BEWARE OF THE BLOGS!
For the first issue of this magazine, I thought I’d address a topical issue that’s made something of a stir in the jazz world over recent years, although it seems to have gone largely unreported in the mainstream press (except as part of general discussions along the lines of ‘downloading is killing/not killing music’ (take your pick)). The subject is jazz ‘sharity’ blogs – websites which post information about, and digital downloads of, rare and out-of-print jazz albums.
These blogs are run by fans from different countries, races and backgrounds, often under pseudonyms (which cynics would say was a way of ensuring that they can’t be tracked down and sued by the record companies), and are often named after classic records (such as Cecil Taylor’s ‘It is In the Brewing Luminous’, Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’, and Frank Wright’s ‘Church Number Nine’ – the latter giving its name to one of the most comprehensive of the ‘sharities’, which sadly shut down a few months ago). There’s been some quite fierce criticism – and I’d be the first to admit that sharing music for free over the internet is a dodgy area. But this is a slightly different case, and I’ll explain why, at the same time as outlining my own views.
If you ask me, the growth of the ‘sharities’ is one of the best things that’s happened to the music in the past few years. Today’s cultural climate is one which seems more hostile than ever to this sort of creative art: witness the recent closure of the Red Rose in London (although there is the occasional exception, such as William Parker’s Vision Festival). Consequently, it seems more and more likely that jazz and improvised music will have to survive through the underground – through word-of-mouth and through a small coterie of dedicated fans. The internet, with the unlimited possibilities it provides for bringing together people from all over the world, who would otherwise never come into contact, provides a perfect channel for this to happen, and for the creation of a network dedicated to hearing these records and giving them a position of some sort of recognition and appreciation.
While it will obviously differ in individual cases, I suspect that more artists than not will be grateful for the exposure – after all, a lot of these records are unlikely to get re-releases in the foreseeable future, and if someone gets turned onto a particular performer by hearing one of their old albums as a blog download, they may be tempted to go and check them out performing live, or buy their currently available albums, or to tell their friends and get them to do the same.
I’m going to quote at length from a message posted on the freejazz.org discussion group, because I feel that it encapsulates some of the problems and frustrations resulting from the (un)availability of much important jazz music on CD – in this particular case, the work of saxophonist Marion Brown:
“I am naturally somewhat dismayed at the unavailability of the Sweet Earth Flying, Afternoon for a Georgia Faun, and Geechee Recollections CDs. I know that free [jazz] music lore is littered with romanticism of out of print gems, but from what I gather, this music is not some obscure document…many people seem to feel that it’s Mr. Brown’s greatest work. Plus, the albums were released on Impulse and ECM…not exactly fly-by-night indies who’d be forgiven for not keeping the music in print. If you do a Google on “sweet earth flying”, you come up with 2 types of responses: ads for the His Name is Alive tribute CD (how sad is it that a TRIBUTE album is more readily available than the original works?) and about 100 different blogs wondering the same thing: why the hell can’t I buy these albums, or even legal downloads? I understand the expense involved in manufacturing/re-releasing several CDs that might only sell a few hundred copies, but why not at least downloads? It seems absurd that I can’t even PAY to listen to some of the greatest works of one of my favorite musicians, while the labels themselves lament the decline of music sales…What exactly are the issues that prevent out of print music from being released as downloads, or in the case of Marion Brown’s CDs, being re-released entirely if there is enough demand?”
It may be true that, for some people, whether consciously or not, half the thrill is in the chase, in hunting down objects (rare vinyl and out-of-print CDs), to which the music itself is almost subsidiary (in a similar way, some people collect antiquarian first editions of books that they are never likely to read). But I think the popularity of the blogs shows that there are a lot more people out there for whom the music is what is important: after all, who in their right mind would rather have a crappy digital download, which they then have to burn onto CD-R themselves, than a nice big LP in one of those vintage vinyl sleeves, or just a plain old commercially-available CD release with good-quality sound? Of course, people are more likely to listen to music if it’s free to do so – it’s human nature to want something for nothing – yet, if this is the only way that albums like Marion Brown’s are going to be heard, I can seen no alternative.
