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Book Review ; “Free Jazz And Improvisation On Vinyl 1965-1985” by Johannes Rød .

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review ; “Free Jazz And Improvisation On Vinyl 1965-1985” by Johannes Rød .

A welcome addition to a relatively small written and visual canon.

Book Review

“Free Jazz And Improvisation On Vinyl 1965-1985” by Johannes Rød
(Rune Grammofon RBK 2160)

ISBN: 82-92598-87-1

It looks like an ECM publication but this elegantly packaged work actually comes to you courtesy of the Norwegian record label Rune Grammofon. Subtitled “A Guide to 60 Independent Labels” the book covers the twenty years following the events that author Johannes Rød refers to as the “October Revolution” and the founding of the Jazz Composers Guild and the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association Inc. at the Cellar Café in New York City in late 1964. Equally significant was the establishment of the musical collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago the following year.  Rød refers to this period as the “second free wave” and his introduction also pays tribute to the “first free wave” of pioneering jazz musicians among them Ornette Coleman, Paul Bley, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. 

Rød has previously authored six books on the subject of visual art but has always been an avid record collector. His love of improvised music led to him beginning work on this book but his usual publishers were unwilling to become involved in what they perceived as a “marginal project”. Enter Rune Kristoffersen, founder of Rune Grammofon, arguably Norway’s most creative contemporary record label and home to Supersilent, Arve Henriksen and many more. Kristoffersen was more than happy to publish the book, notwithstanding the fact that the output of his own label falls outside the self imposed time parameters of the work. He also provides a brief foreword as well as allowing himself to be interviewed by the British journalist Rob Young, co-owner of the influential Wire magazine. Their interesting and enlightening conversation appears at the very end of the book.

The fourth contributor to the book is the Swedish musician Mats Gustafsson, who Rod describes as a “saxophone hero”. Gustafsson is one of the most prolific performers on the international free jazz and improv scenes and his foreword celebrates the independent spirit of the music with a breathless enthusiasm. Gustafsson was doubtless profoundly influenced by the music of the record labels documented in these pages, particularly the Swedish label Bird Notes, founded by Bengt Nordstrom in the early 1960s. Besides using the label as an outlet for his own activities Nordstrom also recorded Albert Ayler and Don Cherry. Gustafsson supplies the text for the Bird Notes entry.

The main body of the book is an alphabetical listing of sixty independent labels from the US, UK and mainland Europe. Major labels such as Impulse!, Blue Note and Atlantic have deliberately been omitted as their output is widely documented elsewhere and in some cases their independent status has been compromised in more recent times.  Rød is at pains to point out that the selection of labels and the listings of their output is entirely subjective and largely a matter of personal choice. For labels with an output consisting mainly of free jazz or avant garde releases the entire catalogue is listed. In the case of those who also issued more mainstream jazz releases the entire catalogue is listed if the total output is small, an example being the London based Cadillac label founded by John Jack. For larger companies Rød has merely made a personal selection, a good illustration of this being ECM where the author has selected a mere ten discs from the company’s very early years (1970-73). Occasionally listings will stray slightly outside the time restaints for reasons of completeness and continuity.

Each entry includes a brief history of the label followed by a list of recordings with their dates and catalogue numbers. Details of instrumentation and track listings are not included. Rod’s starting point for the project was the ESP Disk label founded in 1964 in New York by Bernard Stollman, the name a shortened version of the original Esperanto Disko. This is the kind of obscure fact that makes this book so fascinating (similarly the German JAPO label was an abbreviation for “Jazz by Post”). ESP Disk was the recording home of Albert Ayler who’s 1965 album “Spiritual Unity” was the label’s second release and was a record that had a profound influence on many of the other recordings listed in this book.

Given Rød’s involvement in the world of visual art it is perhaps not too surprising that he also pays considerable attention to the designs of the sleeves in which these recorded artefacts were contained. Halfway through the book there are sixty four colour illustrations of influential album sleeves, many of them from the collections of Rød and Kristoffersen. Most of these still look remarkably contemporary and several represent genuine design classics. The illustrations are drawn from both sides of the Atlantic with ESP Disk’s distinctive cover art and photography leading the way, the label’s graphic designers including Howard Bernstein, Dennis Pohl and Jordan Matthews.

It’s partly down to graphic design that a series of albums released by the Fontana label appear in this book. As a subsidiary of the giant Philips company the Fontana albums are strictly outside Rød’s remit but their “Marte Roling” series of fifteen avant garde jazz albums, all released in 1966 and featuring musicians such as Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor and George Russell are too important to be omitted. There’s also the question of the cover art, a series of lithographs of the musicians involved by the Dutch artist Marte Roling, these inspired in turn by the work of famous photographers. Ten of Roling’s distinctive images are reproduced in the book’s illustrated section.

Rød’s book makes no claims to be a fully comprehensive history of free jazz and improvised music. However for somebody with even a passing interest in the subject it’s a fascinating read, full of little known facts and a book to be dipped into repeatedly. In this sense it’s something of a “coffee table book” for intellectuals, and I don’t mean that in either a flippant or pejorative way.

As I mentioned at the very beginning the book is very neatly presented and the colour illustrations are a delight. Yes, it is a marginal project and the book will only appeal to a specific section of the listening and reading public. However for those of us with any level of appreciation of the subject - and I certainly wouldn’t class myself as a free jazz aficionado- it’s a welcome addition to a relatively small written and visual canon.

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