It is nearly impossible to avoid the seminal place of France within the history of free jazz. While this music began as a distinctly African American idiom – a high musical form capable of rivaling any Western tradition, it found very little support at home – a rejection which, ironically, is at the root of its sustained vibrancy and relevance – prompting its migration abroad, and the crossing of racial and cultural boundaries, which came to motivate countless evolutions and new lives. The history of free jazz is sprawling. It has taken root in countless countries across the globe, but among all of its developmental contexts, France is arguably the most noted – playing host to many of the most remarkable American voices during the 1960’s and 70’s, and offering greatly needed audience and work. Somewhat unfairly, despite all that it given, the historical attention has largely focused on artists from the United States who lived and worked there, over those who belong to the country’s indigenous tradition. While a second generation, departing from the innovations made by their American cousins, they are stunning and singular in their own right. Making great strides to rectify this neglect, is the Paris based imprint Souffle Continu, who, since launching back in 2014, has assembled one of the most astonishing catalogs of historic French avant-garde releases – a gesture infinitely furthered by their most recent six LPs, focused on the country’s output of avant-garde jazz.
While the present encounters free jazz as an international art form, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this not how it began. The development was the result of a very specific set of circumstances. Free jazz is among the greatest of indigenous art forms of the United States. The legacy of its neglect at home is extremely complex. It is the child of a country defined by the culture of racism, and a drive for freedom from that evil’s grip. Being a challenging and demanding music, growing from a marginalized cross-section of society, it’s not surprising that it struggled to take root in poisoned soil, or receive attention from broad audiences. It is the idiom’s rejection by its rightful public – those historically drawn to jazz and avant-garde musics, from which the greatest insights are drawn.
The American neglect of free-jazz is multi-pronged. During its early days, it was regularly viewed as a threat to the iron grip of other avant-garde forms, with figures like John Cage positioning themselves as staunch and vocal detractors – unwilling to have their place usurped by a people (and their art-form) which they did feel worthy – a symptom of thinly veiled racism. Less malicious, was the simple fact that is was a victim of bad timing. At roughly the same point it began to gather steam and become a creative force, white counter-cultural youth, who had historically represented a substantial proportion of the American audience for jazz and other avant-garde musics, began to shift their attention toward Rock and Roll. Faced with poverty and a silencing lack of interest, many of the inventors and innovators of this new liberated form began to depart their shores, establishing new homes and networks in Europe, a great many in France.
While central to the narratives of free jazz, France has always had in important place in the history or jazz. It is a country which, though not entirely free from the grip of racism, is not one completely defined by it in the way that the United States is. It tends to observe culture before color. Even in the music’s earliest days, jazz players found supportive and excitable audiences in the country. With it came greater opportunities for work – gigs, commercial releases, and film soundtracks. This was equally the case for those practitioners who showed up toward the end of the 1960’s, who were embraced with open arms.
Because of the enduring legacy of BYG’s Actuel series, or the catalogs of imprints like America, Center Of The World, Sun, and to a lesser extent Palm (which offered equal support to French and American outfits) the external vision of French free jazz is often sculpted by Americans who lived there during the 60’s and 70’s, or those French players who collaborated with them – François Tusques, Barney Wilen, Barre Phillips, Henri Texier, Bernard Vitet, Jacques Coursil, etc. Within the international context, very little attention has been offered to the autonomous French scene. Superficially, this might appear to be consequence of a group of individuals’ fame and renown overshadowing another, but there’s more to it. During the era that free jazz blossomed in France, there was another, seemingly unrelated growth – a new breed of politicized philosophy and cultural critique, deconstructing the post-colonial legacies of the West. A number of these voices came out strongly against indigenous forms of French free jazz, calling foul and indicating cultural appropriation, thus forcing audiences to question the legitimacy of what they heard. In many ways, the neglect of indigenous realizations of French free jazz, began at home.
While the questions surrounding cultural appropriation are very important to apply to the history of jazz, and instances of such occurrences should be challenged and called out, it is also an incredibly complex practice. It’s often not as simple as one culture taking up an other’s art form. While free jazz, not unlike the larger body of jazz itself, is a distinctly African American cultural force – meaning that its primary innovators and cultural framework having almost always been black, it is also musical hybrid. It drew on diverse traditions from across the globe, and, even in its earliest days, represented a number of innovators from beyond the borders of African American culture. The seminal quartet which recorded Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come – generally regarded as the first recorded work of free jazz, features a white player – Charlie Haden. The New York Art Quartet included John Tchica, who was Danish, and Roswell Rudd, who is white. Cecil Taylor’s first record features Buell Neidlinger and Steve Lacy, both of whom are white. Albert Ayler’s first recordings are entirely backed by a Swedish ensemble, while Eric Dolphy’s final gestures (recorded in 1964) are backed by different groupings of European players. This indicates that, while still an African American idiom, free jazz has always been a means through which people from diverse backgrounds can find a means through which to speak – something its long history continues to benefit from today.