The ball is really in the record companies’ collective courts: if the music was available in the first place, I doubt that nearly so many blogs would have sprung up making it available for download. Someone like Ekkerhard Jost, of FMP, may complain, and request that bloggers take down download links to out-of-print FMP albums, but, if he’s not releasing them himself, who benefits? Of course, there’s no way the musicians are going to get any money from people downloading their out-of-print work: but they’re not going to get any more money from music that’s not being heard at all, and at least, if someone stumbles across an obscure album, and likes it, they may be tempted to cough up cash in order to go and see concerts by the artist, as I pointed out above. Just keeping the music under wraps, and prohibiting/condemning these blogs does not advance matters one iota.
Steve Coleman’s an artist who’s actually taken the initiative, and put his out-of-print albums up as MP3 downloads on the m-base website. His accompanying essay, given his reasons for doing so, is clearly heart-felt and puts in context some of the petty scrabbling for money that goes on in the music world, and, indeed, the world at large:
“Since my main goal is the communication of…ideas to the people, then why not provide this music for free, and thereby facilitate[e] the distribution of this music to the people? However, the distribution of music in this way is not in the best interest of commercial music companies, i.e. record companies, music distributors, retail stores etc.
My reasons for providing free music come from my belief that musical ideas should not be owned by anyone. I believe that ideas should be free for anyone to use (but not to necessarily sell to others or make others pay for the use of these ideas). The concept of a commons area where ideas can be used for the benefit of all but for the profit of no one may seem like an unrealizable concept in the world today. Basically greed runs the world today and it is because of this that the concept of ownership exits.
[…] I believe that ideas should be an area that is common to all people. It has been proven that real progress is made when ideas are shared and developed collectively. The ancient Egyptian society is one example of this and the development of the Internet is an example in modern times….
Although it is not practical in the present society to have a situation where all ideas and information are available for the use of all, there should be areas where ideas and information are free for the use of everyone. This is especially true of creative ideas and inspired thought.
There are some people who either cannot pay for the music or would never even listen to it in the first place if they had to pay for it. I envision a situation where maybe one third to one half of the music that I create and make available to the public will be free of charge….There should be some ideas and concepts that are available for all to use, to contribute to the advancement of all.”
(The full essay, titled ‘Why do I give away some of my music?’, can be found at http://www.m-base.com/give_away.html)
We should be careful that this doesn’t mean we rip off the artists – there are so many horror stories about great musicians who went through periods where they were ridiculously underappreciated, and often in poverty: Sonny Simmons and Charles Gayle both lived on the streets for a number of years, Joe Harriott died a virtual pauper, and so on. Yet Coleman provides a valuable corrective to the increasingly money- and hype-driven mainstream jazz world, where tickets for a one-hour set cost over £20 and, it seems, only those with the best publicists and the best looks (it helps if you can be marketed as a “sexy young jazz singer”, especially if you’re female) can actually break through to a wider audience.
One final thing to note: it’s not just out of print albums that are doing the rounds, but live performances too, which might not otherwise be released as commercial CDs, and just remain languishing in some archive, or in someone’s cellar or attic. These are often from good quality radio broadcasts, and, while you could argue that they are only for the most dedicated fans, they can sometimes be invaluable documents of stuff not captured on record – such as Pharoah Sanders’ live, where the ferocity and free jazz energy is greater than on the more famous albums he did for Impulse in the 60s and 70s.
- - - - - BLOGROLL - - - -
Following is a series of mini profiles of some of the best music blogs I’ve come across while trawling the internet, complete with details about some of the rare/unissued records that available for download from them. The albums are all out-of-print, but hopefully if they keep turning up and being downloaded some people will take note and re-issue them, as has happened with Noah Howard’s ‘The Black Ark.’
