There’s a lot to be said for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s 30-year legacy, but there’s also something that, year after year, always seems to be missing — headlining legends who represent one particular, valid, potent, crucial element of jazz music: Whether you call it avant-garde, free jazz or experimental, you won’t find it here Memorial Day weekend.
Folio Weekly’s “Deep Underground” throwdown is designed as a corrective to this omission. On May 21, Fractal, Audio Awakening and Jamison Williams perform at 1904 Music Hall to celebrate this parallel lineage of jazz.
Before we talk about that, though, a brief history lesson: In 1961, multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman released Free Jazz, a recording that featured an octet playing the first-ever album-length group improvisation. Over the course of 35-plus minutes, the group plays around motivic ideas that are in turns contemplative and cacophonous, at times in the same measure. Baleful, joyous and furious, the music runs the gamut from a Pentecostal revival to an interplanetary implosion. During the ensuing decade, musicians — fellow sax players John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, pianists Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, trumpeters Bill Dixon and Don Cherry, bassist Alan Silva and drummer Milford Graves — blasted jazz into a roiling wave centered on spontaneous composition and inventive tonalities delivered through innovative techniques on their instruments.
In the subsequent decades, “free jazz” has become an antiquated (yet still appropriate) term for artists like John Zorn, William Parker, Susie Ibarra, and NYC’s ever-expansive scene, Chicago’s AACM collective, and European artists including FMP label’s collective of players like Peter Brötzmann. Yet such a list is limiting; the players set precedents for a now-global, all-inclusive network comprising all genders, ethnicities and nationalities inspired by Coleman’s very same unity, which was mapped out decades earlier.
A few weeks ago, this magazine’s editors emailed me with an offer to write about this year’s Jazz Fest headliners. After reading the schedule, I declined with a surely unwanted observation: “Repeat offenders playing it safe.” I offered to write a rant instead.
They countered with a proposal that instead of bitching about what wasn’t there, we do something constructive. They asked me to cobble together an event the magazine would sponsor. Within a week, we’d secured a venue, and every musician I asked to play there agreed.
The acts playing this free show have individually and collectively helped sustain the experimental music scene in Northeast Florida. The lineup includes Fractal, featuring Buck Colson on Warr guitar (a 15-string guitar-bass hybrid) and writer John E. Citrone on drums; Audio Awakening, with Joe Yorio on alto flute and electronics/loops, Chris Jackson on guitar, vibraphone, percussion and loops, Evan Peterson on percussion, vibraphone and loops, and Colson and Citrone as the rhythm section; and soprano saxophonist Jamison Williams, joined by Dan Kozak on reeds, trombonist A.J. Herring, double bassist Michael Lanier and drummer Bill Henderson.
A crucial part of the local scene, Williams is an example of the level of musicianship and sense of camaraderie among improv players. He’s brought more than a dozen internationally acclaimed musicians to town, like Brötzmann and Joe McPhee, Eugene Chadbourne, Bonnie Jones and Chris Corsano. Williams also founded the artists’ space SoLo+ on Bay Street, a short-lived venue featuring all-improv concerts.
“From my perspective,” Williams says, “it looks as though the city is desperately trying to maintain a neutral musical and cultural position in this festival, one that’s supported with huge budgetary potential and an optimal location” — in other words, creating a “smooth jazz utopia” Downtown at the expense of more challenging forms of the genre.
For at least one night, at Deep Underground,
you’ll find a whole different kind of jazz utopia Downtown — one heavy on improvisation and lubricated with free beer (until the Bold City keg kicks). And if it goes according to plan, maybe next year the Jazz Fest’s planners will take notice.