[8 November 2006]
Everyone knows jazz-rock kicked in at the end of the 1960s, riding the wave set in motion by Miles Davis’ electric experiments, right? Wrong.
Every now and then, a little nugget comes to light that turns history on its head, forcing musicologists to reconsider the received wisdoms and start all over. This re-release of a recently unearthed and hitherto impossibly rare gem is one such record. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a set of way-out jazz-psychedelia recorded in 1966—a full three years before Bitches Brew. For anyone with even a passing interest in the cross-fertilisation of counter-cultural rock ‘n’ roll with ‘60s avant-garde jazz, it’s an absolute mother lode.
Most of the members of the Free Spirits had already had a full jazz education—and most went on to make names for themselves in the “serious” jazz world. Guitarist Larry Coryell—here making his recording debut—helped to define the sound of over-blown ‘70s fusion; Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper was a much-loved presence on the scene until his death in 1992, bequeathing a stone classic in the form of his famous tune “Wichitai-To”; drummer Bob Moses continues to play jazz of every kind with artists from around the world.
Their jazz credentials were obviously recognised at the time, too. The album was produced by the legendary Bob Thiele, the guiding hand behind giants such as John Coltrane; it was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, the engineer of choice for all the important jazz releases of the ‘60s. The original album even came complete with po-faced sleeve notes by Nat Hentoff, the pre-eminent jazz critic of the day.
Yet, overwhelmingly, this is the sound of a bunch of very young men in their early twenties, refusing to be constrained by expectation, embarking on musical careers at a time when the whole Western world was in upheaval: musically, socially and culturally. This was a time when artists were taking risks, extending boundaries, making connections. It’s only natural that some turned-on kids would want to see what would happen when they combined rock ‘n’ roll tunes with the hippest jazz sounds of the day. Yet, this is no heavy freak-out. It’s worth remembering that in 1966—pre-Summer of Love—rock music itself was in its infancy. To our jaded 21st century ears, what passed for the heaviest rock sounds of the day now come across as light, bubbly psychedelic pop, revelling in the first joys of exploration before any come-down had set in.
To put it simply, this little record is a joy.
The album kicks off with an almost prefect statement of intent: “Don’t Look Now (But Your Head is Turned Around)” is a lost LSD classic, coming straight out of the gates at full tilt, combining Chris Hills’ heavy R&B bassline and Bobby Moses’ storming, propulsive drums with some frantic tenor work from Jim Pepper, his horn sliding around all over the tune and taking off into screeching Albert Ayler-style upper-registers pyrotechnics. The vocals kick in with Coryell singing one of the great opening-line acid lyrics of all time—“check me out I’m sailing in a muddy stream of consciousness”—before the rest of the band join in for a massed, exuberant pop chorus extolling the virtues of turning-on. Sure, it sounds kind of cute now—kitsch, even, like the soundtrack to a corny movie party scene—but it’s hard to imagine how utterly far-out this must have sounded forty years ago.
Similarly, “I’m Gonna Be Free” sounds like a counter-cultural manifesto, a triumphant cry of youth and idealism, set in the musical context of the time with sitar and Pepper’s darting, bird-like flute. It’s pure, psychedelic perfection.
To a certain extent, these two tunes set the template for the rest of the album, though there are other flickers of experimentation. “Blue Water Mother” has two completely different sets of lyrics sung simultaneously—an acid decision if ever there was one—and “Tattoo Man” boasts a supremely weird lyrical notion concerning a cosmic tattooist who “wants to work his wonder on your skin”. Couched in the form of a neat psych-rock ditty, we’re told that “it’ll harmonise your karma just to be the master’s canvas”.
To be sure, the album’s lysergic heritage is in no doubt, but it’s the jazz musicianship throughout that lifts it above so many other garage-psych offerings. Moses’ drums are a perfect blend of jazz lightness and rock insistence; Coryell’s guitar is a stinging, twanging presence; and Pepper manages somehow to combine stratospheric avant-garde shrieks with a bluesy bar-room hustle.
It’s been forty years since this album last saw the light of day. In another forty years, when a new generation of academics sets about writing the history of 20th century musical innovation, let’s hope the Free Spirits get a chapter to themselves.