The Brewing Luminous * http://thebrewingluminous.blogspot.com *
Curator – Summyth/ Field – 60s, 70s and 80s Free Jazz (albums/FM broadcasts/ soundboard recordings)
Noah Howard – Space Dimension (1970)
Monster session with Frank Wright (tenor sax), Bobby Few (piano), Art Taylor & Muhammad Ali (drums), including raucous covers of ‘Viva Black’ (a.k.a. ‘Ole Negro’, from Howards’ ‘The Black Ark’) and Wright’s ‘Church Number Nine.’ Some insanely catchy hooks, as well as extremely far-out collective improvisation: frenzied, grooving, free, essential – but only ever available on a hard-to-find America LP.
Don Cherry and the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra – Relativity Suite (1973)
Pharoah Sanders – Live in Nice, July 18th 1971
Julius Hemphill - Dogon A.D. (1972)– Tim Berne, who counts Hemphill as a particular hero and a major inspiration for his own playing, tried to get this reissued through his own Screwgun record label, but, due to problems with getting the rights, had to opt for upping it as a free MP3 download instead. Though that was soon taken down, it’s still floating around in cyberspace, as here. Generally characterised by a relaxed feel, with emphasis and groove and even R & B elements (plus the marvellous Abdul Wadud on cello), there’s still plenty of room for more experimental playing as well.
Happy as a Fat Rat in a Cheese Factory * http://clubdub.blogspot.com/ *
Curator – Nunne/ Field – Left-field(ish) jazz; a pretty wide range, with everything from Sonny Rollins to Wayne Shorter and free jazz.
Marion Brown – Vista (1975)
Nothing if not underrated, Impulse’s Marion Brown catalogue still remains un-issued, though ‘Afternoon of a Georgia Faun’ is at least available on an ECM CD. While the saxophonist and composer had achieved a glistening, twinkling, magical perfection on ‘Sweet Earth Flying’, whose rich electric piano and organ textures suggest what would have happened if Miles Davis’ ‘In a Silent Way’ had been led by a free jazz player, he lets things get a little too laid-back, smooth and moody here. I mean, for heaven’s sake, there’s a cover of a Stevie Wonder song – but the record does also feature the gorgeous ‘Bismillahi Rrahmani Rrahim’, composed by Harold Budd and later to be reworked at length on his ambient/jazz/contemporary classical masterpiece ‘The Pavillion of Dreams.’
Wayne Shorter – Odyssey of Isska (1969)
Along with its companion session, ‘Moto Grosso Feio’, this is probably the most obscure of Shorter’s records: a shame, because it’s vastly superior to his intricate, but rather lifeless 80s fusion work (although I know that his its supporters too). Both are mysterious, probing, sprawling, and loose (like Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches’ Brew Sessions’, which were happening around the same time), but this one is more conventional in terms of its instrumentation, and has perhaps more of a foot in traditional jazz fields, due to the presence of Gene Bertocini’s guitar. It’s surfaced on a CD a couple of times, once in the late 80s and once in the early 90s, but seems to have disappeared again – although Blue Note did feature one short track, ‘Calm’, on their indispensable 2-disc collection ‘Wayne Shorter: The Classic Blue Note Recordings.’
Huppes et Hyalities * http://huppeshyalites.blogspot.com/ *
Curator – Fredito/ Field – Free and left-field jazz, 1960s-present day: mainly soundboard/FM/audience recordings, with a few out-of-print albums. Note the lovely, specially-constructed album covers in the style of Hat-Hut releases.
