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Wildflowers : The New York Loft Jazz Sessions

When originally issued by Douglas, the 5-LP Wildflowers: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions stepped into a virtual void of free jazz. Impulse, the lasting champion of labels willing to risk their budgets on free jazz artists, had already given up on what was a steadily dwindling release program by 1975. Besides the then-fledgling Black Saint label, Arista's cautious dabbling (with its Novus series and Anthony Braxton's contract) and the handful of artist-run labels still in the game, free jazz had become an even scarcer commodity in the United States' post-Vietnam depression.

But the Wildflowers LPs weren't only a bucket of cold water to the free jazz economy—they also just happened to document nearly all of the important US-based players of the era. Between those still surviving in New York from the 60s (Sunny Murray, Marion Brown, Dave Burrell, Andrew Cyrille, Jimmy Lyons), recent transplants from Chicago's AACM (Braxton, Air) and St. Louis' BAG (Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill) collectives and a handful of young up-and-comers (David Murray, Ahmed Abdullah, David S. Ware), the set provided a comprehensive overview of what was currently happening in the music.

Recorded as snapshots of a festival hosted at Sam Rivers' loft Studio Rivbea in May of 1976, the LPs captured a sort of grassroots energy that, considered today, can be seen as the early roots of an artist-centered aesthetic in New York that has evolved into more frequent engagements like the Vision Festival. Yet all politics and lineage-tracing aside, the reissue of the Wildflowers set—jammed onto three very full CDs by the Knitting Factory's Knit Classics subsidiary—returns some particularly valuable music to the non-collector marketplace.

From the first disc's opening track "Jays", the notable changes that were beginning to take place in the music are apparent as Kalaparusha (Maurice McIntyre) gets his tenor mojo working over a super-funky electric bass-driven groove. As has been discussed in other assessments of this collection, "free jazz" was beginning to incorporate the more palatable elements of its otherwise sworn enemy "jazz fusion" with distinctive results—Kalaparusha's track being a prime illustration of that hybridity. However, the rest of the disc features more classic expressions of the art form with varying degrees of structure: for example, Ken McIntyre's wily alto negotiates the angles of his "New Times" with edgy purpose, while Sunny Murray's killer Untouchable Factor group (w/Byard Lancaster and David Murray on reeds, Khan Jamal on vibes and Fred Hopkins on bass) explores "Over the Rainbow" on the strength of Lancaster's gorgeously emotive vibrato. Continuing the theme, Sam Rivers' "Rainbows" is one of his finest recordings—capturing the saxophonist blowing his trademark soprano streams over a highly sympathetic rhythm section. The rest of the disc's highlights can be found in tracks by Air ("USO Dance", which exemplifies the combination of sensitivity and fire that made them one of the finest jazz trios of the decade), Flight to Sanity ("The Need to Smile", a stunningly organic Afro-modal affair in which Sonelius Smith's piano joins with the dynamic percussion of Harold Smith and Don Moye in bluesy communion) and Marion Brown (a solo alto performance of "And Then They Danced", where his combination of lyricality and rough edges enhance the ballad's inherent sweetness).

The second disc extends the polemic between structure-oriented, fusion-tinged and free blowing pieces, with the structuralists claiming a significant majority of the space. The chamber-like obtusity of Leo Smith and New Delta Ahkri's "Locomotif No. 6", the stiff flamenco-folk convolution of Michael Jackson's "Clarity 2", the hard Chicago blues of Hamiet Bluiett's "Tranquil Beauty" and the pretty layers and sugary resolution of Julius Hemphill's "Pensive" all suffer from a tight compositional stricture that even dwarfs the moments of brilliant playing (like Bluiett's bluesy baritone abyss on "Beauty" and guitarist Bern Nix's gelling harmolodic runs on the Hemphill piece). Ahmed Abdullah's "Blue Phase" is this disc's fusion experiment—very successfully combining electric and acoustic basses in a murky bottom end, but unfortunately losing out in the mix to Mashujaa's heavily effected, watery guitar (though, interestingly enough, his tone here is actually reminiscent of the phase-shifted sound prevalent among reggae guitarists of the day). The disc's lone representative of freer boundaries, Andrew Cyrille and Maono's rather directionless "Short Short," is also a disappointment—though that may have more to do with the excerpter's scalpel than the musicians themselves.

The third disc also contains its share of what seems like research gone awry—like Oliver Lake's "Zaki" (which is inhibited by the relentless hovering of Michael Jackson's strangely synthesized guitar) and Roscoe Mitchell's "Chant" (an exercise in marathon circular breathing that walks the line between exhilarating and annoying)—but at the same time houses a couple of the collection's most outstanding selections. One of these, Jimmy Lyons' "Push Pull", builds a blocky yet intuitive marvel out of angular alto strokes, minimal percussion and Karen Borca's rich, woodsy bassoon. The other highlight of the third disc, and perhaps the entire set, is the return of Sunny Murray and the Untouchable Factor for the 17-minute "Something's Cookin'". Beginning as a fragile web supported by Murray's cymbal whispers, the mood expands through the otherworldly plateaus spun by Jamal's vibes and a kinetic tenor/alto dialogue between Murray and Lancaster—only to finish on the spiritual edge where Hopkins' bowed levitations meet Lancaster's primordial flute.

Beyond all of this music—which, even with the few unsuccessful pieces adds up to nothing less than essential—adding to the collection's value is the set's booklet with archival photographs, poster reproductions and critic Howard Mandel's historical/contextual essay on the loft scene and its greater significance. No self-respecting listener of free jazz should go without hearing these sessions, as they document a period in the music's history that, until now, has been severely neglected.