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Various Artists
Creative Music Studio: Archive Selections Vol. 1
Innova 805

Between 1971 and 1984, the musician-run Creative Music Studio offered a tantalizing alternative model to college-based jazz education. They gave students a chance to learn first hand from “guiding artists” who were at the cutting edge of creative music in weeklong residencies on their campus in rural Woodstock, New York. The guiding artists gave concerts, sometimes with students, sometimes not. Many of those concerts were recorded, which is not so unusual, but the astonishing roster of artists who taught and performed there – literally every important composer-improviser in the jazz avant-garde of the 1970s, as well as exponents of new music and world music – makes the CMS archive uniquely rich and valuable.

Creative Music Studio: Archive Selections Vol. 1 offers a cross section of music performed at the school, devoting one CD each to small groups, large ensembles, and world music fusion. With rare recorded performances by David Izenson, the duo of Charles Brackeen and Ed Blackwell, and Turkish saxophonist Ismet Siral, the set makes significant contributions to the discographies of some unjustly overlooked voices in jazz. Documentation of some of the first large ensemble music composed by Oliver Lake and Olu Dara add to the set’s historical luster, as well. The breadth of the survey opens a window on an exceptionally rich period in Creative Music, when the entire African American musical tradition, from the blues to free jazz, got whorled and blended, concatenated and juxtaposed with traditional non-Western music and European classical influences to create a new musical vocabulary. The excitement of discovery is palpable in every track.

In 1971, when saxophonist Ornette Coleman, vibraphonist-pianist Karl Berger, and vocalist Ingrid Sertso founded the Creative Music Studio (CMS), formal jazz education was in its infancy. Colleges and universities, for the most part, were only just beginning to institutionalize the teaching of jazz. These traditional conservatories and institutions of higher education offered a socially desirable college degree or the clout of a prestigious name and the familiar liberal arts classroom approach eventually came to dominate jazz education.

In contrast, CMS that didn’t offer a degree, there was no predetermined syllabus, and no requirements for broader liberal arts. Instead, everything taught and learned emerged organically from the encounters with the guiding artists. It was a narrower but more integrated approach than traditional college education, focused on present developments rather than historical styles, and more centered on the individual student’s interests and needs. It was a unique hybrid of the informal musician-to-musician transmission of knowledge that had always been the backbone of learning jazz and the more formal classroom setting that was on the rise in the early 1970s.

The first disc begins on a strong note with four tracks featuring the under-sung Charles Brackeen. Any new Brackeen is welcome, and this duet with drummer Ed Blackwell is a marvelous display of the fire, intensity, and rapport they had together. The third untitled track is especially joyful example of how he and Blackwell spurred each other on, with Brackeen’s capering lines inspiring a constant rhythmic chatter from Blackwell as the music rises to ever more lyrical, jubilant heights. Extending the New York free jazz tradition of the 1960s was just one of many avenues improvisers could explore in the 1970s and this is perhaps the purest example of that tradition in this set – and some of its most exciting music.

Bassist David Izenson may have recorded even fewer sessions as a leader than Brackeen, so his three tracks are a rare treat as well. They are the first examples in the set of how ideas from European chamber music began to penetrate improvised music. The two trios with Berger and Sertso, while clearly in the jazz tradition, display the balance of a classical chamber ensemble, and the seamless continuity between composition and improvisation yielded unified performance with a clearly defined arc. Izenson’s astonishing command of timbre and his surreal humor highlight the unaccompanied solo, “May Day.”

The intersection of improviser’s sensibility and classical music is even more evident on Berger’s “7 in C,” performed by pianists Frederic Rzewski and Ursula Oppens. It’s an elegant piece in two contrasting parts – a denser one and a more spacious one – in which melodies are developed and textures explored. It’s difficult to tell what is improvised and what is composed and it’s a lovely example of the genre-crossing/defying nature of the music by artists CMS favored.

