Some forty years later, a jazz enthusiast might assume that all the hidden gems from the first flowering of the late 1960s jazz avant garde had long since been unearthed. But this double CD release of music composed by German expat pianist and bandleader Heiner Stadler, all recorded from 1966 to 1973, argues convincingly to the contrary. Five of the eight extended tracks on the two CDs were first released as a double LP in 1973, on Stadler’s own Labor Records (one in an alternate version). The other three are available here for the first time. And the combination of the small independent label and the lack of big names (no Coltrane, Ayler, Shepp, Coleman, etc.) meant that the music was probably not widely promoted even the first time around – although it certainly should have been.
Stadler was an eclectic European cultural emissary who was born in Poland, raised in Hamburg, Germany and immigrated to New York City at the age of twenty-three. He was clearly well-versed in the vocabulary of jazz but even at his tender age, he was able to integrate jazz into 20thcentury classical forms in a totally unforced manner. The German composer and musical theorist Gunther Schuller, and others, had attempted a similar synthesis earlier in the 1960s – Schuller had adopted the coinage “Third Stream Music” to describe his concept– but most of these experiments, although worthy and in some cases quite compelling, seemed to trying to stuff jazz into a tight classical box. Stadler’s intuitive grasp of jazz improvisation set him apart; his compositions and his methodology challenged his musicians but also set them free. The American jazz avant garde, in particular, has often been typecast as undisciplined and even chaotic, an impression given more credence through the use of the rather problematic “free jazz” label that was attached to their music However, the success of the music on these CDs is clear evidence that American jazz innovators were quite happy to work within a structure, so long as the structure did not stifle their creative impulses.
There are so many good things happening on these two CDs that it’s hard to know where to begin. The first track on CD 1, “No Exercise,” is played by a fine sextet composed of trumpeter Jimmy Owens (from the Sun Ra Arkestra), tenor saxophonist Tyrone Washington, ‘bonist Garnett Brown, Stadler on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Brian Blake on drums. “The Fugue #2,” another sextet piece, substitutes Joe Farrell for Washington on tenor sax and includes Don Friedman on piano, Barre Phillips on bass and Joe Chambers on drums. Four other tracks on the two CDs — “Three Problems, “ “Heidi,” “U.C. S.” and “All Tones,” feature a stripped down quartet of Washington on tenor sax and flute, Stadler on piano, Workman on bass and Lenny White on drums. To a contemporary ear, these small group sessions come across as smart, high quality post-bop jazz which could just as easily have been recorded last month as forty or more years ago. The music is spontaneous yet disciplined; the compositions clearly inspire the musicians while at the same time giving them a structure to inhabit. As Howard Mandel comments in his excellent CD notes, most listeners will find it “fruitless to try to discern were writing ends and improvising takes over.” The underappreciated Reggie Workman is rock solid throughout on bass, demonstrating a lovely tone, impeccable timekeeping and an accomplished arco technique with his bow. The real star of these sessions, though – aside from Stadler as composer – is the unknown tenor saxman Tyrone Washington, who reportedly had a conversion experience, dedicated himself to religion and gave up music entirely by the mid-1970s. In retrospect, it was a huge loss for jazz, because Washington not only plays with the fire and sensibility of the mature Coltrane but also has an eloquence and creativity all his own.
The two remaining pieces in the collection are anomalies, in that one of them is the previously unrecorded “Bea’s Flat,” Stadler’s arrangement of a Russ Freeman piece, which is played by The Big Band of the North German Radio Station — while the second is an alternate take of a ground-breaking duet by Reggie Workman and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. “Bea’s Flat” features European jazz heavyweights such as Manfred Schoof on cornet, Albert Mandelsdorff on trombone and Wolfgang Dauner on piano. European musicians seem to thrive on the brainy complexity of such music, and even though this piece is close to twenty-five minutes in length, there’s not a dull moment. But the duet piece, a free improvisation on a poem by minor beat poet Lenore Kandel, unfortunately overstays its welcome. There’s no denying the skill with which Workman and Bridgewater explore all the possible combinations of words and phrases of the poem, but the subject matter is slight (“I love you, I trust you, I trust you, I love you” – “catch me, here I come, flying without wings or a parachute,” etc.) Once the point is made, there’s really nowhere to go and the performance becomes both aimless and predictable. This is really the only “period piece” on the two CDs – interesting for its novelty and daring but also quite dated. No matter, though. There’s plenty of magic elsewhere in this fine collection of challenging, timeless jazz.