Free Again


The French were smitten with bebop after hearing Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1948. Their first exposure to free jazz came after a multidisciplinary African arts festival in Algiers in July 1969. The ear of the masses is the first thing any avant-garde sacrifices, but the black leaders of the new-jazz movement wanted it both ways. They claimed to be spokesmen for their people, and a year after the student riots, the French took them at their word. The avant-garde diaspora recorded for a variety of small French labels, including one provocatively called America. The original America LPs have become scarce, and late last year, as soon as an import series of 15 deluxe, limited-edition reissues was announced, there was a waiting list for them at Downtown Music Gallery. Universal subsequently imported a thousand copies of each “Free America” title for U.S. distribution.

ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO: PHASE ONE/ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO WITH FONTELLA BASS/ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO:CERTAIN BLACKS. Val Wilmer’s original English liner notes to Phase One read as if no matter where a black musician wandered in the early ’70s, his true home was the ghetto. She didn’t get it. Lester Bowie might occasionally have been “shouting motherfucker” on trumpet, but the plenty else he and his fellow Chicagoans had to say—about new compositional structures, silence and tone color, rapprochement between Africa and Europe—put them in a different orbit from New York agitproppers like Archie Shepp. Ending with an elliptical Roscoe Mitchell alto solo over a groove, Phase One‘s “Ohnedaruth” is where these diverse elements fall into place. Bass, sounding like Abbey Lincoln, dominates the one long track she’s on from the second CD, while the third is nearly ruined by the rambling Chicago Beau, a hanger-on whose place was in the audience.

PAUL BLEY: IMPROVISIE. Synthesizer isn’t the problem with this 1971 concert recording from the Netherlands, nor the way the drawn-out length of the two performances disallows Bley’s proclivity for compression. The problem is Annette Peacock’s star-tripping, electronically processed vox—the big deal she makes of being transgressive.

ANTHONY BRAXTON:DONNA LEE/ANTHONY BRAXTON: SAXOPHONE IMPROVISATIONS SERIES F. If there can be speed metal, why not speed bop? Too murderously fast for anything like Charlie Parker’s teasing blues inflections, Braxton’s “Donna Lee” is exhilarating for more than its shock value—it recaptures early bebop’s youthful dare. Even better are this quartet album’s two probing versions of “You Go to My Head,” which confirmed that his admiration for Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz was more than talk. The other Braxton is unaccompanied and a double, and on some of its slower originals he sounds like Desmond or Konitz practicing—that is, he’s isolating basic techniques of cool in a successful bid to reconcile them with all his Coltrane and Ayler. Amid much abstraction and furrowed overblowing, there’s also a charming minimalist frolick dedicated to a not-yet-famous Philip Glass.

DAVE BURRELL: AFTER LOVE. He hadn’t found himself or Jelly Roll Morton yet. But savor his wily, peripatetic solos and insistent comping, Roscoe Mitchell’s quizzically tilting alto, Alan Silva’s Ornette-like cello and violin, and a closing march we now know was a preview of things to come.

EMERGENCY: HOMAGE TO PEACE. The rarest of these reissues features two Americans (tenorist Glenn Spearman and bassist Bob Reid), two Japanese (pianist Takashi Kako and drummer Sabu Toyozumi), and a teenage French Gypsy guitarist fluent in Django Reinhardt but infatuated with Jimi Hendrix (Boulou Ferre). A ragtag bunch, with the only flash of originality coming on Toyuzumi’s chamber adaptation of the Art Ensemble’s “People in Sorrow.”

STEVE LACY: THE GAP/MAL WALDRON WITH THE STEVE LACY QUINTET. Lacy in transition, over his Monk fixation and treading uncertainly over new ground. The Gap’s “La Motte—Picquet” is cosmopolitan and individualistic, but the rest sounds like an established virtuoso trying to figure out how to play free without abandoning song form. As spare as Waldron’s piano solos could be, his playing behind Lacy and Steve Potts is busy and dense—wearying. His and Lacy’s best work together was still ahead.

ROSWELL RUDD. A 1965 radio concert from the Netherlands by the New York Art Quartet, with a Dutch bassist and a South African drummer as ringers. While the sound could be better, it’s not bad enough to muffle the Rudd-and-John Tchicai polyphony that was the group’s mark of distinction—and one of the greatest joys of ’60s free.

ARCHIE SHEPP: BLACK GIPSY. Chicago Beau barges in again but isn’t the only offender this time. Archie Shepp on soprano has none of the swagger of Archie Shepp on tenor, and what’s the point of tethering Sunny Murray to the beat? The lone saving grace is Leroy Jenkins’s sweeping violin.

ALAN SHORTER: TES ESAT. With sideman Gary Windo’s eruptive tenor setting the pace, Wayne Shorter’s fucked-up older brother—a flügelhornist whose forcefulness almost compensates for his fumbling technique—remains a phantom on the second of only two albums he recorded as a leader.

CLIFFORD THORNTON: THE PANTHER AND THE LASH. Mired in academia for years before his death in 1983, Thornton was a so-so trumpeter and had no business picking up African double-reed instruments. But he was powerful and majestic on valve trombone, bypassing J.J. Johnson and Roswell Rudd for late Coltrane. The most surprising of these reissues pairs him with an adventurous French rhythm section and gives us a rare opportunity to hear him at length.

FRANK WRIGHT: UHURU NA UMOJA. This fireballing tenor was Albert Ayler without the comic pathos or rhythmic nuance. But together here with altoist Noah Howard, pianist Bobby Few, and the game bebop drummer Art Taylor, he blows with such conviction and spirit you find yourself being carried right along with him. It’s free jazz at its most rapturous and hell-bent.