While the French free jazz underground did not always operate in direct connection with players from other parts of the globe, it should approach for its distinct value, and as a contributor to an important revolutionary conversation which was spreading across the globe, something which the latest entries in Souffle Continu’s catalog Jean-François Pauvros & Gaby Bizien’s No Man’s Land from 1976 and Pays Noir, featuring recordings by the same ensembe made during the same period but never before released, Jac Berrocal’ s La Nuit Est Au Courant from 1991, Workshop De Lyon’s La Chasse De Shirah Sharibad from 1975 and Tiens ! Les Bourgeons Éclatent… from 1978, and Free Jazz Workshop’s Inter Fréquences from 1973, take great lengths to unveil.
Jean-François Pauvros & Gaby Bizien – No Man’s Land (1976 / 2017)
Originally issued as the eight entry on Un-Deux-Trois – an adventurous sub-imprint of Jef Gilson’s Palm label, No Man’s Land is a crucial document in the canon of French free impoverished music. The LP’s seven works are the product of the duo Jean-François Pauvros (guitar, etc) and Gaby Bizien (drums, percussion, aquatic trombone, marimba, bird calls), who claim to have executed it in complete isolation, unaware of the existence of free jazz or larger movements within improvised music. Given its organic location – falling close to the realm of brittle clarity mapped by British players like Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, this is almost impossible to accept. If it’s true, not only is No Man’s Land the product of creative genius, but it is a testament to universality within the languages of improvisation.
I’m not bothered by who did what first. Historically, in most cases, I’ve been to young to witness paradigm shattering innovation unfold. That said, distance comes with sharp hindsight. As Anthony Braxton once indicated, great art is often the result of a second pass, rather than who got there first. It’s important to look past the seduction of radicalism, and listen to what occurs. This is were Pauvros, Bizien and No Man’s Land truly shines – in the ear and the mind. When faced with the sounds, it doesn’t matter if this record was made in a vacuum or as a response, it’s a brilliant construction of responsive resonance, rhythm, texture, and tone, which stands on its own, before shifting outward into conversation with the global whole. Thrilling, vibrant, and timeless, No Man’s Land is one of the great lost gems of indigenous European free improvisation, and a marker for which makes the movement great. Check out a sample below, and pick it up from Souffle Continu or a record store near you.
Jean-François Pauvros & Gaby Bizien – Pays Noir (2017)
Pays Noir, like the above, is a product of the wild minds of Jean-François Pauvros and Gaby Bizien. Its recordings have been drawn from the same session that produced No Man’s Land, remaining unreleased until now. Featuring roughly the same instrumentation as its brother, and thus the same palette of writhing, responsive resonance, rhythm, texture, and tone, when faced with this single side of compositions, it’s shocking that they’ve been allowed to hide in the shadows for so long. Steeped in power, its three works are brittle and incredible transparent in structure and intent, making Pays Noir a lost holy grail of French free-improvisation – standing tall among the best artifacts of its era, and once again describing what the idiom is all about. We have a great deal to thank the label for. Check out a sample below, and pick it up from Souffle Continu or a record store near you.
Jac Berrocal – La Nuit Est Au Courant (1991 / 2017)
Jac Berrocal a fascinating figure within French underground music – a singer, composer, and trumpet player who became active during the early 1970’s, and continues today (he released as 7″ with David Fenech and Vincent Epplay on Blackest Ever Black earlier this year). In addition to his own sprawling body of work, he is a founding member of seminal outfit Catalogue, and has collaborated extensively with Pascal Comelade and Nurse With Wound, embarking on further forays with Lol Coxhill, Chris Cutler, and countless others.
Typically, when faced with the canon of avant-garde jazz, the period between 1985 and 1995 is not regarded as a high water mark. Countless artists, faced with financial peril, fled the underground for the tepid (but success laden) waters being charted by abysmal figures like Wynton Marsalis, or for more popular forms of music like funk, fusion, and soul. Even those who remained, often smoothed off their edges, producing a more approachable form. There are exceptions, most of which occurred in Europe where there was more support for innovation in the arts. Jac Berrocal is one such case.
La Nuit Est Au Courant, originally issued in 1991 by the In Situ imprint, stands completely outside of time. Recorded over 1989 and 90 with a fascinating ensemble – Berrocal backed by two bass player – Francis Marmande and Hubertus Biermann, and Jacques Thollot on drums, it’s incredibly singular and stunningly beautiful. What makes the album special is its defiance of genre. While explicitly avant-garde, it doesn’t pander to aesthetic – something which the history of free-improvised music is riddled with. Berrocal, by avoiding the easy set of signifiers, reminds us that a sound (aesthetic) and truth are very different things – just because it appears to free jazz doesn’t mean it is, thus other things may very well be.
