Review Summary: So you wanna know about free jazz?
The important thing to remember about free jazz is that it is never, truly, honestly 'free'. Everybody and everything is restricted by something, be it the time a band is allowed legally allowed to remain on stage for, or the storage capacity of the medium you're releasing your album on. A large chunk of the artistry behind free jazz, then, is working with that limitation, picking and choosing where to be free, and where to be restricted.
The CD issue of One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye
is one of the great examples of a free jazz album striking that balance between freedom and restriction, and that's why it would be a strong contender if somebody asked me to name the free jazz record they should start with. The first three tracks here are all relatively pared down affairs that feature, in turn, the alto sax of Jimmy Lyons battling with the trumpet of Raphe Malik, the violin of Ramsey Ameen grinding against the bass of Sirone, and an extended drum solo from Ronald Shannon Jackson. These tracks are as jarring and 'free' as you'd expect from the genre, and they come from an avant-garde, conceptual mindset, but really it's just Cecil Taylor pulling out the oldest trick in the book - he's introducing the band members, one by one. It's a trick so old-fashioned that the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were already poking fun at old fogies for doing it in 1968, on "The Intro and the Outro". But here it is, on a free jazz album.
Jackson's drum solo is a problem, because drum solos are a problem in general. Live, they're an incredible, visceral thing to witness, on a par with anything at a rock concert for sheer spectacle. On record, all of their power and intrigue is lost. It takes the wind out of the album's sails to an extent; still, taken as a triumvirate with the two tracks before it, it forms a strong opening statement that poises the two contrasting sections of the album on a finely balanced even keel.
This is a very different - and better - experience than the original vinyl album, which did not feature the duets at the start of the record and instead launched headlong into the much looser, more cacophonous material of the final few tracks here. The balance and restriction here comes purely from the performance - heck, the sheer presence - of Jackson. Actually, it comes from the sheer presence of his instrument. It is basically impossible to play the drums without anchoring yourself, and the rest of your band, to a certain rhythm, no matter how competent or incompetent you happen to be, and Jackson is no different. Just by playing the drums as everybody else goes off on their own tangent, he acts as an editor, keeping everything within some sort of framework. The only truly free moments come when Taylor plays his piano alone (which he does for around 9 minutes at one point).
Some might see that as a fault. I definitely don't. Order is good, even when the whole point of the music is to kick against order - the same applies to even the most avant-garde ideas from the classical world, where most of the truly great atonal pieces have strongly defined structures. The thrill of this music shouldn't come from the execution of the concept, anyway - it should come from listening to Taylor battering the living *** out of his piano with childish glee, and hearing the rest of the band indulge themselves in the primitive joy of making a load of stupid, dirty noise. On that count, One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye
is a triumph. It's punishing, it's monolithic, and it's almost painfully highbrow on the surface, but that's all to be expected - the real joy comes from the fact that once it kicks off, it's fun on an almost juvenile level. The band are obviously having a hell of a time, and you probably will, too.