III feels as critical to the history of punk (or whatever: unhinged sound) as Richard Hell. Yeah, the whole enterprise is shallow in a way—not least emotionally. But as rockers keep proving, shallow extends forever.