Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Monumental Jazz Avant-Garde Session

courtesy of Naxos of America

Thanks to Naxos of America, I continue to track releases from Storyville Records, which is the oldest independent jazz label in Europe. As a result it is one of the best labels to follow for those interested in the height of the avant-garde jazz movement during the Sixties. Last April, for example, I wrote about the release of the first public performance by Cadentia Nova Danica at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen in August of 1966. This album was of particular interest to me since one of the members of the group was alto saxophonist John Tchicai.

My latest discovery from Storyville is an album entitled Archie Shepp & The New York Contemporary Five, which was released on September 7, 2004. This is another album based on a recording of a session at Jazzhus Montmartre, this time on November 15, 1963. Just to make things clear, the title is a bit confusing, since there are only five musicians on the album. Playing tenor saxophone, Shepp was one of the founders of the quintet in 1962. Furthermore, he remained with the group until it disbanded in 1964.

All of the players on this recording are founding members. They include Tchicai on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on cornet, Don Moore on bass, and J. C. Moses on drums. Cherry had been building his reputation as an avant-gardist since 1958, when he began performing and recording with Ornette Coleman. Looking forward in time, after the New York Contemporary Five disbanded, both of its saxophonists, Shepp and Tchicai, became involved, in 1965, in one of the most massive free jazz undertakings of the Sixties, the recording sessions led by John Coltrane for the 1966 album Ascension. In other words it is worth considering that the New York Contemporary Five may have played a pivotal role in the long view of the history of avant-garde jazz.

Consider the sources of the selections on this album. Three, “Emotions,” “O. C.,” and “When will the Blues Leave,” are by Coleman, while Cherry’s “Consequences” shows any number of signs of the techniques he cultivated while playing with Coleman. Then, as what might be called an “acknowledgement of origins,” there are two compositions by Thelonious Monk, “Monk’s Mood” and “Crepuscule with Nellie.” There is also Bill Dixon’s “Trio,” which is the first track on a Savoy studio album of jazz quartet music co-led by Dixon and Shepp. That leaves only three more tracks, “The Funeral” by Shepp and “Wo Wo” and “Mick” by Tchicai.

Taken as a whole, the album almost serves as a map of the terrain that Coltrane probably explored as he cultivated his interest in free jazz. Once he had that map in his head, he was ready to go over the edges to blaze his own trails. Those of us who listen to our jazz records closely and seriously are probably still reverberating from Coltrane’s impact on free jazz (at least when we are not despairing that the current generation of “young Turks” still does not seem to “get it”)! For those who want to get it, this New York Contemporary Five album would make for a far better start than jumping feet-first into an album like Ascension! Indeed, this Storyville release may even serve to provide beginning listeners with the necessary orientation for taking on at least one significant earlier effort, the two takes by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet for the album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.

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