Two selections by Leroy Jenkins and James Emery introduce the enormous impact that the AACM had on the CMS curriculum (the Chicago collective’s sister organization from St. Louis, the Black Artists Group, represented in this set by Oliver Lake, was also influential). Culled from the same date heard on Emery’s 1982 Artlife LP, they display a chamber group balance and precision as well, but improvising of Jenkins and Emery stretches the compositions to their limits. “Okidanokh” is an exhilarating example of their tight interaction and contrapuntal interplay.

The large ensemble volume is just as far-ranging as the small group disc. First up are three tracks by Olu Dara’s first large ensemble. They are prime examples of the CMS spirit of musical inclusion, a blend of his free jazz playing and the Southern roots music that would mark the later part of his career. The first untitled piece is a straight up Chicago blues, complete with stop time choruses, featuring Dara on vocals and harmonica. The second is a multi-part free/modal tone poem, and the third unfolds a long, snakey melody over a funky beat. Dara is in tip-top form, balancing the earthy and the abstract in his solos as neatly as in his charts.

The blues is felt in Oliver Lake’s large ensemble (his first compositions for big band), but Lake’s blues are rarely literal, but instead derived from the textures and timbres of the human voice. You hear it in the vocal inflections, the shouts and moans that enliven and humanize his lacerating improvising. Lake is in bracing form, his solos on “CMS Scenes 1 and 2” angling into the beat, making sudden changes in direction mid-phrase, and erupting into acidic snarls. These tracks are also reminders of how good a foil Michael Gregory Jackson was for Lake, with a melodic imagination just as quicksilver as Lake’s, as keen a sense of color as the saxophonist, but with a gentler sound that cushioned some of Lake’s harsher outbursts.

The Roscoe Mitchell orchestra performance is a tremendous find, both for the composing and Mitchell’s soloing. The composition is haunting, with gossamer long tones contrasting with agitated phrases overlapping in different patterns. Mitchell is especially probing in his improvising. His manipulations of timbre are nuanced and his phrases push and pull against the pulse of the music for exquisite tension and release. It’s a passionate and disciplined piece that reminds us of how far “beyond category” Mitchell is at his best.

Non-Western musics, like Indian and Afro-Cuban music, had been finding their way into new jazz for decades, but in the 1970s, the variety of non-Western influences jazz musicians turned to, and the level of sophistication with which they used them, increased. Perhaps the single greatest influence on this trend among improvisers was Don Cherry, a frequent visitor to CMS and a longtime collaborator with Berger. In fact, it was Cherry who first introduced Turkish saxophonist Ismet Siral to CMS. Siral, a pioneer of jazz in Turkey, used scales, melodies, and rhythms from his native country, especially Dervish music, in a hypnotic fusion with jazz. The pieces use traditional, or traditional sounding melodies, and a dense layer of hand drumming that lays down a loping beat with accents that give each tune a characteristic syncopation. Both traditions are honored, though neither survives the cultural collision in pure form.

Creative deformations of jazz and world music also mark the solo performance of Nana Vasconcelos, who loosens up the traditional forms of Brazilian berimbau music during his an unaccompanied solo and in vocal call and response with the audience. With the Mandingo Griot Society, kora player Foday Musa Suso hews closest to tradition, while giving percussionists Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph and electric bassist John Marsh the freedom to weave what they do around him. The resulting blend of modern African American grooves and traditional African music is serious, celebratory fun.

The quality of the source tapes varies widely, the recordings were probably not originally intended for release. The lo-fi issues are most evident on the large ensemble recordings where the balance is off and the fidelity muddy at times. The Izenson tracks, which were recorded in a studio, and the smaller ensembles sound fine. There are also minor inconsistencies in the liner note booklet and one longs for a level of depth and detail in the essays that the immensely influential CMS deserves.

But quibbles with the packaging aside, there’s no denying the quality of the music. Today, most of the composers-improvisers on these three CDs are long established names in creative music. Hearing them at their early creative peaks from thirty to forty years ago is a marvelous opportunity, and with more than 400 hours of music in the archive, the surface of the collection has merely been scratched.
–Ed Hazel

New World Records

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