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V/A - Freedom, Rhythm, Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82

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Artist: V/A

Album: Freedom, Rhythm, Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Jan. 29, 2010


Oliver Lake/NTU - "Africa" (Freedom, Rhythm, Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82)


“This album features revolutionary jazz music created by artists inspired by the ideals of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement. Starting in the mid-1960s the avant-garde of jazz fused with black power, Afro-centricity and spirituality as notions of self-determination, economic empowerment and musical freedoms.”

So what does Soul Jazz mean by “revolutionary jazz music”? The term is ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, and, given the huge time frame covered, could conceivably include a wide range of different musics, styles, and movements in jazz. It’s a bit late for the first wave of free jazz, though not too late for the adventurous mid-1960s albums on Blue Note and Impulse - the Coltranes and Andrew Hills and Jackie MacLeans and Pharaoh Sanders of the world. It encompasses the entirety of the fusion moment in all its various forms (Miles and Herbie, Ornette and Don Cherry), as well as the loft scene in New York. And then there’s the abstraction of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their kin, the afro-futurism of Sun Ra, and the creative infusion from Europe, both the BYG/Actuel moment and the European free improvisers who pushed the concepts of jazz in their own direction.

While not all of that could be directly tied to the civil rights movement, Soul Jazz’s fusion of “black power, Afro-centricity and spirituality,” they all could be thought of as being inspired by it. Even AMM’s Eddie Prévost drew something from those American movements, even if it was metaphorical: “[Jazz’s] historical impetus suggests it to be an alienation strategy with which AMM can easily identify: jazz struggled to escape the confinement of a white-dominated capitalist culture.” So if so many of the diverse strains of the jazz avant-garde can be so readily tied to the notions Soul Jazz enumerates above, why is everything on these two discs so funky? To put it another way (and to paraphrase ethnomusicologist Steven Feld), why is it so easy to associate African-ness with funky rhythms and vamps? And why, given the 20-year span these discs purport to cover, is almost everything here from the 1970s?

Before I take this critique any further, though, I should take a step back and talk about what’s actually going on over these two CDs. Since it is the companion piece to Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker’s book, published by Soul Jazz, of the same name (exceptionally reviewed by Dusted’s Kevan Harris here), all of the music featured here comes from albums covered in the book. The lone exception is Gato Barbieri and Dollar Brand’s “81st Street,” a fiery improvisation that manages to be simultaneously melodic, harmonically adventurous, and timbrally challenging, all over a lilting/lurching vamp. It comes from a 1969 BYG/Actuel release that doesn’t appear in the book, though its inclusion is totally justifiable on musical grounds alone. The rest of the tunes here are by a hodgepodge of different musicians, representing many of the different creative collectives that sprung out in urban centers across the country: AACM in Chicago (represented by the Art Ensemble, Philip Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, and Steve Colson’s Unity Troupe), the Black Artists Group in St. Louis (Oliver Lake), Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra in Los Angeles, the Detroit Arts Workshop (the Hastings Street Jazz Experience), etc. Beyond this, there are an assortment of characters, including Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Gary Bartz, Mary Lou Williams and Joe McPhee, who all had their own unique visions of jazz, vastly different from those of the collectives. And needless to say, all the playing on this set is superb, featuring some of the best players of the time period.

However, I come back to the question of why everything here is so funky. Given the vast diversity of players available, and the huge diversity of the book, it seems a shame that the curators of this compilation would choose to lean on the funky side of things. The dominant mode of these songs is a polyrhythmic vamp, laid down by a rhythm section supplemented with exotic percussion instruments, underlying a fairly simple, looping chord progression, with an expanded set of melodic instruments, often with vocals in the soul/r&b vein. There are brief glimpses of other approaches - the aforementioned Barbieri/Brand track, and the pieces by the Art Ensemble, Joe McPhee and Edward Larry Gordon - but they are largely drowned out by a barely differentiated mass of (pardon the pun) soul jazz, funky jazz, and various jazz/r&b fusions. Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” is the exception that proves the rule: the fact that the curators chose this, with its laid back grove, its (relatively) straightforward approach, its (irresistible) vamp, and its call and response vocals, over the thousands of other Ra recordings from this time period belies the fact that they are looking to raise as few musical eyebrows as possible.

I realize that I’m starting to tread into fuzzy territory here, since many of these artists did, in fact, believe that they were expressing their connections to Africa, that they were declaring their independence from the dictates of the capitalistic structures of the record labels, and that they were exploring some kind of deeper spirituality. It’s not my place to question that, nor do I have any reason to doubt their sincerity. But other musicians were trawling in the same philosophical territory with drastically different results, folks like Wadada Leo Smith, the Revolutionary Ensemble, Myra Melford, Steve Reid, Pharaoh Sanders and Don Cherry, all of whom are entirely absent from this compilation. And herein lies the fundamental contradiction of the album: the music here is all individually great and generally underexposed, but also all relatively homogeneous given the sweeping claims made in its writeup.

By Dan Ruccia

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