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Share The Radical: Free Jazz and Improvisation On Vinyl 1965 - 1985
Stewart Smith , September 7th, 2014 08:49

Stewart Smith examines Johannes Rød's "collectors' guide to a niche area of music" — a book of lists with more to offer than catalogue numbers and discographies

'What we have here... is a book full of HOT free music, RED HOT!' Swedish saxophone hero and self-confessed 'discaholic' Mats Gustafsson can always be relied on for an effusive quote and his foreword to Johannes Rød's book is full of them. This book, he raves, covers 'perhaps the most advanced and experimental period of music of all time', when the likes of Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann and Derek Bailey pushed far beyond conventional forms to produce sublime music which remains 'exceptional and DNA changing!' While major labels such as Impulse! and Atlantic played an important role in supporting the new music in the 1960s, much of the energy came from the underground, with US and European independents like ESP-Disk, FMP and Ogun issuing extreme music in limited runs. As Gustafsson notes, this area remains under-documented, making this book a necessity.

An elegant volume, Free Jazz and Improvisation on Vinyl 1963-1985 is a collectors' guide to a niche area of music. Those seeking cultural and social histories of free jazz would be best guided to John Litweiler's The Freedom Principle or Valerie Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life, while Richard Cook and Brian Morton's Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings will provide a more encyclopaedic guide to individual artists and releases. This is one for the vinyl fiends, but happily, it has more to offer than discographies and catalogue numbers. As Rød states in his introduction, the aim is to present a selection of American and European independent labels specialising in free jazz and improvisation. It is, he adds, a book of lists, numbers and chronologies, as well as record design and musicians. Unlike many such books, however, it's a stylish affair, thanks to Rune Grammofon design guru Kim Hiorthøy's minimalist aesthetic. The textured hardback cover is both handsome and practical, with stylish sans serif text embossed into the sea-green fabric.

Inside, each label's catalogue is presented clearly, with catalogue numbers and years of release listed alongside the titles and artists. Potted label histories, some more detailed than others, precede each list, providing background information, recommendations of key releases, and notes on sleeve aesthetics. It could go deeper, listing the personnel on individual releases say, but such an exercise would be impractical. No prices are included, but then we have the Record Collector Guide and Discogs for that. As publisher and Rune Grammofon label boss Rune Kristoffersen explains in his foreword, the book is aimed at the 'normal' collector, rather than the 'hardcore know-it-all' type. One can imagine some perspiring Robert Crumb-esque vinyl nerd disgustedly tossing this volume across the room for its failure to include that elusive stereo pressing of Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity on which 'Ghosts: Second Variation' plays a 1/4 speed too fast (I made that up, but you get the point). For the rest of us, however, this is a handy guide to the field, with a colour section of album covers providing extra gravy.

An interview with Kristoffersen by British music writer Rob Young at the back of the book provides some useful context, with the pair discussing key labels and the differences between the American and European scenes. Many readers, I imagine, will approach the book as I did, browsing the labels they're familiar with and discovering new ones in the process. The label names are wonderfully evocative: What brain-scrambling discoveries await on Po Torch, Strata-East, India Navigation, Claxon or Horo? With a little re-arranging, the contents page could become a fantastic found poem. As you dip in and out of the book, certain patterns emerge. Some labels, like Sun Ra's El Saturn, one of the first artist-run labels in the world, ran for years, releasing scores of records. Others burned short and bright, showcasing emergent artists who moved on to bigger things, or simply running out of money before they could establish a sizeable roster. Regardless of their longevity, all these labels made a huge contribution, taking a chance on music the industry mainstream wouldn't touch.

Legendary labels such as ESP-Disk, the totemic New York independent, are documented in detail, with Rød telling the story of how a label which started out releasing an album of songs in Esperanto went on to issue mind-blowing masterpieces by Albert Ayler and Patty Waters, alongside spoken word albums by William Burroughs and the freak-folk of Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs. ESP-Disk's modus operandi was to record sessions in one take, giving the musicians complete control over what was released. Designers were given carte blanche, resulting in radical album covers featuring abstract art and close-up photographs of the artist's face with no text. A small selection of these is featured in the photo section: the beautiful hand-drawn text of Albert Ayler's Bells, the dancing vortices and spirals of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol 1.

Many of ESP-Disk's albums have been reissued - indeed, the revived label is currently engaged in a superb programme of archival releases – but much of the music in here is hard to track down. Without wishing to downplay the thrill of excavating for buried treasure, one can only hope that the process of documentation results in renewed interest and subsequent reissues for the more obscure releases here. Certainly Gustafsson has talked about reissuing the Bird Notes recordings of Swedish saxophone legend Bengt Nordström, whose groundbreaking series of solo improvisations from 1962 were pressed in tiny numbers with unique hand-stamped labels and no covers: a collector's dream and nightmare.

Given the book's Nordic pedigree, the European free improvisation scene is given ample space, with the photo section giving a sense of each label's aesthetic. From Germany there's FMP, rebuilding the country's culture from scratch with the early '70s freedom cries of Peter Brotzmann and Alexander Von Schlippenbach. Their album covers are often stark, with photographs and illustrations roughly pasted onto white space, and declarative titles like Machine Gun standing boldly. Their more playful Dutch counterparts, ICP, play on national stereotypes. The cover of Mischa Mengelberg's Fragments sees a yellow chick tilting at a windmill, only to expire beneath a rain cloud. Derek Bailey's Incus juxtaposes the modern English countryside with a moustachioed Edwardian gent for The Topography of the Lungs (1970), while their Company 3 cover (1977) recalls the contemporaneous boat prints of Ian Hamilton Finlay. One wouldn't want to draw any firm conclusions from the small selection of album covers presented here, but they are illustrative of the particular aesthetic sensibilities of each label and their owners.

It's often been said that the independent labels releasing free music in the '60s and '70s pre-empted the DIY strategies of punk, but they also have strong affinities with the world of small press poetry and artists' books; here are artists creating their own channels of distribution, providing a space in which they and their peers can experiment and share radical, life-changing ideas. To riff on Sun Ra, 'There are other worlds (they have not told you of)'. This book opens the door to the cosmos.

Free Jazz and Improvisation on Vinyl 1963-1985 is out now, published by Rune Grammofon