Saturday, April 13, 2013

BYG Actuel 00: Jazzactuel Intro

ESP-Disk is the best and most important free jazz label of all time. While larger labels like Atlantic, Blue Note and Impulse! dabbled in the fresh musical territory that was free jazz in the mid-sixties, ESP-Disk was the first record company to really devote itself to this music.[1] Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Patty Waters, Milford Graves, Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Henry Grimes, Frank Wright, Gato Barbieri, and the New York Art Quartet all put out some of their defining material on the label. Artists maintained complete artistic control of their ESP discs, making it one of the best outlets for avant-garde musicians in spite of the label’s spotty history of actually paying its artists.

Other great labels followed ESP-Disk’s example in the late sixties and into the seventies. India Navigation, Flying Dutchman, Delmark, and Black Saint cropped up in the states to handle the rapidly multiplying number of free players in a musical environment that was openly hostile toward free jazz. In Europe musicians started their own labels, including FMP and Incus, to release their radical explorations of free improvisation’s outer edges.

BYG Actuel, the greatest of ESP’s progeny, served as a bridge between the American and European free jazz worlds. Based in France, BYG was formed in 1967 by Fernand Boruso, Jean-Luc Young, and Jean Georgakarakos (hence the BYG name) but didn’t really become a player until the 1969 Panafrican Festival in Algiers. Alongside Stokely Carmichael, Nina Simone, and David Hilliad, saxophonist Archie Shepp brought an incredible band to perform at the festival: trombonist Grachan Moncur III, bassist Alan Silva, drummer Sunny Murray, pianist Dave Burrell, and cornetist Clifford Thornton. Representatives from BYG recorded the band’s performances, and Parisian drummer/writer Claude Delcloo, whose Actuel magazine had been recently purchased by BYG, invited the band back to Paris to record for BYG’s new subsidiary label Actuel. Delcloo and the members of Shepp’s band also sent out the call to other American free jazz musicians, including members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Sun Ra Arkestra, to join them abroad.

For a few amazing months, these expatriate musicians went from their various temporary lodgings to the BYG studios most mornings to record. On a given BYG Actuel record, the players consist of whoever showed up to the studio that day. New York cats played alongside younger Chicago musicians and the handful of French guys, Delcloo included, who quickly found themselves immersed in the scene.[2] At night, the Americans played for audiences that were significantly larger and more open than the miniscule and hostile audiences that they found stateside. While it was unfortunate that these artists could only find a substantial audience abroad, the first months in France were tremendously formative for most of them.

Unfortunately, this period was short-lived. BYG sank all of their money into the Festival Actuel, which was supposed to take place in Paris in October 1969. With memories of the upheavals of 1968 still fresh in their minds, the French government took away BYG’s permits and the organizers were forced to make a last minute move to Amougie, Belgium, on the French border. In spite of this and other organizational problems, the festival went fairly well, with most of the Actual musicians, Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart, the Soft Machine, Ten Years After, and Yes all performing. Still, BYG didn’t recoup their expenses, and as they issued the material recorded between July and November 1969 over the next two years they were unable to pay the artists. BYG Actuel ceased activity in 1971 after putting out fifty-three albums, and BYG as a whole followed a few years later.

In spite of its financial problems and short lifespan, the recorded legacy of BYG Actuel is astounding. Along with albums by every member of Shepp’s band and most of the AACMers who were in Paris, the label released incredible records by former Ornette Coleman sideman Don Cherry, psych-prog guitarist Daevid Allen and his band Gong, Procol Harum offshoot Freedom, avant-garde synth improvisers Musica Elettronica Viva, minimal classical composer Terry Riley, the Sun Ra Solar-Myth Arkestra, and guitar visionary Sonny Sharrock, among others. All fifty-three albums featured the same cover design, which served as an unofficial marker of quality and musical exploration to be found on the music within.

Beginning in the very near future, I’ll be writing about every BYG Actuel record on a biweekly basis.[3] This will take about two years (assuming I actually finish this project), but I’ll be able to cover some of the label’s greatest triumphs and a few of its weakest albums in the first few months alone. First up will be part one of a pair of duo records between trumpeter, flutist, and pianist Don Cherry and drummer Ed Blackwell that served as the culmination of more than a decade of collaboration between the two as part of Ornette Coleman’s legendary sixties bands and on Cherry’s solo albums for Blue Note Records. This is going to be a strange journey. As Thurston Moore and Byron Colley wrote in their liner notes for the Jazzactuel compilation in 2000, “pick up any one of the gorgeous Claude Caudron-designed covers. Take out the record and place it on the box. It will neatly peel the top off of your scalp and pour in a steaming load of freedom. And that is a procedure which is above reproach.”

Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 01: Don Cherry – Mu – First Part
Actuel 02: Art Ensemble of Chicago – A Jackson in Your House
Actuel 03: Sunny Murray – Hommage to Africa
Actuel 04: Archie Shepp – Yasmina, a Black Woman
Actuel 05: Gong – Magick Brother

[1] ESP-Disk also put out some Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Billie Holiday reissues, and championed the twisted anti-folk of the Fugs and the Godz and the psychedelic noodling of Timothy Leary. Few labels before or since have matched its simultaneous consistency of quality and adventurousness.
[2] This sowed the seeds for the loft jazz movement, which occurred after the injection of energy that musicians from Chicago and St. Louis brought to New York when they moved en masse to the city in the early 1970s.
[3] The chances of me sticking to this biweekly schedule for the next two years is basically nil. I’m not great with schedules when it comes to this blog (the supposed-to-be weekly Spray Cans series serves as proof of this).

No comments:

Post a Comment