The album is an incredible tapestry of texture and tone – a realm of possibility that few have followed. Almost nothing sounds anything like it – constructed from reverb drenched ambience, challenging dissonance, and intoxicating rhythm. It’s absolutely engrossing on every count. In part becasue of the all surprise it holds, this might be my favorite of the bunch. Unquestionably essential, and a total revelation. Check out two samples below, and pick it up from Souffle Continu or a record store near you.
Free Jazz Workshop – Inter Fréquences (1973 / 2017)
Founded in 1967 by Jean Bolcato, Jean Mereu, Louis Sclavis, Maurice Merle, Patrick Vollat and Pierre Guyon – who was replaced by Christian Rollet three years before this album appeared, the Free Jazz Workshop occupies a seminal place in the history of French improvised music. A true product of its era, the project harnessed the energy and political anger which produced the events of May 1968, and stands as an indication of the true meaning and potential of free jazz at large, occupying a place in the cultural landscape which foreshadowed the advent of Punk.
The Free Jazz Workshop produced two LPs during the first half of the 1970’s – Inter Fréquences being the first, before morphing into the Workshop De Lyon, which is still functioning today. The group sprung into the world as a leaderless collective – an attempt at liberation through sonic democracy, something which shines from the first notes of their debut LP. Inter Fréquences is radical, while sitting squarely within the more established realms of freely improvised jazz. Unlike their American cousins, who progressively became more aggressive or spiritual during this era, or other European efforts which pushed toward entirely new territories of sound, the The Free Jazz Workshop feels like a road less traveled – a third progression in the equation, what might have happened if progress was viewed on different terms.
A beautiful debut by a group which has lasted the ages – soulful, intricate, and filled with emotion and political optimism. One of the lesser heard wonders of French Jazz reissued on vinyl for the first time. Check out a sample below, and pick it up from Souffle Continu or a record store near you.
Workshop De Lyon – La Chasse De Shirah Sharibad (1975 / 2017)
Like Jean-François Pauvros and Gaby Bizien’s No Man’s Land, the Workshop De Lyon’s debut LP – La Chasse De Shirah Sharibad Un-Deux-Trois, was issued by Jef Gilson’s ambitions sub-imprint of Palm label, Un-Deux-Trois. The third outing of the ensemble which began as the Free Jazz Workshop, the album, with the arrival of clarinetist-saxophonist Louis Sclavis, is the dawning of a new era which endures today.
La Chasse De Shirah Sharibad encounters the collective considerably evolved. While retaining the soulfulness of heard throughout Inter Fréquences, there is the unmistakable presence of new depth and an expanded pallet of sound. The hard work was clearly paying off. Like the ensemble’s debut, the album is an image of a road less traveled, but, by the middle of the decade, it is clear that an interesting fold had begun to occur – the tangent was rejoining the stream, bringing with it what it acquired along the way. La Chasse De Shirah Sharibad falls within the proximity of some of the more spiritually tinged efforts of the error, while remaining distinct. There are moments which flirt with the consuming Minimalist piano tapestries of Charlemagne Palestine, threaded by brittle and restrained improvised resonance, and references to the textures and tonalities of diverse traditions from across the globe. Ranging from a giant sound to the miniature, the album is as much jazz, as an imagining of a hypothetical folk music, bound to revolutionary collectivism. Thrilling and a joy to listen to, La Chasse De Shirah Sharibad offers is a window into the wonderful world of French free jazz at the middle of the 1970’s – a reality, just as engrossing as the day it was made, which far too few have encountered and known. Check out a sample below, and pick it up from Souffle Continu or a record store near you.
Workshop De Lyon – Tiens ! Les Bourgeons Éclatent… (1978 / 2017)
As a historical artifact and encounter, the Workshop De Lyon’s second LP, Tiens ! Les Bourgeons Éclatent…, is as seminal as they come. It also is an important indication of the true intentions of its artists, and a rebuttal to much of the critique of cultural appropriation which has plagued the scene’s legacy. The album is the first to follow their establishing of the ARFI (Association Searching for an Imaginary Folklore) in 1977. Inspired by the social and political potential activated by the A.A.C.M. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the collective set out to encourage improvisation, spread diverse musical styles and provide means of expression to others with similar ideas / establish a folklore… while offering assistance to, and defense of, creative musicians. The album is a document of the distinct characters of the French scene, and a depiction of its hopes for an open, cross-cultural discourse in sound.
Encountering the collective as a quartet, following the departure of Pianist Patrick Vollat, Tiens ! Les Bourgeons Éclatent…, has a slightly different sound than its predecessor – shifting the thick backdrop provided by the piano, over to the drums. While just a soulful and deep, it’s hard to ignore the presence of humor, lightness, and the pure joy that the group takes from playing together. As political and serious as their efforts were, they also seem to have a hell of a lot of fun. A beautiful and challenging effort in sonic democracy, and an unwillingness to let the optimistic dreams of the left die, comes yet another incredible document of this seminal ensemble. A reminder of everything that is great about music. Sadly I don’t have a sample of this one. Pick it up from Souffle Continu or a record store near you.