Clifford Thornton/ Jazz Composer’s Orchestra – The Gardens of Harlem (1975)
Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen Festival ’87: three concerts
Inconstant Sol * http://inconstantsol.blogspot.com/ *
Curators – Wallofsound, sotise, Flux’us, kinabalu, Boromir/ Mission Statement – “We are diving in like leopard seals, stealthily. To us the ‘ inconstant sol’ is a concept as exciting as penguin is to the leopard seal. What is inconstant? It’s the speed of light (sol). That changes everything, somehow. A delirious joy from which flows the smorgasbord of all those things we really love …. free jazz, improv, marginal art, politics, food, bad photos, psycho sexual dynamics and so on ad infinitum.”
Archie Shepp – Pitchin’ Can (1969)
This recording was released on the America label (which, like BYG/Actuel, never paid its artists). It consists of just 2 tracks: the lengthy large-ensemble freakout “Uhuru (Dawn of Freedom”), which has never been released on any other recording, and the shorter blues number “Pitchin’ Can,” which has been re-issued as part of the CD ‘Black Gipsy.’ Not an essential record by any stretch of the imagination, but you get three drummers- (yes, three, including the wonderfully-named Ostaine Blue Warner), searing tenor work from Shepp, and nice turns from trumpeters Clifford Thornton, Lester Bowie and Alan Shorter.
Joe Harriott – Southern Horizons (1960)
Jacques Coursil – Black Suite (1969)
Eugene Chadbourne for allmusic guide: “This amazing trumpeter led two album sessions for BYG, both highly respected projects. This might be the one to take off to the desert island…As kind of the lost voice of the trumpet in modern jazz, Coursil is not only a great discovery for the modern jazz fan, but a fine creative vintage that holds up to repeat visits over the years. His control of the difficult horn and totally original melodic thinking really makes his playing stand out among the admittedly thin ranks of avant-garde trumpet players. None of the players who have Coursil’s technical mastery play with as much heart and soul…[This] is one of the best examples of just how beautiful modern jazz can be.”
Elvin Jones Sextet – Live at the Lighthouse (1972)
Modern jazz with the energy and passion of free jazz, this recording was released as a double LP by Blue Note, but has never made it onto CD, except as a Japanese import. The two saxophonists are what really make it: Dave Liebman wails with controlled post-Coltranian abandon, and Steve Grossman is on the form of his career.
Jizz Relics * http://jizzrelics.blogspot.com *
Curator – Jizzrelics/ Field – Free jazz and improv, noise, electronic, experimental
Don Cherry & the Brotzmann Trio – Live in Berlin, 27th August 1971
A bootleg recording, with fairly dodgy, muffled sound, but the only chance you’ll get to hear this atypical group of this atypical quartet. It’s surprising how well the free form playing of the European trio sits with Cherry (who had moved into his ‘world music’ phase by this point): the combination of his chanting, yodeling, screaming, singing and flute playing (as well as, of course, his trumpet), with the screaming improv of Brotz and co is an oddly compelling one, and helps reveal a different side to the three European musicians that they don’t so often display, more akin to the ‘spiritual’ free jazz of Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas.
Treehouse for Earth’s Children *http://treehouseforearthschildren.blogspot.com*
Curator – Detroit JR/ Field – A blog with only 8 posts; nevertheless, they are a pretty eclectic bunch, from Don Cherry, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Man Machine, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry. It proudly proclaims that it is “illegally filesharing copyrighted material under the guise of selflessly promoting commercially available music”, but don’t let that put you off: this really is commercially unavailable music, and very good it is too.
John and Alice Coltrane – Infinity (1972)
Alice dubs strings and new rhythm section parts onto some otherwise un-issued late-60s recordings by her husband: a controversial move, but one that somehow pays off, for the most part, particularly in her repetitive, non-developmental harp interlude/solo from ‘Peace on Earth,’ which seems to exist in a state of suspended animation. Yes, I suppose you could call it ‘John Coltrane with Strings’, but these are (to borrow the title of another album), ‘strange strings’ indeed, and it’s perhaps indicative of the sort of direction he would have gone in if he’d lived. Despite all that, ‘Infinity’ has the dubious distinction of being one of the only Coltrane albums never to have been released in the U.S. on CD.
