Free Fall is unquestionably a lost classic of jazz, one that you would have thought a major label or maybe one of Joel Dorn’s reissue projects would have snapped up without a second thought. But the album, originally released on the now-defunct Inner City label in 1978, was not reissued until 2001 when Jamey Aebersold’s Double-Time Records picked it up. Let’s just say that if you are looking for a fresh sounding post bop group that demonstrated the kind of musical vision that Miles Davis’ second great quintet (featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock) tossed off without a second thought, you are going to have to add this CD to your collection immediately.
Richard Sussman is unquestionably one of jazz music’s top composers, his pieces here all displaying a fierce individuality and rare beauty. That something like “Lady of the Lake” or the title track was being recorded in 1978, when most jazz releases featured electric instruments and disco was still high on the pop charts, is difficult to believe. Certainly this album had a profound impact on the generation of musicians who would try to bring jazz back to where it was before Miles Davis recorded In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew at the close of the ‘60s. Wynton and Bradford Marsalis probably listened to this album, and it certainly presaged the recordings made by the Marsalis brothers, Scott Hamilton, and other “young lions” of the ‘80s. Sussman is also an accomplished pianist, sometimes playing in an impressionistic Keith Jarrett style, at other times reminding one of Herbie Hancock’s work both with Miles and with his own Blue Note groups. One of the reasons Sussman is not generally remembered or honored for his work is that he performed in a variety of settings, many of which were not jazz-oriented. He played or arranged not only for Lionel Hampton, Lee Konitz, and Buddy Rich, but also Blood Sweat & Tears, Carly Simon, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. He composed music for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack and worked in many Broadway pit orchestras.
The late ‘70s were supposed to have been a period of little real development in jazz music, but Free Fall demonstrates that there was a lot going on in at least some quarters. Part of the problem probably lies with the recording industry. If Free Fall took over twenty years to be reissued, how many other lost classics might be out there? Certainly today’s top names in jazz didn’t come from nowhere. Trumpeter Tom Harrell, dubbed “the thinking man’s Freddie Hubbard” by Neal Tesser, had recently moved to New York to play with Horace Silver when Sussman tapped him for the album. His solo work on the title track shows he was destined to become one of the leading trumpet solo voices of the time, a destiny that has been realized in recent years. On “The River” (a trio piece) bassist Mike Richmond, who has since worked with Stan Getz and Ravi Shankar, puts in an incredible solo, and the entire affair, bookended by Sussman’s free time piano flourishes, is impossible to ignore.
“Street Fair” is a gorgeous melody that could have been penned by Wayne Shorter or Chick Corea. Most of Sussman’s compositions have darker overtones, but “Street Fair” is a pretty straightforward, upbeat composition. The overall mood of Free Fall is lyrical, dark, intense, and imaginative, even though the moods between and within pieces can vary quite a bit. “Dance of the Spheroids”, for example, ranges from a Hancock-inspired modal exploration to a swinging finger-snapper all in the space of a few bars.
The entire group on Free Fall—Sussman, Harrell, Richmond, drummer Jeff Williams, and sax players Larry Schneider and Jerry Bergonzi—are what one might refer to as a lost generation of players. Most cut their teeth playing with innovative but straight-ahead musicians through the late ‘60s and continued to play in that tradition, expanding on it as previous generations had done. Unfortunately, they were completely out of step with what their contemporaries were doing, and by the time a new generation came along to play in the style they were keeping alive they were seen as a bit too old to be part of the “young lions” movement. It’s a shame, too, because they clearly have a lot of talent and were making a strong attempt to connect their generation with the jazz that had come before, without the use of electronics and the trappings of pop music. Had these recordings received the attention they deserved at release, we might think of jazz in the ‘70s very differently than we do today. Fortunately, we are starting to be able to hear the work that was done then and it is certainly not too late to enjoy it and benefit from it.