FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Steve Lake



In the film Rising Tones Cross, Ebba Jahn's documentary about improvisation in New York in the mid80s, Peter Kowald, then living in the Big Apple, talks about the wide gulf - in terms of money, audience, record company support and media recognition - separating black and white American improvisers playing differing varieties of experimental/avant-garde/free music. It was tempting, then, with the jazz press taking sides, to subscribe to conspiracy theories. In U. S. journals, the contemporary "choice" was supposedly between the traditionally-minded Marsalis clan and their camp followers self-importantly "preserving" jazz (no lack of record company support for this noble work) and the all-white "downtown scene" around John Zorn (still hailed, almost a decade later, as the cutting-edge in the likes of Jazziz). Across the Atlantic, attempts were made to discount American creativity, as a Wire cover story asked, "Isn't Europe coming to stand as the most interesting frontier for jazz progress?" and proceeded to answer the question in the affirmative. Meanwhile, several "alternative" jazz festivals on these shores, in rejecting the back-to-bebop movement were busy throwing out the baby with the bathwater and insisting on European creative supremacy: American citizens need not apply. A community of musicians which even on good days could be described as "beleaguered" found itself more isolated than usual. Important exponents of what was once the New Thing and is now, in some quarters, "fire music" all but disappeared from the map for a few seasons. Such are the vicissitudes of fashion. The music of course goes on, even when none listens.

In the interim, things could be said to have improved a little. Charles Gayle, for example, now has a discography and even a couple of records on the Knitting Factory label, and FMP - once the flagship of German free jazz - has on several occasions brought together European improvisers with their American contemporaries and forebears. The 1991 Total Music Meeting was an interesting case in point and, for once, at this bastion of Euro-improv, the Americans outnumbered the natives. (I remember that Rashied Ali wore a stars'n'stripes T-shirt. I don't know if this was a political statement or if he'd just reached the bottom of his road wardrobe.)

The game-plan was simple and determined by the musicians themselves. Three saxophonists, three bassists, three drummers, heard, over the course of the weekend, in all manner of permutations from solos and duos on up to sprawling jams with everybody on the stage. The featured musicians were Peter Brötzmann, Charles Gayle and Evan Parker on saxophones, Fred Hopkins, Peter Kowald and William Parker on basses, and Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille and Tony Oxley on drums. With a cast like this, there was a little so-called "non-idiomatic" improvisation on offer. On the contrary, the music had a lot to do with traditions, the best traditions, Touchin' On Trane (see FMP 48), touching on Albert, too, the raw (and universal) blues, more. There were quite a few surprises, however, and this almost "balladesque" trio set must be numbered amongst them. Diehard Machine Gun fans will surely be working the fast-forward button to confirm that the mostly mellow or near-mellow sax player really is Brötzmann.

Peter has been muttering for years about his image as The Loudest, The Heaviest Free Jazz Player Of Them All hanging over him like a curse - without, it must be said, doing much to rectify the picture. Fred Hopkins and Rashied Ali, employing subtle persuasion of their own, guide him to other areas. Though this set will probably be assessed as a saxophone trio album, it really is the bassist and the drummer who establish the direction, and Brötzmann follows as best he can. One admires the attempt - and his willingness to make himself this naked - but there can be no denying that the terrain negotiated exposes, sometimes painfully, the boundaries of his technique. As long as Brötzmann's playing within the genre he helped established in the 1960s (Peter's For Adolphe Sax predated Ayler's Love Cry, remember), the highly emotional zone where "it's not about notes, it's about feelings", he has few equals. Pouring love and hate out the horn, passion and violence, he is good at this. He has established his own homemade methodology to convey those feelings by means of timbre, texture, and energy. He has made art, often enough, out of other player "freak effects", frequently spending entire concerts in a paroxysm of overblowing. Of course there are also (a few) "reflective" passages documented here and there in his discography but no recordings where he is returned so frequently to the changes as here. One of the contradictory aspects of Brötzmann's perspective is that, having made a major contribution to the development of an "experimental" jazz, he is less than intoxicated with experimentalism per se. Bechet and Coleman Hawkins are as important to him as Ayler, and Billie Holiday more important than all the "free" singers rolled together. He is seldom happier than when a drummer who understands the jazz tradition - all the way back to Baby Dodds - underscores his solos; he becomes restless when performances veer off into "that European avant- garde art shit". In the fury of performance he is seeking a direct expression of heart-to-heart quality, unencumbered by intellectual baggage. Being both German and a one-time art school student - deadly combination - however, he is far from unreflective. Able to maintain a certain distance to his self-image and his saxophone sound, Brötzmann perhaps calculates that we will find a poignancy in the near-miss approximations of pitch agreement with Fred Hopkins (and maladroitness can have its charms). The bassist, for his part, tries to accommodate Peter's inscrutable ballad schema - generously, since his own harmonic understanding is generally unimpeachable. Anyway, some listeners will feel a profound sense of relief when, mid-set, Brötzmann builds up the intensity level with trademark slurs and smears of sound, and intonation - the old bugaboo - ceases to be an issue. The business of playing "tempered" or "non-tempered" jazz may have been an option since Ornette's first showings, but some of us still want to feel the artists has some choice in the matter!

