The latest batch of re-releases from the Impulse label in their "New Thing" series, which includes a double-CD of Ayler's live recordings, rather comes into this category, but the discs are packaged so beautifully that they remain intensely desirable all the same. As fetish objects to hold in your hand, to read and to stroke, they give a real feeling of pleasure. And if you can't resist the impulse to defile Impulse's airtight cellophane seal and give them a spin, this is what you'll find.
Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings by Albert Ayler, collects together recordings made at the Village Gate and Village Vanguard nightclubs in 1965 and 1966, when Ayler was at the peak of his career and counted John Coltrane among his admirers. By 1970, when he was 34, he was dead, his body discovered floating in the East River. The music on the two, long discs is extremely variable, with plenty of free jazz squall. The eccentric mix of blues marches, spirituals and old-timey hokum that formed Ayler's typical repertoire are all played with rough, inchoate violence, but you can't deny that there's a terrible beauty there too. The test track on the first CD, "Angels", is an intensely moving ballad that sounds like a template for some entirely new form. Whether you have the heart to hunt for them is another matter, but the collection does vindicate Ayler's peculiar genius, if not his listenability.
Of the other CDs in the batch, Deaf Dumb Blind by Pharoah Sanders, recorded in 1970, is probably the most listener-friendly, consisting of two long tracks in an Afrocentric, percussion-heavy, trance-vein from a band featuring Woody Shaw, Gary Bartz and Lonnie Liston Smith. The opener, with the Pharoah on soprano saxophone, is a killer and mostly stays well within the relatively tuneful limits required by his many jazz-dance fans. The other track is more meditative, sounding almost like the tone-poems of Joe Zawinul's first album from the same period, but equally good. This is an album that can be removed from its sleeve with impunity.
Sanders is also featured on three of the tracks from Alice Coltrane's A Monastic Trio from 1968, along with other ex-John Coltrane sidemen, Rashied Ali and Jimmy Garrison. The tracks are surprisingly earth-bound and bluesy and include a previously unissued solo piano performance for her husband's Expression album of 1967. Again, it's largely great stuff.
Trio Live by the saxophonist Sam Rivers dates from 1973, when the New Thing was already beginning to be usurped by jazz fusion. As if kicking against the pricks, Rivers (whose loft apartment, Studio Rivbea, was one of the key locations for avant-garde jazz in New York), sounds distinctly combative, with improvisations that are often forbiddingly dense, as in the opening track which goes on for 34 minutes, and seems even longer.
The recordings on Mixed by the Cecil Taylor Unit and the Roswell Rudd Sextet from 1961 have, as reissues go, been round the block a bit but still sound both challenging and compulsive. There's a Mingus-like energy to the playing and the three tracks by the Taylor Unit are especially lively, with saxophonist Jimmy Lyons blowing up a storm.
Archie Shepp remains almost as much of an enigma as Albert Ayler, although as an accredited intellectual his espousal of a bluesy primitivism is more faux than truly naive. The Way Ahead, from 1968, makes a suitable showcase for Shepp's fractured, painful-sounding tenor sax, and once again there's a real energy about the playing that helps keep the occasional atonalism at bay, although this is not one for the faint-hearted. Much the same can be said for the remaining two titles in the series, The Ear of the Beholder by saxophonist Dewey Redman (Joshua's dad), from 1973, and Three for Shepp by the trumPeter Marion Brown, from 1966. Both contain some lovely stuff, but be prepared to use the skip function.
A new re-release on the Verve Redial label offers insight into the New Thing, UK style. After years of waiting, the Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott's legendary "lost" proto free-jazz album, Free Form, has been made available and it's a knockout. Recorded in London in 1980 and originally released on the Jazzland label in 1961, it turns out to be as close to Johnny Dankworth as to Ornette Coleman (whose own "free jazz" developed along similar melodic lines to Harriott's at around the same time).
The "abstract" improvisations from Harriott on alto sax and shake Keane on trumpet usually occur against a fairly steady groove from the rhythm section or Pat Smythe on piano, Coleridge Goode on bass, and Phil Seamen on drums, and the music swings throughout. Despite the "free" elements, "Free Form" remains as emblematically English as any film noir thriller by Joseph Losey with a Dankworth score.
While Harriott (who died of cancer in 1974) was reinventing free jazz from a black Londoner's perspective, in Poland Krzysztof Komeda was developing his own version of the New Thing. Memorably celebrated last year by the wonderful album of his compositions by Tomasz Stanko, Litania, Komeda was a pianist, composer and bandleader of genius, whose music was moving increasingly into the abstract before his death in 1970. Volumes two, three and four in a series chronicling his collected works have recently become available as "enhanced" CDs (i.e. CD Roms) on the Polish label Power Bros, which is distributed by Harmonia Mundi. All are great, but volume four, which includes the music from his score to Roman Polanski's film Knife In The Water, is especially wonderful.
Finally, returning to the original theme of records that had to be made but to which you may wish to exercise caution before listening, Sony's release on the Columbia Legacy label of another "lost" album, the American reeds player Jimmy Guiffre's Free Fall, from 1962, represents something of a landmark, for this was the free jazz that time forgot. The final album in Giuffre's series of trio recordings with Paul Bley on piano and Steve Swallow on bass, it's the white underbelly to the conscious blackness of the New Thing.
Accordingly, the abstractions are Euro- rather than Afro-centric, soft instead of loud, and more cerebral than visceral. It's an astonishingly brave album and at times brilliant, almost beyond belief, but, like those great novels you once picked up and then put down again, serious dedication is required.