Return of the Jazz Radicals

Issue section: 
(301)

Peter Segal welcomes new releases from old masters.

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins released a series of outstanding LPs in the 1950s and 1960s that established him as one of the outstanding jazz musicians of the period. Born in Harlem in 1930, Rollins overcame drug problems and Imprisonment to develop one of the most distinctive saxophone sounds in jazz. While not generally perceived as radical (he rarely gets mentioned in the same bracket as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Miles Davis, etc), he released The Freedom Suite in the 1950s, which was a landmark political statement by a jazz artist demanding black emancipation. In 1998 he released Global Warming, highlighting his environmental concerns: 'Jazz has always had a social message to it, and this is a vital part of the music. My view of what has made it relevant beside the beauty of the thing itself is that it has prospered because it had to fight for survival.'

His latest CD, Without A Song, is a recording of a live performance given a few days after 9/11. Rollins's apartment overlooked the Twin Towers, and he had to be evacuated shortly after witnessing their collapse.

The emotional impact on Rollins is apparent from the outset. His playing is more contemplative and has a greater emotional intensity than probably at any time since the 1970s. He refers to the healing powers of art, but one can sense his bewilderment as he tries to come to terms with the awful events that had taken place a few days earlier.

While Rollins is on top form, a minor criticism is that his longstanding group members play beautifully, but without his emotional intensity and without ever moving into top gear. If you want to explore the work of this creative and formidable improviser, I would recommend Live at the Village Vanguard (volumes 1 and 2) and Tenor Madness/Saxophone Colossus, both of which are available as cut-price back to back CDs.

To celebrate his 75th birthday, Rollins is playing at the Barbican in London in May. If you have never seen him live, this is an opportunity to see a master of his instrument but also a great showman, exemplified by his calypsos such as 'Don't Stop the Carnival'.

Most reissues are a desperate attempt by labels facing falling revenues to squeeze every last drop from their back catalogues. Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman's Song X is an exception. Originally released 20 years ago, it was recorded and edited within days and, due to this time pressure, was released without removing some of the imperfections. This re-release includes six new tracks which were not originally included due to the limitations of the LP format, and Metheny has re-edited the original tracks. From the outset this was not an obvious collaboration. Coleman has always been at the forefront of expanding musical boundaries, while Metheny was an artist enjoying considerable success as a mainstream jazz-rock fusion guitarist. What is fascinating about this record is how comfortably someone as melodic as Metheny fits with Coleman's uncompromising playing and composing.

Twenty years on this still sounds as fresh and exhilarating as when it was first released. As someone who has admired Metheny's virtuosity but found much of his music somewhat bland, this CD demonstrates he can improvise with the best. While on the original release Coleman's excellent playing was the dominant force, Metheny comes into his own with the new tracks.

The Liberation Music Orchestra was founded in 1969 by ex Ornette Coleman bassist Charlie Haden and pianist and arranger Carla Bley as a vehicle to demonstrate their opposition to US policy in Vietnam. Their debut release was a heartfelt statement about freedom and oppression which drew heavily on folk themes from the Spanish Civil War era.

Thirty five years later they have released their fourth album, Not in our Name, their statement of opposition to the war in Iraq and the Bush administration. Haden took the title from the anti Iraq war posters he had seen displayed on apartments while on tour in Spain and Italy.

As a musical statement, this is a profoundly moving and beautiful collection. It is a combination of sensitive ensemble work and outstandingly emotive solo playing. On this occasion Haden has chosen music by American composers: 'Although we lost the election, we have not lost the commitment to reclaim our country in the name of humanity and decency.'

The 17-minute medley 'America the Beautiful' includes the African-American anthem 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' and Ornette Coleman's 'Skies of America', while Pat Metheny's 'This is Not America' quotes 'Dixie', 'The Star Spangled Banner' and 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'. The inclusion of such iconic patriotic anthems in this subversive context is given even greater poignancy by Carla Bley's arrangements. A personal favourite is Antonin Dvorák's 'Going Home' from the New World Symphony.

Like all great political art, this works on multiple levels: 'A musical manifesto for the disaffection many people in America and all over the world feel about the manner in which the present administration is conducting its affairs both at home and in the global arena.' Haden has created much political music during his career, and this ranks among his very best. In the liner notes he exhorts us, 'Don't give up-the struggle continues!' It is a rallying call for us all. If there were ever a soundtrack for the anti-war movement, this is it.