I first heard Fred Hopkins in 1975 in New York, when he was commuting between two sax/bass/drums groups - the David Murray Trio and Air. He was complete command at the centre of both units with his magisterial tone, then as now a most powerful presence. Along the way he has made tremendous contributions to the musics of Muhal Richard Abrams, Oliver Lake, Don Pullen, Hamiet Bluiett and many others. If "free" or "avant-garde" musicians can be divided into two camps, the "texture" players and the "ideas" players, then Hopkins belongs decidedly to the latter party. His playing revolves around the elaboration and development of rhythmic and melodic ideas that might relate to any part of the African-American musical continuum - on Air's early records remember, he was drawing upon Burundi drumming and Jelly Roll Morton (for example) to find ever changing ways of inflecting a vamp. At the same time he really understands the weight of his chosen instrument, its gravitational pull, and seems constitutionally incapable of playing anything trivial. He knows moreover how to invest his choice of notes with a heart-squeezing emotional power and how to build an irresistible momentum.

Some observers will be surprised to see Rashied Ali throwing in his lot with Brötzmann here since for years he seemed to define quite strictly his sphere of operation, a kind of militant cottage industry with his own New York club (All's Alley), his own record label (Survival) and his own sphere of musical associates. Rashied's independent stance - which, echoed by other players, encouraged the sudden and brief blossoming of the "loft scene" of the mid-70s - was partly forced upon him by the cold-shouldering of the mainstream jazz world. By nature, he is a gregarious and inquiring musician. It is not widely known, but Rashied was amongst the first of the U. S. New Thing players to make contact with the European jazz avant-garde. Within a year of Coltrane's death he was in London, recording with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in a line-up that included Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, Dave Holland, Peter Kowald and John Stevens. In the 1980s his curiosity about the other idioms led him to tour the rock and blues circuit with Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and blues harp master Sugar Blue in an agreeably loose jamming band called There Goes The Neighbourhood: one could hardly accuse him of tunnel vision. For the purpose of the 1991 Total Music Meeting, however, he was felt by the other participants - and by many of the listeners - to represent his old constituency, as it were, the Late Coltrane Circle. Even at this late date, it is impossible for a European saxophonist to put himself next to Rashied's pulsing, glistening, multi-directional rhythms and not think about Meditations, Insterstellar Space, Expression and the rest of that awesome legacy. Notions of the "emancipation" of European jazz - much discussed in the European textbooks - tend to curl up and expire when put to the test like this. (And this is a good a place as any to come clean and admit that much - though not all - of the musical history of the Total Music Meeting has been a history of wrestling with the spirits unleashed by Coltrane's Ascension. The jazz establishment has been trying to get them back into the box ever since.)

Brötzmann, despite press characterization as an ultra German, even Teutonic (whatever that might mean) sax player has made many attempts over the last fifteen years to build bridges to the U. S. free or post-free enclave. He recognizes, in particular, an emotional need for American rhythm; even in its most abstract expression it tends to have more sustaining power, Brötzmann reasons, than its (etiolated) European equivalent. Hence his work with Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves, Dennis Charles, Hamid Drake. And, here, Rashied Ali. In recordings like the present one, we are witnesses to a further round in the debate addressed by several earlier FMP records - Cecil Taylor In Berlin '88, above all, but also Alex Schlippenbach's encounter with Sunny Murray on Smoke, Brötzman's Alarm with Frank Wright and co and the above-mentioned run in with Cyrille, Peter Kowald's sound explorations with Danny Davis and Wadada Leo Smith ... One of the questions confronted in each of these rounds is whether the various tributaries of free jazz still draw upon what Coltrane called the music's "common reservoir". Is the product of the group improvisation comprehensible in all languages, or have individual dialects calcified to such a degree that real communication is obscured? Do the players have enough in common to make music of some profundity together? Does the music suggest a sense competition or mutual cooperation? Is this the beginning or the end of a development?

This recording raises these questions once more.

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