Archie Shepp

Back in the early 80s, the days of The Last Jazz Revival, my friend and I arrived at the stage where we felt we'd exhausted the entire Blue Note catalogue and all that post-bop modernism. We'd also travelled back through be-bop to big bands, finally touching on Louis Armstrong, the great legend of Olde, although we didn't feel compelled to blow away the cobwebs on many other recordings made during the post-World War 1 first wave of Jazz.

I think we did well, considering how most Young Jazz Virgins that we knew seldom stepped out of the era that saw the birth of The Bomb, such was their desire to still connect with the Danceability of Jazz in a Wag Club Cool fashion. No way were they entertaining Swing (danceable in the wrong way), never mind Trad (danceable, only if you were willing to imitate characters from movie versions of Scott Fitzgerald novels, which involved acting like a middle-class idiot whilst women wearing very long pearl knecklaces shimmed around).

Our primary interest was music, rather than posing, pretending to be characters from Cassavetes movies (OK, we did our share of that, lurking in the 'Shadows'), or trying to be generally Chet Baker Cool. So we allowed our fingers to take us back, walking over the sleeves of record shop sections which had never felt fingertips that were less than fifty years old. But we also went Forward, from the 50s, guided by the giants who had also travelled out of that era. Coltrane encouraged us to take 'Giant Steps', whilst Ornette Coleman showed us 'The Shape Of Jazz To Come', both recordings being made in 1959. We had already visited the future (the mid-60s), courtesy of Horace Silver and all the other funky Blue Note artists, but that future was another place, arrived at via a different route. Coltrane and Coleman's paths lead elsewhere, the latter taking the expressway to 'freedom' late in 1960, whilst Trane took a longer, some would say, more fruitful trip to the outer limits.

The problem was that the Free thing was so damn difficult to grasp. Shit, there was some of the same musicians, like Eric Dolphy, that we knew from the post-bop era, and they all played the same instruments, but they'd left the Rule Book at home. Some of them had gone East (as in India, not New York), and some, the new generation, had gone to Africa on a roots expedition, to combine, as the Art Ensemble's adopted slogan declared, 'Great Black Music - Ancient To The Future'. Phew. We found ourselves on some distant planet, looking back at the Earthy creations of, say, Jimmy Smith, and realising how far away they were, how...traditional.

The divide created by Free Jazz (players and critics) is well-known and predictable. As a mere listener, twenty years on, it was difficult enough, yet to a critic who had invested so much time and work into Jazz before Free, it must have seemed like something of a betrayal, some kind of anarchistic middle-finger in the face of all that they had loved and, typically, loaded down with predetermined laws. Just as Afro-Americans were expected to behave in a certain way throughout the segregated society (ie, shut up, sit at the back of the bus, eat in another diner, wash you hands elsewhere), so the musicians were expected to conform. Not that critics were conscious guardians of social slavery but, in retrospect, their disgust with the New Thing amounted to the desire for musical shackles that were as cruel as any made from iron.

Albert Ayler

Unlike many in the 60s, we were willing, but our ears were frequently unable to embrace the noise made by Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and the whole new generation. Or rather, we did embrace them, but I feel, looking back, that we did so more out of a determination to defy what we saw as the pseudo-Cool Jazz revival scene, rather than a genuine love and understanding of the music. But if we were reactionaries, we were also revolutionaries, for the right reason, and like all who rebel Against, whilst not necessarily understanding what they are For, we felt righteous; our intentions were good. And we learnt that the simple statement on the sleeve to Coltrane's 'Ascension' album was profoundly true when it said: 'This record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting.'

Free Jazz is still a 'difficult' music, but in some strange way, which I'll try to explain by suggesting that there comes a time when something sounds Better after a period of maturing in the cellars of sound, the release, by Charly, of 'Jazzactuel', feels Right, right now. How much of this is personal, and how much is an unspoken consensus? We're all capable of coming to similar conclusions, according to the ebb and flow of culture, whilst doubting that what we feel is anything other than a product of our personal development (or lack of). We harbour secret opinions, only to discover that, if we dare to air them, others come out in agreement.

Dare I say, for instance, that Michael Mann's movie, 'The Insider', is a pretentious and long-winded example of largely vacuous film-making? Or that 'two-step garage', no matter what Simon Reynolds says, is a musical movement on a par with Euro Disco in terms of worthwhile creative content? Taste and Objectivity, the contentious twin peaks of critical appraisal...

So you slip Disc One of the 'Jazzactuel' compilation into the player, press the start button and BAMM! - you're immediately assaulted by the triple-horn weaponry of Arthur Jones and Roscoe Mitchell' on alto, and Kenneth Terroade on tenor. They start by screaming and for the next 7mins 49secs they never stop; the only relief, the only anchor beingthe little 'tune' that they touch upon from time to time. This is Paris, 1969, one year after the student revolt, yet whilst photos of sexy Parisians in cool shades holding flags is an enduring/endearing image, the sounds made by mostly American refugees remains a more active revolutionary statement. Whilst brothers back home carried the message from the barricades into the studios that forged the new sound of Soul and Funk, those tired of the fact that home was were the hatred was found musical freedom in France.

But the selection offered on these three discs, covering the BYG/Actuel output between '69 and '71, is far more diverse than either it's title, or the opening track, suggest. Track Two, for instance, is Archie Shepp's outstanding 'Blasť' (one tune which we did find easy to love back in those Revival days). Jeanne Lee's delivery of the prose is exquisite, as are the lines - lines like 'You who shot your sperm into me / But never set me free', or 'I give you a lump of sugar / You tilt my womb till it runs' - apologies for denying you the kind of impact we felt, with no prior knowledge, upon first hearing that kind of poetry set to music.

Arthur Jones, an alto-player, is a revelation to me, being one of the few artists that I'd never heard before. He's magnificent on Jacques Coursil's 'Black Suite Part 2', and his own 'Brother B' proves what a tragedy it was that he never achieved leadership status and died, greatly under-recorded, in 1998. Of the regular pool of players, Dave Burrell shines through, especially on the outrageous 'Echo', a 20min storm during which he sounds like he's intent on destroying that piano, accompanied by something of an all-star line-up which includes Shepp, Jones and Sunny Murray on drums. But to try and mention 'highlights' when there is so much music and so many peaks, is impossible. The range of music spans from the minimalism of Don Cherry's 'Teo-Teo-Can' to the maximum overload of Alan Silva & The Celestrial Communication Orchestra whose 'The Seasons' takes the orchestral wall of sound to the limits.

Even post-hippy space cadets Gong get a look-in, their 'Squeezing Sponges Over Policemen's Heads' offering some quirky relief, as well as a warning of what happens when white guys consume too much pot whilst playing Sun Ra records before being allowed into a studio. Fittingly, theirs was the last Actuel release. By '71, the Free Jazz (for want of a better word) movement had burnt itself out, inevitably. You could cite Improv as it's (largely) European offspring, but the fire this time, especially during the period represented by 'Jazzactuel', never burned so brightly again. And unlike most rebellions in music, much of it is still the sound of 'freedom', the sound which time cannot tame.

©Robin Tomens 2000