Don Cherry – Organic Music Society (c.1971)
Here’s the blog’s own description: “recorded in Sweden on a hippie / commune / organic farm. Equal parts free jazz, freak-folk, and Mmanson family jams…. Apparently released in 1971 although some sources say 1972 or later.”
The Magic of Juju * http://magicofjuju.blogspot.com/ *
Field – Rare African and Indian ‘world’ music, as well as some 60s/70s avant-garde Rock and ‘New Thing’ albums.
New York Art Quartet – Mohawk (1965)
From the early heyday of the 60s New Thing, a fantastic group similar to The New York Contemporary Five, which Tchicai co-led with Archie Shepp. This particular line-up has Milford Graves on drums, Roswell Rudd, trombone, and Reggie Workman, a few years on from Coltrane, on bass. Tchicai, from the sleeve notes: “the important thing about our music is that it must be heard and listened to without preconceived ideas as to how jazz should sound – listen to it as MUSIC and let that be the only label!
There is so much talk about the freedom of this music, but the musician still has to abide to the rules of artistical responsibility, and they should never forget that whichever way the technique develops: the content (the feeling) must always be there (passion, energy, lyric, strength).”
Amiri Baraka – It’s Nation Time (1972)
Rather than being released through Baraka’s own controversially-named ‘Jihad’ label, this one came out on Black Forum, a short lived Motown spoken word label active from 1970 to 1973 which also issued albums by such notable black figures as Martin Luther King, Stokley Carmichael and Langston Hughes. Mixing poetry, chants, and songs (all laced with anti-American sentiment), it begs Blacks to realize their African roots and strike back against the Empire. While the politics are sometimes hard to swallow, the music itself is immensely impressive, with Baraka’s passionate vocal virtuosity underlain by a virtual who’s who of spiritual/free-jazz musicians, including Gary Bartz, Lonnie Liston Smith, Idris Muhammad, and Reggie Workman. A particular highlight is the right-on groove of ‘Who Will Survive America?’
Pharoah Sanders – Wisdom Through Music (Impulse, 1973)
enerally I tend to think Pharoah went downhill when he mellowed out (reaching a nadir with 1976’s truly awful ‘Pharoah’), but this is one of his better efforts – not as rambling and repetitive as some of his other work, but instead, with song titles averaging around 5 minutes, it’s concise, joyous, and expressive. The 3-man percussion lineup (including Miles Davis’ sidemen Badal Roy and James Mtume) doesn’t hurt either! You would think Impulse would come round to re-issuing this some time: it should sit well with the ‘spiritual/groove/retro-jazz’ market.
Pharoah’s Dance * http://pharaohs-dance.blogspot.com *
Cutrator – vesper/ Field – A pleasing focus on neglected artist like Billy Harper, Walt Dickerson, including plenty of the 70s Strata-East style jazz. Also features some rather swanky Lalo Schifrin/Quincy Jones 60s soundtracks.
Rufus Harley – Recreation of the Gods (1972)
You may remember this man from his recent obituaries – the black jazz bagpiper who played in a kilt…On this date, he also plays electric soprano sax and a sermonette (whatever that is) – crazy stuff, but, once you get used to the instruments’ sound, this turns out to be some nice soul jazz.
Charles Tolliver All Stars (1968)
Also released as ‘Paper Man’ on Arista Freedom; superb music from a man whose current band (which plays some of the same tunes) has one of the top albums of the year in the reviews section. Fantastic rhythm section, and a chance to hear one of my favourite saxophonists, altoist Gary Bartz. Can’t go wrong!
