You can accuse Boston, Mass., of a great deal-provincialism, racism, poor road design, an unhealthy fixation on its major-league baseball team-but one thing you can never say is that it has a dearth of great musicians. Some grow up there; others are drawn from outside by top-notch schools like Berklee and the New England Conservatory. Many eventually move on to bigger cities, but a sizable number choose to stay and enhance the culture of their hometown. However, the more experimental sides of that culture haven’t always been well documented, which makes this book/CD set worthy of note. One question, though: Is the single nine-track disc in a simple but colorful paper slipcase meant to accompany the 78-page paperback, or vice versa? Since the name of the book’s author appears nowhere on the cover, the latter seems more likely.
That name, by the way, is Mark Harvey. Far more than just an interested observer of Boston’s avant-garde, he was and is an active participant, both as a player and as an organizer of, among other things, a long-running jazz ministry at Emmanuel Church in the Back Bay, which later moved across the Charles to Harvard-Epworth Church. (Full disclosure: I attended Emmanuel as a youth and frequently saw him perform there with his Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.) In lucid prose, Harvey outlines the scene’s early development in the ’50s and ’60s and skillfully connects the dots between its two main ’70s branches: the free players and the fusioneers. He singles out the institutions that made Boston such a fertile location for exploratory jazz during this time, and makes the welcome point that many of those institutions were themselves created by musicians.
Unfortunately, the compelling case Harvey makes in his book for the Boston avant-garde as “a vital creative scene that still has much to offer listeners many decades later” is undermined by the aural evidence on the CD. The general impression it provides, through varying degrees of sonic murk, is of talented musicians trying way too hard to be different. In pursuit of that end, their playing is unimpeachable, but their concepts lack originality. The disc’s last two tracks-the darkly atmospheric “Play Sleep” by trumpeter Stanton Davis’ Ghetto Mysticism and the jittery “Herds and Hoards” by guitarist Baird Hersey’s band the Year of the Ear, which concludes with a stunning saxophone chorale featuring Dave Liebman-rise far enough above their obvious influences to be interesting. But if you’re already familiar with the work of Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Gil Scott-Heron, early-’70s Miles Davis and Return to Forever, there’s very little that Thing, the Phill Musra Group, the World’s Experience Orchestra or even Harvey’s own Mark Harvey Group can offer you, besides the novelty of learning that folks in Boston did it that way too.
A big part of the problem is that the CD presents a woefully incomplete picture. The great majority of the artists that Harvey discusses in the book-including such luminaries as Taylor (an NEC grad who recorded his debut in Boston), George Russell, Makanda Ken McIntyre, David S. Ware, Lowell Davidson and Ran Blake-are missing from the disc. Possibly the worst omission of all is the Fringe, a marvelous free-leaning trio that has been playing together for more than 40 years. Think of Harvey’s book as the excellent liner notes to a box set that doesn’t exist but, with luck, will someday.