Free thinking

Jazz byRichard Cook

It didn't last long, but for a while British free jazz rubbed sleeves with the likes of Simon and Garfunkel in the warehouses of CBS. At the very end of the 1960s, David Howells, one of the London executives of the company, was thinking about the way rock's album bands - like the Mothers of Invention or the Grateful Dead - were doing something more than verse-and-chorus pop tunes: improvisation, solos, a "head music" that seemed a world away from chartbound pop. British rock, then entering a lumpen adolescent phase, didn't seem to have many likely lads who could take on the Americans at that sort of game. What about the jazzers? So Howells signed on a crew of players who, as it turned out, were among the fiercest free voices in an embattled local jazz scene. A small stack of records came out of it, but they didn't really sell, and when Howells left the company in 1970, the adventure came to a swift end. Thirty years on, the records are now making their bow on CD.

The original initiative typifies how a marginal culture had some breathing space to work in back then. Records like the two sessions led by the drummer Tony Oxley, The Baptised Traveller and Four Compositions for Sextet, are severe enough to make one gasp at the idea that this music could have been welcomed by a major label. None of the corporations today would have an A&R department that could even grasp such music, let alone consider signing it. Yet as today's dance music and its innumerable outcroppings become ever more complex and abstract, such whiskery iconoclasm sounds almost primitive. It is nearly all real-time music done with minimal embellishment, and not all of it benefits. Frank Ricotti's album Our Point of View has a scruffy charm that the leader is today clearly embarrassed by: "To hear myself naked is a very big bring-down," his new sleevenote says. The thin studio sound on all the discs date-stamps the music as surely as such contemporary rock records as Deep Purple's In Rock. The odd thing about these sessions is that they have much more in common with such bedfellows than any comparable current disc would have with the rock giants of the late 1990s.

Because, for better or worse, the "musicianship" of then has been entirely supplanted by the fail-safe professionalism of now. It seems strange to think back to a time when audiences would actually cheer a guitar solo, a worshipful state that made gods out of men like Ritchie Blackmore and Alvin Lee. As that grain of improvisation has been scratched out of rock, so has the crossover between a freeish jazz and a popular audience seemed less and less likely. It would have been perfectly feasible to find the Oxley albums stacked next to a Soft Machine LP and Frank Zappa's Hot Rats at the time. Now, such eclecticism would seem eccentric, even fanatical.

On their own terms, the records are part curios, part living history. The Oxley albums, with such luminaries as Evan Parker and Derek Bailey on board, are tough and argumentative documents that unwrap a manifesto of free playing which has held fast to its colours ever since. Ray Russell's two discs are far less convincing, pointing to a kind of jazz-rock that was comprehensively outdone by John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. The pair of trio dates led by the pianist Howard Riley are as typical of the man then as now: flinty, wasteless, the music as specifically outlined as chiselled stone. The odd one out is a nine-piece group led by, of all people, Ronnie Scott - and even this group had Oxley and John Surman in it. Scott referred to it as his "all-star aggravation". Maybe the records will sell no more now than they did the first time round, but posterity won't mind.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes