FREE JAZZ WITH A BLEEP: The Norwegian electronic-jazz label Rune Grammofone

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Arve Henriksen: Inside Tea-House
FREE JAZZ WITH A BLEEP: The Norwegian electronic-jazz label Rune Grammofone

Thelonious Monk said, "Jazz and freedom go hand in hand”. We can guess he meant freedom in a political sense, because jazz is about individual expression and in that regard was a vehicle for the aspirations of his people.

It's about freedom and post-Monk found its voice in free jazz.

Free jazz is much maligned, largely because it’s difficult to assimilate and it’s possible for charlatans to masquerade under its banner. As with any art, but especially the abstract arts, if you don’t like it the rejoinder from young artists -- condescending always -- is, “You don't understand it”.


It’s entirety possible to consider a work of art, and then reject it for many educated reasons. Rejection doesn't mean you didn’t "understand" it. But as cultural critic Robert Hughes noted, these days artists of all persuasions aspire to fame and if they haven't made it by 25 they consider themselves failures. Easier for them to try to marginalise your opinion than deal with the uncomfortable fact that what they do might be rubbish.

The seduction of fame is understandable, but as Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Bush the Elder once said, “I have never seen star treatment ennoble its object".

One thing free jazz musicians know is they will seldom be accorded star treatment. They are on the margins of a minority art and people -- educated or otherwise -- either don’t get it or reject it. A few do.

So why does anybody do it? Because “jazz and freedom go hand in hand”.

When free jazz appeared in the Sixties it had political momentum. It was the natural extension of the musically liberating bebop movement which preceded it and had as its touchstone Ornette Coleman’s seminal Free Jazz album of 1960, which pointedly came with a Jackson Pollock abstract on the cover .

Thereafter followed some exceptional musicians: the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Andrew Cyrille, John Spider Martin and many others.

By the mid Seventies however, free jazz had nowhere left to go because it was predicated on the idea that it was necessarily progressive.

But once you’ve abandoned predetermined melodies, chords and rhythms there’s only so much exploring you can do. It’s interesting the best practitioners of the Sixties and Seventies often reached back to the roots of jazz in New Orleans and the blues for references in a way that many younger players -- generations removed from those sources -- don't or cannot.

Free jazz isn’t dead but exists in a different form from the hammering percussion, squealing sax style that so many once adopted, was tediously imitated, and ultimately turned into a cliche or parody.

The ECM label, helmed by German producer Manfred Eicher, has long had a reputation for chilly, melodic and ethereal jazz -- but it was also the long-time home of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and various other free jazz musicians.

So in the early 2000s it was no surprise the album by saxophonist John Surman and percussionist Jack DeJohnette, Invisible Nature, was free improvisations recorded live in Finland and Berlin.

But this wasn’t squawk'n'squall stuff. Over the occasional bed of synths (by Surman) the saxophone probes while DeJohnette’s minimalist playing drops in odd punctuations. This was not predetermined, but here were two mature artists with deep melodic wells and ideas to draw on. And that made it very special indeed.

The tracks are lengthy -- the shortest six and a half minutes, the longest 16 -- because these are musical journeys, and Surman unashamedly makes brief melodic references to many points in jazz history. Yep, there’s some train wreck energy in places, but mostly this is considered, free jazz expressed with discretion and taste.

It was and is exceptional.

ECM around this time also picked up for distribution the excellent and beautifully packaged Norwegian label, Rune Grammofon, an electronica label which also has that similar sense of freedom.

Founder Rune Kristoffersen appears under the name Monolight and his Free Music album is a beautifully crafted gem.

There is a mild Brian Eno influence evident (the first track is Enoesquely entitled Stranded in Narrow Air) but his lightly pulsing electronics and synths have a quizzical, searching quality that is hugely attractive. It isn’t all bubble''n'bleep, more like discreet layers of sound where what's omitted speaks as loudly as what's included. And there’s some minimalist repetition like early Philip Glass. Very cool on headphones.

Trumpeter Arve Henriksen (who also plays harmonium, church organ and vocalises) gets a distinctive tone out of his instrument, much like a Japanese bamboo flute, an effect reinforced on his debut solo album for Rune, Sakuteiki by reference to Asian melodies.

His improvisations bring to mind Jon Hassell’s 1981 album, Dream Theory in Malaya, but with less attachment to continuous melody. Henriksen crafts sonic sweeps, some deliciously thin and fragile, and the whole thing is a gorgeous, subtly textured album which was recorded in various churches and a museum to give depth and resonance to the sound. It remains much recommended.alog

Alog is the nom de disque of Espen Sommer Eide (percussion, flute, trumpet, electronics) and Dag-Aure Haugan (keyboards, guitar tapes). Their two Rune Grammofon albums, Duck-Rabbit and Red Swing Shift, probably don’t fit under the label "jazz". They are improvised, but sometimes have references in country (most of Red Swing Shift could have snuggled onto Neil Halstead’s Sleeping On Roads as backing tracks), astral-flight art rock of the best kind, and landscapes of the mind. And Duck-Rabbit is slightly disconcerting too.

Whatever these are -- and they will mean many things to many people, much like free jazz – they are quietly terrific.

These are albums of apolitical, free, improvised music, but unlike much free jazz of the Sixties and Seventies, here the head rules the heart. The Surman/DeJohnette album should persuade most free jazz naysayers, and if improvised ambient electronica is to your taste then the Rune Grammofon label deserves serious attention.

You don’t even have to “understand” where any of this stuff is going, but it’s likely you'll enjoy the ride.

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