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Various Artists - Fire Music Vol. 1 [Esp Disk - 2013]

This compilation "Fire Music, Vol. 1" is something like ESP-Disk's attempt at a beginner's guide for what is undoubtedly among the most unapproachable genres, avant garde jazz.  It contains 9 classic pieces by some of the genre's most towering, influential figures, from Albert Ayler to Sun Ra, as well as lesser known greats.  The music is generally limited to the original era of experimental jazz in the 60's and 70's. 

Ranging from 4 - 12 minute long, these are bite sized, digestible chunks when compared to the extended improvisations often found on such albums.  Rather than total free rhythm cacophany, most of the music selected involves a straightforward, sometimes familiar melody, which is then systematically deconstructed into improvised chaos.  The contrast between structure and lack of structure, melody and absolute dissonance, seems to be the point.

Ayler's rendition of "Spirits Rejoice" opens the album, and takes the familiar hymn to uncomfortably feverish, violent levels.  Like several other free jazz legends (Charles Gayle, John Coltrane) or classical composers like Olivier Messiaen, Ayler's christianity rose to such a peak of intensity that the majority of christians would be alienated.  While this piece is likely meant to express some kind of spiritual joy or ecstacy, I can't help but find it unsettling.  Oddly enough, I might find it more palettable with the traditional melody totally absent.  I have a hard time listening to whole albums of Ayler, which is why it's a good thing that the rest of the disk has a number of more pleasurable moments.

Frank Wright's "The Lady" delivers a smoky hardbop head before getting some earnest 'angry bumblebee' style chromatic soloing.  The blaring, haphazard form of soul found in this song is one I can certainly relate to.  The wails of Wright's sax tell the story of a man pushed to absolute desperation.

In drummer Sunny Murray's "Giblet", we have a strange but consonant melody played in offbeat stabs, quickly overrun by a thunderous torrent of unceasing drum fills, heavy on the bass drum and low toms.  The saxophone player begins to squeal and babble manically underneath the overwhelming bassy cascade.  It's refreshingly different, and a bit less harsh on the ears due to focusing on the rounded sound of the drums rather than aggressive horns.

Don Cherry Quintet's "Cocktail Piece" is perhaps the most eyebrow raising, moving through countless contrasted movements, melodies and styles in its 12 minute running time.  There a lot of high speed scalar leads along the lines of Eric Dolphy, but unlike in the case of, Dolphy these seem to dissolve at random into improvisation.  Parts of this were clearly composed beforehand, but it's not always clear what.

Already a huge fan of Sun Ra's cosmic, exploratory sound, I highly enjoyed the short piece, "Other Worlds" that closes this compilation.  As there are countless Sun Ra recordings, I was unfamiliar with this one.  It begins as one of his more delicate, centering at first around a meandering piano that scampers spiderlike across a desolate emptiness.  The band leaps in with a frantic, fear-stricken rhythm that seems to suggest being chased, and we are chased right to the end of the disk.

The sound quality is generally quite good, and it's easily possible to listen to this disk in its entirety without any serious urge to change the volume, which is a feat considering all of these recordings were  made using different microphones, and in different locations.  Like many old jazz recordings, it isn't the clearest or cleanest sound, as not every instrument was individually mic'd, but it has a very roomy live quality which works perfectly for the sounds of these instruments, pleasantly dulled by the space.

Conclusively, this is a highly successful compilation which manages to pack a lot of essential vintage avant jazz material in the span of one disk.  The diversity of approaches between the musicians make this a very listenable album, and perfect for beginnings to experimental jazz.  If you're already used to free jazz, you wouldn't need it presented in bite size chunks as such, but I would still recommend "Fire Music Vol. 1" if you are unfamiliar with these pieces.  It's powerful music, presented in a very intelligent ordering, and considering the fact that Coltrane, Coleman, Mingus and others are absent from this disk, the selection avoids being too obvious without sacrificing quality.  Great stuff for those capable of handling dissonance and free structure.

Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5

Josh Landry
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