There is an admirable lack of ego in any artist who turns over half of his album to other musicians to do as they please. But there is also a disquieting degree of pretension in any album as preoccupied with its own “process” as Free Jazz Bitmaps Vol. 1.
It all boils down to segregated sides. Sound artist Nick Butcher took unrecognizable snippets from Chicago house and jazz records and turned them into hazy, sample-based ambience, mostly supported by gentle beats. These were then handed over to free jazz improvisers, also Chicago-based, to serve as points of departure for their own solo explorations. Thus Butcher’s work makes up the first half, and the same six titles are repeated when the soloists take over the back half.
Of course, emissaries of the jazz and electronic worlds have been collaborating for years (especially the last decade) on numerous labels and to varying degrees of success. Better examples would include not only Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid, but also albums like the vastly underrated Fuga by Ricci Rucker—(whatever happened to him?)—which, in 2005, charted a course very similar to the one Butcher plots here.
Keeping all of this in mind, the Side A/Side B split feels like nothing so much as an artificial OCD barrier. Why keep the live musicians away from the beats when the prospect of soloing over them and alongside them might yield fresher results? Certainly the Hebden/Reid albums would have been much less interesting had the two men kept themselves to different sides of an imaginary digital divide.
But there is pleasant, meditative music to be had on Free Jazz Bitmaps Vol. 1—12 tracks’ worth—with a mood well suited to a night of solitude. In particular, Jason Adasiewicz on vibes and Tim Daisy on marimba (playing on “Great Lake” and “Cozy Kitchen”, respectively) take their mallet instruments to some interesting and unexpected places. For serious fans of improvisation, it is well worth a listen.