Music » Music Stories

Found Sound

The Unheard Music Series documents essential recordings of free improvisation, from the early '60s through the mid-'80s


You don't have to be a New York Times (Oct. 29) reader to know that these are interesting times for the fan of vintage outside jazz, or free improvisation, or creative improvised music, or insert term here. Suddenly, reissues abound. The Evidence label just unloaded four ancient to the future Sun Ra titles, including the crucial lost cog When Angels Speak of Love. Charley is promising a comprehensive re-release of the entire BYG/Actuel catalog, leading with four titles, among them the Art Ensemble of Chicago's inexplicably neglected A Jackson in Your House. And the Knitting Factory's Knit Classics imprint has assumed the burden of reissuing all five volumes of Wild Flowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions, as well as the entire output of Rashied Ali's Survival label.

No one's approaching this, though, with the ambition and resources of Atavistic Records. The ambition is considerable (see below), but the label's most valuable asset may be John Corbett. Follow out jazz at all, and you'll know the name. Author (Extended Play); recording artist (John Corbett and Heavy Friends, among whom are numbered Mats Gustafsson and Hamid Drake); presenter (Corbett and Ken Vandermark book the Wednesday-night series at Chicago's Empty Bottle, as well as the club's annual festival of improvised music); and now curator of Atavistic's Unheard Music Series, an archival label dedicated to replaying the historical record.

The series found its source in a peculiar event: Corbett's receipt of a Goethe Institute fellowship to conduct research in German radio archives. Corbett says he "proposed to do a multidisc set that would look into the history of free music in Germany as seen through the eyes of the national radio service. As I was researching that, going to various places, radio archives, the jazz archives, I began to realize that this could potentially be a much bigger thing than a single two- or three-CD set, that this had implications." Out of the vaults of German radio stations came the impetus for the creation of a label as an archival enterprise, given over to the discovery and preservation of (sub)cultural history, in keeping with the mission of the stations themselves: "There's a great network of radio stations there that have as part of their charter a responsibility to document minoritarian musics or cultural art forms," says Corbett. "We have nothing like that here and that was part of the idea to contrast how the lack of any system like that here has changed the way the history has been written. We don't have any kind of public archiving system that's got any responsibility for doing this because we live in a completely free market driven economy and so it's left to the wolves of commercial desire."

Corbett's curatorial intent is not only to rescue this material before it disappears forever but to spring it from the repository. "The idea of the Unheard Music Series is," he says, "of putting out a bunch of things that, really, people ought to have access to that have just been out of print, things that are now collector's items when there's no reason that there should be this kind of collectible attitude about them. Instead, they should be accessible because they're great music." That and more. The series' presentation is mounted with a collector's obsessive attention to detail. Reissues retain all original packaging and documentation, down to reproductions of the original LP labels; new issues arrive wrapped in period photos and celebrity liner notes.

The future of the Unheard Music Series lies in extension and reticulation. Says Corbett: "One of the things that I'm trying to do is to establish some sense of continuity between some of the releases and then also have these kind of single release things that have no implication of further material." And so, coming soon: the ROVA Saxophone Quartet's As Was; Norbert Möslang/Andy Guhl's pre-Voice Crack Knack On; Trinity, another rescued CJR label recording from Joe McPhee; and, my God, Luther Thomas' Funky Donkey Vol. 1 & 2, "amazingly raw out funk" from St. Louis' past with Lester and Joseph Bowie, J.D. Parran and Charles Bobo Shaw. Beyond that there are two remaining Joe McPhee CJR reisuues; Fred Anderson's "whole oeuvre," says Corbett, drawn from his own archive; a comprehensive Hal Russell subseries; more Brotzmann; some Schlippenbach; and the Swiss electro-acoustic improvised-music miniseries you've been saving for.

But that's yet to come. Here in the now, there's an itch to scratch with the current batch of seven (and some commentary from Corbett):

Han Bennink, Nerve Beats. Self-credited with "anything/everything," Bennink recorded this solo set in 1973 on holiday from trio life with Brotzmann and Fred Van Hove. Courtesy of Radio Bremen, Nerve Beats is 47-plus minutes of bang and clamor, with a new cover from Bennink himself. Corbett: "A single concert, straight through, nicely recorded and as completely over the top as it could be."

Leo Cuypers, Heavy Days Are Here Again. A 1981 reunion of sorts for Cuypers, Bennink and Willem Breuker, each of whom, according to Cuypers, "had some score to settle." Could be that that accounts for the violence done to his heads, which get treated like Toby Dammit's, though remaining very much attached. Great takes on some oddly shaped themes, and a pure hoot, among other things.

Nachtluft, Belle-View I-IV. Improvised percussive metallurgy and real-time tape ops from 1986. Introducing a new category of neglect: "It falls in the crack between the LP era and the CD era, so this is one of those classic examples of the forgotten LP that came out as an LP just as everybody was switching over to CDs." Comes complete with site diagram (not for home use).

Guillermo Gregorio, Otra Musica. A survey of Gregorio's work, ranging from homemade tapework from the early 1960s through his stint with Argentinian avant ensemble Movimiento Musica Mas to a series of duets and overdubbed solo pieces from 1964-65. The rest provides the historical interest, but it's Gregorio's reed playing that generates the unassailably free beauteousness of the package. Corbett: "This, for me, is the first UMS record that is the core of what I want us to be doing."

Tchicai-Schweizer Group, Willi the Pig. Irène Schweizer's own choice for reissue, true-cross-fragment-level availability has kept this out of hands since its (limited) release in 1975. Opening abruptly onto a single extended piece, Willi is motored by tension and irresolve. Corbett calls it "a wonderful, kind of idiosyncratic record for all involved," featuring seriously riled drumming from Makaya Ntshoko; John Tchicai's continual, intentional register slippage; and some four-handed piano work.

Sven-Ake Johansson, Schlingerland. A solo percussion set, says Corbett, "exploring the meaning of the trap kit." Remarkable for its dynamic range and flow achieved with purposefully limited means, Schlingerland's reissue is remastered by Johansson, with an additional track from the session, and with the LP cover restored to its hand-colored glory. Corbett: "It's a very, very strange record, which really is the way it ought to be, because he's a very peculiar guy."

Schlippenbach Quartet, Hunting the Snake. Prime documentation of that branch of Euro free improvisation that hews most closely to something you might or might not want to call jazz, this Radio Bremen session catches the Quartet (Alexander von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, Peter Kowald, Paul Lovens) on their way way out. "It's one of my favorites," says Corbett.

Anyone with ears and brain linked can be done a great service by the Unheard Music Series. And though no one is making a fortune releasing this stuff, there are other ways to get paid. "There's still music out there that I've never heard of that knocks me out, that surprises me and offers parts of the historical puzzle that nobody even knows are missing," says Corbett, "I'm doing this to surprise myself."

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