Arista Novus (1979)
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
The last time I made a post on a free jazz album (“Blu Blu Blu” by the Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra), an angry commenter lambasted me for referring to the work of Abrams as “free,” because Abrams was actually a “wonderful composer.” The commenter was correct; Abrams was a wonderful composer. But that doesn’t stop him from being a “free jazz” artist too. “Air Lore” is another album that demonstrates just how based in structure free jazz can be.
Air was a band formed with the intention of there being an initial composition. Henry Threadgill, a Chicago saxophonist and member of Abrams’ Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, had been asked by Columbia University of Chicago to reinterpret the work of ragtime composer Scott Joplin. Threadgill teamed up with drummer Steve McCall and bassist Fred Hopkins, and as was to be expected from a trio of highly talented Chicago players, the results were far from a simple rag.
“Air Lore” is a compilation of “covers” of Joplin and fellow ragtime legend Jelly Roll Morton. Several of the tracks begin almost exactly as the original pieces would have (with minor instrumental differences; both Joplin and Morton were piano players. Air did not feature piano), with the artists breaking into free jazz several minutes into the song. And when the band does get into the improvisational extremes that freedom brings, it can still be hard to tell. Threadgill tears off on an alto-sax solo, and it seems to the untrained ear that the other band members fall into line with him. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear that McCall plays with a great deal more flourish than a drummer simply adding rhythm to a virtuoso’s showcase.
Both McCall and Hopkins get their own solo passages, with Hopkins’ being especially obvious because the other members stop playing altogether so that the bassist’s work doesn’t get lost. McCall's nearly-three minute solo introducing "Weeping Willow Rag" is head-whirling, and reminds me of something that Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison might try to do, granted he had more snare on his set.
Many new jazz listeners shake their heads the first time they hear free jazz music, but Air doesn’t sound nearly as mind boggling as “Blu Blu Blu” does. So is it really that free? Yes. It’s not as hard to follow the rhythms of Air, but realize that when they go on seven-minute improvisational tears during what were originally three-to-four-minute songs, they wing it. The solos aren’t based on the standard structure or riffs of the verses, as would be the case for bridges in genres such as bop or hard bop. Thanks to the skillful leadership of Threadgill, the trio always finds its way back to the original riff however to wrap the song up.
The only song that is in the same free jazz style as “Blu Blu Blu” is “Paille Street,” the only original on the album, written by Threadgill. But the fact that the group is starting with structured rag from Joplin and Morton doesn’t make the final product any less free. Allmusic reviewer Thom Jurek said in a positive way that “Air Lore” “didn’t update the old music” but I would argue the opposite. “Air Lore” took classic standards and submitted them to the new standard: freedom.
INTERESTING FACT: “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” is a track named for New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden. Bolden has originally written the song under the name “Funky Butt,” but Morton’s new title stuck. Funky Butt became the name of a prestigious jazz bar in New Orleans, but it was forced to close after Hurricane Katrina.
"Weeping Willow Rag" (This song is one where the band DOESN'T start off with the original riff, but they get there once McCall is done with his three-minute solo).