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hartmut geerken | john tchicai | famoudou don moye | cassava balls

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Geerken / Tchicai / Moye

Cassava Balls
Golden Years of New Jazz / GY4

Hartmut Geerken / piano, percussion, little instruments etc., John Tchicai / reeds, percussion, Famoudou Don Moye / percussion

This is one of the four debut releases of Leo’s new offshoot, “Golden Years of New Jazz”, a somewhat ironically-titled label whose intention is to remind us that free jazz has been around for a rather long time, that it’s a well-established genre with famous figures, classic recordings and, yes, “golden years”.

John Tchicai certainly is one of free music’s heroes, even if history seems destined to consign him to the B-list. He doesn’t deserve it; as adherents will already know, his sour, iron tenor sound with its deceptively simple melodic shapes is one of free music’s enduring pleasures. Here, there’s no question that he’s on top form, but what this group play is quite unlike much of what he was doing in the 1980s.

This is a live document of an Athens appearence by this trio shortly after they had toured Africa, on 5 May 1985. Superficially, they do energy music; screaming, pedal-to-metal stuff which sounds extraordinarily loud at any volume. The opening track, “Patriotic Poem Number One Forty Years After”, is a “composition” by Geerken whose score is roughly as follows: “Everybody dashes to his instrument on stage as fast as he possibly can and starts to play as loud and fast as possible, as much as possible and as quickly as possible without a second’s delay” (his words, not mine).

The outcome is an ugly mess, marred especially by Geerken’s can’t-play-will-play approach to the poor piano, which he seems to be simply flailing at with all of his limbs at once. Don’t let it put you off, though, because what happens after they turn the heat down is surprisingly good.

The straight free jazz pieces — including Parker’s “Mohawk” and Ayler’s “Mothers — account for the majority of this disc, and Tchicai handles them masterfully, with that quick-fire capacity to surprise which he usually deploys in more reserved settings. His tone is almost rubbery, so far from Lester Young they could be playing different instruments, but there’s a singing quality to much of the playing here which distances Tchicai from the screamers whom he has so victoriously outlived.

Geerken is a wild card. He’s a noise-maker of the sort one sees a lot these days, but didn’t see that much of fifteen years ago; a guy with a table full of odds and sods who “plays” by making weird noises at appropriate (or inappropriate) moments. Those expecting a traditional free jazz session will be irritated by his ridiculous piano playing, or the charity-shop electronic sounds and farting noises which rudely punctuate some furious playing by Tchicai and Moye.

Yes, it takes a while to get used to Geerken, but if you open up your ears he can be enlightening, very musical and very funny, sometimes all at the same time. He certainly makes this an eccentric and very peculiar record, and his solo spot, making heavy use of short wave radios, is hardly what you expect from an energy music trio with Tchicai and Moye. But it does work, strangely enough. “Cassava Snake One Pot” is really quite funny, especially heard in conjunction with the anecdote (I won’t spoil it for you), but it’s not all jokes with Geerken. His use of rattles and shakers recalls the work of Pharaoh Sanders at the same time as his more avant garde techniques look forward to musicians like Adam Bohman, who make sounds with objects and dare to call it music.

This isn’t for everyone, and some Tchicai/Moye fans are going to get a shock, but that’s no bad thing. As the title of the label points out, this stuff has been around a long time, and there are mouldy figges in free jazz just as there are in bebop or swing. If this rattles a few cages, it’s probably because it refers at the same time to the New Thing and what were, in 1985 at least, some new things. Other points of interest include covers of Parker’s “Mohawk” and Ayler’s “Mothers” (previously unissued, and interesting if not essential) and, allegedly, “the longest solo by Famoudou on record”, a wild free exploration. Initially off-putting, this disk is nevertheless recommended to those willing to give it a chance, who will find a great deal to enjoy in this rather unique session. Richard Cochrane