Alice Coltrane – Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969)/ Lord of Lords (1972)/ Illuminations (with Carlos Santana) (1974)
The earliest of these three finds Mrs Coltrane in the stripped-down setting of a trio with Ron Carter and Ben Riley, and is worth hearing, if not essential. ‘Lord of Lords’ is another matter, with a full string orchestra providing extremely beautiful and unusual textures. Excerpts from the Santana/Coltrane album were included on Bill Laswell’s lovely ‘Divine Light’ album, which remixed music from Santana’s 1970s spiritual/jazz period, but it’s nice to get a chance to hear the full record, which is still OOP. Lush string arrangements, floaty harp, pure high-toned guitar lines – totally blessed-out and mellow.
Orgy in Rhythm * http://orgyinrhythm.blogspot.com *
Curator – bacoso/ Field - All sorts: Latin music, Japanese jazz, soul jazz, fusion, 60s Blue Note recordings (lots of great obscure Bobby Hutcherson), the occasional free jazz record…
The Leon Thomas Album (1970)
The follow to ‘Spirits Known and Unknown,’ this was, for some reason, never released on CD. A big-band is employed, full of jazz luminaries like Billy Harper, Roy Haynes, Billy Cobham, and James Spaulding (as well as a female backing chorus). Closest to the ‘spiritual/free jazz Thomas is most famous for is a tune written by Pharoah Sanders, ‘The Journey’, in which more avant-garde jazz is used to evoke exotic and mysterious atmospheres.
Nothing Is * http://ajbenjamin2beta.blogspot.com/ *
Curator – James/ Mission Statement – “A music sharing blog that specialises primarily in the jazz underground.”
Dewey Redman – Coincide (Impulse, 1975)
While only three of the seven pieces presented here are actually still unavailable (Impulse released four of them as bonus tracks on the CD re-issue of Redman’s other album for the label, ‘The Ear of the Behearer’), they are still mighty interesting. ‘Meditation Submission Purification’ in particular, a mysterious, beautiful track with Redman playing zither, really deserves to see the light of day.
Marion Brown – Gesprächsfetzen (1968) In Sommerhausen (1969)
Two European dates with vibes player Gunter Hampel (and, on the latter, vocalist Jeanne Lee). The second in particular is a great example of cool modernism – more ‘weird’, objective, playful, and satiric, than American ‘Fire Music’ of which Brown had been a part, but deeply serious and emotionally felt too.
Marion Brown – Creative Improvisation Ensemble (1970) Soundways (1973)
Two spare and spontaneous duet albums: the first with trumpeter Leo Smith, released on Freedom Records in 1970, the second with pianist Elliott Schwartz, recorded live in 1973.
Milford Graves/Don Pullen NOMMO (1966). From Thurston Moore’s ‘Top 10 from the Free Jazz Underground’ list: “Milford may be one of the most important players in the Free Jazz underground. He enforces the sense of community as a primary exponent of his freely improvised music. His drumkit is home-made and he rarely performs outside of his neighborhood. When he does perform he plays his kit like no other. Wild, slapping, bashing, tribal freak-outs interplexed with silence, serenity and enlightened meditation. This LP was manufactured by the artists in 1967 and is recorded live at Yale University. The interplay between Milford and Don is remarkable and very free.”
If, for any reason, you don’t feel comfortable downloading full albums, the following site offers a useful alternative: Melodiradion (“jazz and other sounds – live and rare”). It offers podcasts with radio and vinyl tracks from a wide selection of free jazz artists: http://melodiradion.podomatic.com/.
Of course, I shouldn’t neglect what is perhaps the best of all these blogs: the inestimable Destination…Out! (named after the Jackie McLean album), where the hosts put up one-three obscure tracks a week, accompanied with concise and precisely fitting descriptions, which manage to be concise, witty and even poetic. It’s got some big-name fans too: pianists Ethan Iversen and Vijay Iyer, the latter of whom contributed a special MP3-mix of jazz piano tracks which had personal significance for him, and were influential in his development. I’ve lost count of how many wonderful artists and albums I’ve become acquainted, or re-acquainted with, through Dest. Out’s posts. An essential site: http://destination-out.com.