"Free Form Improvisation Ensemble 2013"
This double CD, on gutsy French indie Improvising Beings, is the latest installment in a floating crap game that first convened in NYC, 1962. Back then, pianist Burton Greene (b. Chicago, 1937) and bassist Alan Silva (b. Bermuda, 1939) were venturing even more "out" than Trane, Ornette, and Cecil, playing group improvisations rather than tunes. Both men went on to join Bill Dixon's short-lived Jazz Composers Guild before emigrating to Europe.
Greene wound up living on a houseboat in Amsterdam and has released an impressive body of work (over 70 albums) that encompasses electronics and world music as well as free jazz. Silva, who'd grown up in Harlem and studied bebop trumpet with Donald Byrd, played bass on some of the most important recordings by Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Albert Ayler. Moving to Paris in the early '70s, he formed the Celestial Communication Orchestra, a unit that emphasized ensemble character over solos. In the '90s, he tired of bass and switched to keyboards, which he used as platforms for conduction in the manner of Butch Morris or John Zorn.
On this date, they're joined by tenorman Abdelhai Bennani and Chris Henderson on electronic drums. Bennani (b. Morocco, 1950) was first inspired to play by hearing Jimi Hendrix in censored versions of his records that were marketed in the Arab world. He traveled to Marseille to study biology and medicine in the late '60s, got his musical feet wet playing blues and Dixieland, then moved to Paris to explore free jazz in the mid-'70s. There, he studied with Silva at the Institute for Artistic and Cultural Perception, a music school the older man founded in the '80s. Bennani led groups that mixed free jazz with North African folk music, and opened the Cave, an underground music venue, in 1995. (A representative recording is 1999's Enfance, on the French Marge label.) In 1999, Bennani met bassist William Parker, who took him to New York, where he performed at the Vision festival. Sadly, Bennani died earlier this year, of bone cancer, in the hospital where he'd worked part-time as a nurse and pharmacologist.
Improvising Beings impresario Julien Palomo recalls that when the four musos performed this music at the Sunset in Paris, "they emptied half the venue. But the other half kept them playing another hour." The program consists of 13 numbered free improvisations, and their impact is as much like psychedelic rock (think early Tangerine Dream, or Gong -- who recorded for BYG Actuel!) as free jazz. If much of it sounds through-composed, that should be no surprise, for Greene and Silva have been playing this way for over 50 years. At times, Silva uses his synth as an atmospheric element, while at others it functions as a solo voice, with the abrasive edge of an aggressively bowed bass. Bennani's tenor has the same brooding muscularity as the young Archie Shepp.
Palomo's been a friend and fan of free jazz pioneers like Greene, Silva, Sonny Simmons, and Linda Sharrock, since he was 20. He started his label 11 years later, and after eight years, is getting ready to fold the tent.
"Most labels brag," the label boss explains, "[but] the sales [of free jazz albums] are dreadfully low -- [as low as] 25 copies. To tell the truth, the labels don't care either, for they charge the musicians to do the albums, and in return the musos have 300 CDs to take on the road if they can find gigs. But if they sell any in stores, they can wind up getting sued by a distributor who had exclusivity with the label."
"I refuse to own anybody's music," Palomo continues. "I sign the rights away to the musician. It's not like a painting you buy and hang in the living-room. I pay for [the recordings], therefore I lose money. I managed to survive eight years because I had a job besides and I don't need holidays in the Barbuda or a new iPhone every month and would rather lose $10,000 a year on helping them write the last chapters of their careers. With these documents, their estate or children have a patrimony. If a stable model appears for the sales of music in the next 20 years, they will have something valuable in the family and I will have succeeded."
ADDENDUM: Listening to Silva's bass on Stinging Nettles, an Improvising Beings trio date from last year with Lucien Johnson on tenor and Makoto Sato on drums, I was pleased to hear that it's lost none of the deep gravitas it had on Cecil's Unit Structures and Conquistador.