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Free jazz exploration of the sound and the fury

Free jazz isn’t everybody’s bag. It can’t be everybody’s bag, and it’s not supposed to be.

For many, it’s the end of the line. And that’s a polite enough way of putting it, considering the rancor stirred in stodgier jazz fans by some of the genre’s watershed recordings. Those who opt to bow out cordially, and with a civil tongue still in their heads, simply cite free jazz as the movement that broke with convention for good. Others have only sneers and jibes for the players they perceive as runts and pretenders and worse riding in on the broad coattails of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman—both disparaged plenty once upon a time by audiences and fellow musicians alike—and screwing it all up miserably.

Coleman, incidentally, can lay a legitimate claim to bringing the term “free jazz” into jazz parlance. Hell, he’s got it right there as the title of one of his albums. It was Coleman who started talking about freedom and about exploring the possibilities of his horn as the next thing to a human voice. Build on that and you’ve got more than just individual voices locked into agreed-upon chord structures and speaking either demurely or bumptiously but always in turn. In this heretical break from convention you’ve got voices speaking out of turn, just like life. Just like a real conversation, with nothing prearranged and no safe word to get everyone back to the script. And just like real human voices: strident, sobbing, cooing, coughing, crying, squawking, laughing, sighing and, just possibly, agreeing on something from time to time.

Free jazz is not supposed to be about planned moments. What else could Coleman have meant when he said that the theme you play at the beginning of a song is the territory, but whatever comes next is the adventure? Or maybe that was Coltrane. Anyway, no free jazz apologetics here, likewise no hermeneutics or treatises to lay out the faith. Just a couple of ideas from the Unheard Music Series, an intriguing set of obscure, mostly European free jazz releases handpicked by writer and free jazz collector/historian/writer John Corbett and re-released by Chicago label Atavistic Records. The following compact discs were purchased at Ear Candy Records. Other releases and subscriptions for the 2002 schedule can be purchased from Atavistic. Check them out on the web at or write to: P.O. Box 578266, Chicago, IL 60657.

Tom Prehn Kvartet, self-titled

Denmark might not be a place that comes to mind when you think about hotbeds of jazz, but the Tom Prehn Kvartet are here—back after almost 35 years, actually—to hopefully convince you otherwise. The group’s self-titled album (and the only recording to capture pianist Prehn’s working group at all) is one rare treat. Even back when free jazz had anything approaching commercial viability, most albums came out in editions of just a few thousand copies and quickly went out of print. And that was in the United States. You can imagine what the limited availability must have been like in Denmark, which makes it all the more remarkable that this obscurity got a new lease on life thanks to the good folks at Atavistic.

The tunes on the album seem to be arranged in an order that deliberately steps up the intensity on each of the original sides. The opening track, “F. eks,” (not a phonetic spelling of “effects,” as you might suspect, but the Danish shorthand of “for example”) sounds like a sound check for auxiliary percussion with Prehn and tenor saxophonist Fritz Krogh fooling around in the background. It’s just fragments of sound at first, even by free jazz standards. “Modus Vivendi,” up next, ratchets up the intensity with more clattering percussion and a pounded piano line that sets the tone for the side one centerpiece.

“Forløb” (“Progress”) is a schizoid triptych, a delicate pianissimo solo with violent thundercloud activity on either side. It also marks one of the few places on the album where Prehn settles on a simple melodic line instead of alternately kissing and pounding on a barrage of minor-key harmonic clusters. The Kvartet stokes the improv furnace even hotter for the side one closer, “Herfra til Marathon (“From Here to Marathon”), and coaxes it right back down to glows and crackles on “L’Homme Armé,” the first track on the original second side. A very impressive, long-forgotten document of a fertile late ’60s Copenhagen scene. Globe Unity Orchestra, Globe Unity ’67 and ’73

Something even more impressive awaits the listener on Globe Unity ’67 and ’73, a single-disc package of two sessions commissioned for German radio in the years indicated in the title. Impressively noisy, anyway. At times it sounds like three or four different recordings of Krzysztof Penderecki’s scary music for The Shining played one on top of the other. Is that meant to be an endorsement? Well, does it sound like something you’d want to listen to?

“The premiere performance [of the Globe Unity Orchestra] was a sensational success,” read the liner notes of pianist Alexander Schlippenbach, “because the press outdid themselves equally in extravagant praise and hysterical vituperation.” You can hear that loud and clear while you’re listening for individual contributions on this carousel of cacophony, a chorus of Furies arranged for a complete wind section and then some. It’s not your father’s orchestra, let’s put it that way, and it’s some powerful stuff. If free improvisation is a conversation, this here’s a good-natured yelling contest. Big names in the European avant-garde abound among the personnel listed, German terror Peter Brötzmann and British circular-breathing tenor soloist Evan Parker among them, but it’s tough to tell who’s playing what in this blitzkrieg of squalls, squawks and sinking feelings. The main difference between’67 and ’73 seems to be that the later session also has a layer of guitar feedback toward the top. Not for the squeamish, but definitely for somebody!

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