November 2001

The Contemporary Jazz Quartet
Action Action: The Original Debut Recordings 1964 & 1967
SteepleChase

John Tchicai was not the only Dane pursuing the "New Thing" in the early '60s. Trumpeter Hugh Steinmetz, alto saxophonist Franz Beckerlee and bassist Steffen Andersen were on the case in 1960, emulating Ornette Coleman's shape of jazz to come. As the core of the Contemporary Jazz Quartet, they began covering Ornette's early compositions, adding originals to their set lists until 1964, when they first recorded Action for the Danish Debut label.

The drummer on the date was Sunny Murray, then in Copenhagen with a trio led by Don Cherry, a mentor to Steimetz. Luckily, more attention was paid to the music than to the album's cover, which billed the drummer as "Sonny Murray." While most of the compositions have the agitated, fragmentary feel of Coleman's late Atlantics, there is also a glimpse of the Danish folk lyricism Tchicai would all but trademark. Despite Steinmetz's indebtedness to Cherry, he bypassed the playfulness of Cherry's work on the early Contemporary and Atlantic dates, and articulated an intriguing approach to Cherry's slippery chromatic runs and lyrical positivism. Beckerlee had all but dispensed with Ornette as a role model, his raspy rants at times foreshadowing Peter Brotzmann. Andersen, whose jagged lines were closer to Gary Peacock than either Charlie Haden or Scott LaFaro, reinforced this departure from the model. Add Murray's spattered cymbals and surprisingly light snare touch, and the resulting music is consistently intriguing, and occasionally spellbinding.

The band's second album, TCJQ, was recorded in 1968, not '67 (album cover errors seem to be a living tradition in Denmark). By then, Beckerlee had gone electric, as had new, fire-breathing tenor saxophonist Niels Harrit, who also played a grating electric organ. New drummer Bo Thrige Andersen's ability to drive the ensemble with powerful swirls of texture presages such Scandinavian improvisers as Raymond Strid. While the timbres of the electric saxes and amplified, occasionally fuzz-toned bass sometimes raise the specter of prog-rock fusion, the Quintet had broken free of its American mold. This is hot-blooded European free improvisation contemporaneous to the Brotzmann manifesto Machine Gun (FMP). As such, the date merits attention.

Originally published in November 2001
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