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Creative Music Studio: Archive Selections Volume 2

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The extensive liner notes to this three-CD set compare the Creative Music Studio to other musical collectives of the ’60s and ’70s, such as the AACM in Chicago and the Black Artists Group in St. Louis. Like those organizations, CMS was a command post in the avant-garde jazz wars. But CMS was more than a movement; it was a school and a physical community. The 45-acre campus in Woodstock, N.Y., contained residences, workshop rooms and performance spaces. It was established in 1971 by two musicians, Karl Berger and his wife, Ingrid Sertso. By the time the campus closed in 1984, most of the leading figures in free jazz had passed through Woodstock. Some touched down briefly. Some stayed for years.

More than 550 concerts were recorded there. The work of selecting, digitizing and remastering the best music from this huge archive has just begun, as a joint project of the Creative Music Foundation and the Columbia University Library. Archive Selections Volume 1 appeared in 2014. Volume 2 is now here. Like Volume 1, its three CDs are labeled “small ensembles,” “large ensembles” and “world music.” Like Volume 1, it is a wild ride, raw aural cinema verité, unfiltered life, caught on the fly.

The 14 performances that make up the collection took place between 1976 and 1981. The venue was a large conference room, with audiences of 30 to 100. A recording booth sat to the right of the stage. CD 1 (“small ensembles”) starts with Anthony Braxton and Marilyn Crispell, who had only just met. For all the relativity of this cerebral duo, their radical music never feels random. When you tune in to the arcane logic of the calls and responses, Braxton’s shattering peaks and startling valleys make sense. Next is the trio of Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. He never attained the respect of Braxton or the notoriety of Albert Ayler, but like them he was willing to drive music past its known margins in search of spiritual liberation. His 16-minute tenor saxophone tempest sweeps you up, beyond your choosing. Two tracks reveal that the CMS revolutionary ethos had room for more conventional musicians like Paul Motian and Lee Konitz. In the permissive atmosphere of that CMS conference room, they both sound looser than usual. Motian’s trio contains two great free-jazz warriors in danger of being forgotten, Charles Brackeen and David Izenzon.

CD 3 (“world music”) is a very mixed bag. The best pieces are by Collin Walcott, whose sweetly whining sitar is wonderful to hear again, and Ismet Siral, master of the ney flute. CMS loyalists argue that the campus in Woodstock, where cultural crosspollination was a religion, is where world music was born.

But the most exciting music is on CD 2, with the large ensembles. Many of the tracks and much of the personnel in this compilation are unknown and unnamed. Don Cherry, Baikida Carroll and Gerry Hemingway lead anonymous CMS student orchestras in three vast, roiling, volatile opuses. Cherry’s 27-minute piece is the most complex and most chaotic, although it continuously lurches into momentary themes. The trumpet solos of Cherry and Carroll are bright lights of intelligence that pierce through the din of their ensembles. All three bands contain fearless, uproarious soloists, some identified (trombonist James Harvey, pianist Marilyn Crispell), most not.

Sonically, this collection is a crapshoot. Audio quality ranges from vague to nasty. But to immerse oneself in this music is to travel back to a faraway time more innocent than our own, when avant-garde jazz and world music were passionate with fresh discovery, and full of faith.

Originally Published