Free Jazz, in my opinion, is the single most valuable social and cultural movement of the last fifty years. It is also the most grossly undervalued. Emotional as it is intellectual. Breaking racial barriers. Radical. DIY. American form, taken, spread and grown. A global unifier of peoples.
This music’s historical lack of a substantial audience is a mystery. It has everything we should expect of the aural arts. It breathes humanity.
I believe in the power of music and the capacity of the listener. Free Jazz is not a marginal music. Social conditions and circumstances have divided it from its rightful public. Everyone who loves it should work to bring it into the light. To offer entrance and approach. For this reason, I both applaud Free Jazz and Improvisation On Vinyl 1965 – 1985 by Johannes Rød and find it deeply disappointing.
As both a record collector and a lover of Free Jazz I was excited to hear the announcement of this title. Particularly because of a lack of equivalents. Upon its release, I ignored mixed reviews, decided to make up my own mind and shelled over the painful $50 for its half inch of pages.
In Rune Kristoffersen’s Forward, he states that ” ..this might not be a definitive overview for the hardcore know-it-all collectors, but more of a guide for the ‘normal’ collectors and for those looking to expand their musical horizon..” Which seems like a fair modus, and one worth investigating in the book, particularly because I consider myself to be a “normal” collector rather than “hardcore”.
Admittedly, the price to size ratio raised my expectations. Perhaps my self-categorization as a “normal” collector is flawed. But despite wanting to give credit where it is due and seeing value in this book, I have to admit I was pretty bummed when I got it home.
There are three categories I evaluate in such a book. Its use to myself and other collectors as a resource index. As a tool for the “Cause”. A means to bring others to this music. And as an object on its own terms. Sadly on all three it fails to reach its potential.
I own records on all but a few of the 60 labels highlighted by Free Jazz and Improvisation.. and was more or less aware of the rest. This is no fault of the book. Never the less, it dashed my hopes for discovery within. Had I opened a mirror of my knowledge of the genre (which I consider to be far from complete) with a few additions, I would have been surprised but happy. I might know more than I thought. This was not the case. Beyond awareness of my own deficiencies, I immediately noticed omissions of record labels overwhelmingly appropriate to such a book. Anima, Musicworks, Muntu, AECO, Reality Unit Concepts, Cadence, Mbari, Bisharra, Circle, and Universal Justice to name just 10 (or the equivalent of 16% of the book’s total) and I could go on.
This book has little use to a collector such as myself. Which seems absurd. Who else would buy it? By defensively disregarding the critical prowess of “hardcore know-it-all collectors” in favor of “normal collectors” it removes its likely audience, disclaims responsibility and ignores the fact that collecting Free Jazz is an expensive and a devoted cause. Few are just mildly interested in it. Within reason, it’s all or nothing. Anyone drawn to this book, will likely know as much as myself or more. A high percentage of the records contained in it are fairly rare and hover around $50 on today’s market, many rarely slip below $100, some push $500 and above. Not casual fodder for the average record collector to dip into. Why would someone buy an expensive book of extremely expensive records they don’t know and will probably never find? Sounds unlikely. The book’s content instigates its own undoing. It’s lack of dedication and responsibility to its subject, making it a book for no one. It begs countless questions. Why so little? Why stop short? Laziness? Lack of concern? Personal taste? Omissions, intentional or otherwise, imply hierarchies of importance. Something best left to the listener/reader. Any academic should understand this. For a fan or collector, research toward a full picture is intrinsic. Nail down edges. Hear it all! This is a book which doesn’t feel devoted to Free Jazz. Rather something trying to fill a gap in the market as quickly and with as little effort as possible.
Ignoring the record market, the price of this publication, presuming the possibility for a larger audience and approaching it as a resource or curiosity for the less serious record collector, this book could to be as helpful as dangerous. It lists a good cross section of labels and releases, but offers nothing to get teeth into, be that context, description or beauty. The book is dry as hell and lazy. Dangerous detractors to the potential of this music to overcome prejudice and excite new listeners. It looks like a research project executed by a high school student fulfilling the bare minimum. Ruled pages, typed lists with no corresponding images or description of recordings and players. Only a small write up focusing on each label, and a vein of a few dissociated cover reproductions at the book’s center. As an object it’s almost repellent to anyone lacking a fetish for the academic. It offers little history or context despite the implication of its taken form. The writing on labels is so brief and undeveloped, I actually double checked it wasn’t cut and pasted from Wikipedia (turns out Wiki generally does better). I immediately noticed a gross misstep in the write up on Charles Tyler’s AK-BA, stating that “Since the 1970’s he has played with Cecil Taylor and Dewey Redman”. Beyond this being a shocking understatement of Tyler’s collaborations in the post 1970 period, the implication that he was a second tier player rather than a band leader of the stature he was, it implies he is still alive. Tyler died in 1992. I shudder to think what I haven’t spotted yet.
Even in its ridiculous brevity, that the writing isn’t accurate or make an attempt to do justice to the music, labels or artists, is insulting and absurd. Without this, why anyone would bother putting this book together? Why would anyone want to read it? Everything about its make up undermines potential for any proposed audience. What frustrates me most, is its lack of heart. That it doesn’t give a fuck enough to try. It does nothing to excite interest in the releases it profiles. It certainly doesn’t translate the authors supposed enthusiasm for his subject. All of which I consider to be incredibly important in such a publication. As a curious listener, the enthusiasm of others, beautiful covers, contexts and histories, are central to accessing new unexplored territories. There is nothing of that here. Considering a book on music is inherently limited without sound, this might be all it could hope for. Why deny readers?
I take no pleasure in writing negative reviews. The intention of this site is to draw attention to things I believe in, rather than that which I do not. My feeling about this book is disappointment. It is a lost opportunity as a resource, and in potential to interest others in this music. It is not completely without value, but my sentiment is that in order to engage with it functionally the reader will already have to have a substantial knowledge of the subject. Why should they be asked to fill in the gaps where the book falls short? If you are interested in Free Jazz, have little knowledge of it and would like to find somewhere to begin, my advice will always be the same. Listen for what you like and follow the threads. You don’t need a book for that, and certainly not this one. Presuming you are a more knowledgeable collector, for whom this book is intended but trying to duck responsibility to, don’t bother. An equivalent or better tally of recordings could have been assembled by anyone with curiosity and a computer. Record collectors (normal or hardcore) would be better served saving $50 and spending it on a record.