Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Storyville’s Major Audio Document of European Avant-Garde Jazz

Storyville Records is the oldest independent jazz label in Europe, but it only showed up on my radar last month when Naxos of America took it on for distribution in the United States. Hopefully, anyone who knows anything about the history of jazz will appreciate the significance of the label’s name; and that name was chosen deliberately in 1952 when self-professed jazz fanatic Karl Emil Knudsen launched the label. Over the half-century that followed, Storyville became as significant to the jazz cognoscenti as Blue Note Records had been under Alfred Lion and Max Margulis (and, subsequently, Francis Wolff).

Thanks to Naxos of America, I have now had my “first contact” experience with Storyville. The recording I selected was actually released last June, but I cannot resist writing about it. It is a live concert recording made in August of 1966 at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen; and the event was the very first public performance by Cadentia Nova Danica, whose name is also the name of the album.

1966 was the year in which saxophonist John Tchicai returned to Copenhagen, the city in which he had been born to a Danish mother and a Congolese father. He had spent four years in New York; and, as far as avant-garde jazz was concerned, he could not have been more in the thick of things. I first became aware of him because he was one of the seven musicians that John Coltrane summoned to supplement his quartet for the 1965 recording session that resulted in his Ascension album. We now know there were two takes of this uncompromising 40 minutes of free-blowing jazz, both of which were eventually packaged together on the Impulse! Records release, The Major Works of John Coltrane. He also contributed to the Four for Trane Impulse! album, led by saxophonist Archie Shepp, another “invited” participant in the Ascension sessions. In addition, Tchicai played in the 1964 recording sessions for Albert Ayler’s New York Eye and Ear Control, subsequently released on CD by ESP-Disk.

Back in Copenhagen Tchicai was determined to continue the adventurous practices he had cultivated in New York. He turned to fellow jazz artists to form a group that would carry that torch on European soil, and the result was Cadentia Nova Danica. Similar efforts were brewing in Germany, Britain, Holland, and Italy. As a result, that first performance by Cadentia Nova Danica included one piece by the Dutch jazzman Misha Mengelberg; and, entitled “Viet Kong” (a not-to-subtle reference to the growing military conflict in Southeast Asia), it is the last track on the Storyville album. The first two tracks, “The Education of an amphibian” and “Kirsten,” are Tchicai’s own creations. The remaining two tracks on the album are by two other Cadentia Nova Danica members, the other alto saxophonist in the group, Karsten Vogel, and one of the two bassists, Finn von Eyben. In addition to doubling up on saxophones and basses, the group also had two percussionists, Bo Thrige Andersen and Giorgio Musoni. The remaining players on this recording are the other bassist, Steffen Andersen, trumpeter Hugh Steinmetz, and trombonist Kim Menzer.

What may be most impressive about this recording is that the sharing of composers entails more diversity than one tends to encounter on any of the single-leader free jazz albums that were being recorded at this time in the United States. There is also more of a tendency towards brevity. Each of the tracks is only about ten minutes in duration, so there is no sense of this being the sort of marathon session that could be found in the efforts of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Nevertheless, each of the five pieces is adventurous in its own way; and, half a century after this recording took place, there are an abundance of sharp edges that are likely to provoke listeners that have become lulled by the far less provocative practices that now seem to dominate jazz releases in this country.

People of my age frequently come under attack for saying things like, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!” However, when I listen to what Cadentia Nova Danica could do on their very first gig, fresh out of what could not have been more than a few months of preparation, it is difficult for me to hold to any other conviction, particularly after having heard an attempt to give a “revival” performance of Ascension by a new generation that just did not get it. This is not to say that the bold ambitions of a group like Cadentia Nova Danica or an individual like Coltrane can no longer be found. However, I would suggest that “the world the Internet has made” is far more market-based than “the world that made Ascension” was; and the major consequence is that the experience of listening to jazz today is far more impoverished than it was 50 years ago.

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