Listening to a recording of free jazz is a bit like watching travelers in a busy train terminal. People of all sizes and colors are moving in every direction; some of them are headed out of town, while some are on their way home. What these folks share is the need to get to the platform or the street straight away, and each pace, sidestep and sudden, momentary halt serves this heightened sense of purpose. Before long, what was initially perceived as a formless mass becomes perceptible, if constantly changing currents, carrying people to their destinations. There is no superstructure to it per se; but there is an organic quality that is fascinating to behold.
One reason this analogy holds any water lies in the sophistication of free jazz practitioners as travelers, one that extends far beyond the ability to bob and weave through a crowd. It is the acuity that comes from regularly being in transit, the sharpened sense of time and of the changing options each moment brings, that is most pointedly applicable to free jazz. Free jazz is music of, by and for the moment, a navigational, not an architectural endeavor. Certainly, each moment brings formal considerations to the fore; yet, the appropriate response is to deal with them in passing, as the next moment will present more. In doing so, the integrity of free jazz as a method – as opposed to a genre – is maintained.
This adherence to methodology gives free jazz a unique and intriguing projection of form unfolding in real time. Mature practitioners understand the rigor entailed in being responsive, but not over committing to any material. The causeway to the next moment has to remain open, and locking into a phrase or a rhythm may well work against that priority. Without the anticipation of and a clear path to the next moment, free jazz becomes clogged with pastiche. What distinguishes free jazz is not idiomatic references or even flares of virtuosic brilliance, but the conveyance of spontaneous interaction and invention.
Free jazz has retained its vitality in large measure because it is resistant to codification – there’s no fake book for it. This is extraordinary, given that free jazz has now been extensively documented and strenuously scrutinized for approximately a half century, roughly the time span between Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Now in a cusp where early practitioners are collaborating with their beneficiaries, free jazz can reassert its values within a context that gives priority to history or to the moment, which exists beyond the clutches of history.
The five musicians gathered for this recording have clearly chosen the latter. This is particularly noteworthy given the presence of pianist Burton Greene, an icon by virtue of his early recordings and membership in the Jazz Composers Guild, and an enigma because of long subsequent stretches off the radar. This album could have easily been about little else other than Greene, and justifiably so. Yet, the imperative of the collective has remained deeply ingrained in Greene’s sensibilities, repeatedly manifesting itself throughout the album as keen, ensemble-minded playing. Additionally, the moments that highlight Greene emerge unforced, and eclipse with equal ease.
This speaks to the qualities of the contributions by the other four musicians, each a leader in their own right and a substantial contributor to New York’s free jazz community. Of them, Rob Brown may have the lengthiest CV, but Brian Groder, Adam Lane and Ray Sage are respectively well-credentialed. Greene joins an impressive list of luminaries from their aggregated résumés, including Sam Rivers and John Tchicai. Most importantly, they bring mature voices to the proceedings, their interaction conferring formal properties onto the moment while vaulting the ensemble into the next.
Perhaps ironically, the album’s sole composition, Greene’s “Hey Pithy, Can You Thropt the Erectus?,” provides fine initial insight into the chemistry of the eight collective pieces that use loosely described rendezvous points . The referenced Mingus composition is a bellwether of faux primitivism in jazz, an erudite projection of the primal, which remains a tenet of free jazz. But, Greene’s title and materials also convey time-honored jazz values like whimsy and humor, which yields a contrasting form of banter. Both modes of interaction and the many gradations between them stream through the album.
Groder, Greene, Brown, Lane and Sage traverse the partially mapped terrains of the collective pieces, coalescing around a rhythm, a motive or a texture and then peeling off in various directions with agility and occasional grace. They each have a refreshing relationship to jazz vernacular and usage; they don’t keep jazz at arm’s length or within a post-jazz context. Instead, they move jazz along with them. It has an organic quality that is fascinating to hear.
Bill Shoemaker, March 2009
released October 1, 2009
Burton Greene, piano
Brian Groder, trumpet & flugelhorn
Rob Brown, alto saxophone
Adam Lane, double-bass
Ray Sage, drums
recorded Oct 11-12 2007 Greene Street Studios, New York
recorded by Katherine Miller
mixed & mastered at Acoustical Concepts by John Vanore
original artwork & graphic design by Timothy Parrott
produced by Ray sage & Brian Groder
c 2010 Latham Records Limited Edition
all rights reserved for both artwork & sound recording.