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The Boston Phoenix Loft-y Sounds

The Wildflowers sessions

By Bill Kisliuk

AUGUST 14, 2000:  David Murray is one of the most prolific recording artists in jazz. Over the last 25 years, the volatile tenor-sax player has made about 70 albums as a leader and numerous others as a sideman or as a member of the groundbreaking World Saxophone Quartet. But back in the summer of 1976, he was just another unfamiliar face in New York's avant-garde scene, the latest in a seemingly endless conga line of jazz musicians who made their way to the city to immerse themselves in the deep end of the improvisational pool.

Just a little while after he arrived from Chicago, Murray found himself in downtown loft of Sam Rivers, a legendary Boston-bred avant-garde performer and composer and cultivator of other musicians. Rivers and his wife, Beatrice, had a Bond Street loft known as the RivBea Studios, one of a handful of hothouses for musicians whose adventurousness kept them out of the clubs in the Village and elsewhere. "It was not very mainstream music, and club owners were looking for mainstream crowds," says record producer Alan Douglas, who decided that year to document the sound of the loft scene with a series of compilation LPs called Wildflowers. "Nobody would pay them enough money, and that's basically how the loft jazz thing began."

When Douglas expressed interest, Rivers lined up about three dozen bands to play over two weekends. Modest homemade announcements were plastered to windows and doors around downtown New York, and a small ad appeared in the Village Voice. Among the hundred or so musicians who made the sessions were a large number who were or would become major voices in the outer strata of jazz: Murray and the other eventual members of the World Sax Quartet -- Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett; sax players Rivers, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton; drummers Famodou Don Moye and Andrew Cyrille; trumpeter Olu Dara; bassist Fred Hopkins; pianists Randy Weston and Anthony Davis.

As many as 200 listeners offered a donation and occupied the floor of the loft each night, where Bea Rivers had placed candles all around while Douglas and his two engineers jammed the small space above with recording equipment. "It was perfect," Douglas recalls over the phone from his California home. "We were out of the way of the audience and the musicians, and the conditions allowed us to catch live performances without the musicians thinking about it. It allowed for beautiful contact between the musicians and the audience."

The result was five LPs that captured the various ensembles at work. And those recordings have now been reissued in their entirety as the three-CD set Wildflowers: The New York Jazz Loft Sessions by Knit Classics, an arm of the leading light of today's experimental downtown scene, the Knitting Factory.

In the liner notes to the new set, engineer Ron Saint-Germain remembers things a little differently. "Controlled pandemonium," he calls it. "The most frightening thing was that the bands would change, and I had just one assistant, Les Kahn. We'd race down the ladder, fight our way to the stage to reset mikes for the next band while they were picking up their instruments, and we'd just hope we'd get back up to the machines before they actually began. Sometimes we didn't."

Although the performances are a little uneven, there is a wealth of startling material here. Murray appears on three cuts, including a soaring, stark version of "Over the Rainbow," where he joins alto player Byard Lancaster, drummer Sunny Murray, vibist Khan Jamal, and bassist Hopkins. That, apparently, is the only standard anyone deigned to play. Inspired to passionate, squalling heights on his own "Rainbows," Rivers takes to removing the horn from his mouth and hooting crazily into the mike between soprano-saxophone bleats.

Braxton and alto player Ken McIntyre are among those who offer alternately tentative and furious Coltrane- or Dolphy-esque flights; Weston and fellow pianist Dave Burrell come across with more sedate, rhythmically grounded tracks. Elsewhere, Bluiett's halting blues "Tranquil Beauty" has the charm and mysterious air of a New Orleans funeral march, joyous and sad and goofy all at once as he alternates between clarinet and baritone sax.

"I think the loft jazz period was the last time that significant changes took place in jazz," says Douglas, who also recorded Eric Dolphy and the Last Poets and gets the credit or the blame for producing the earliest posthumous releases by Jimi Hendrix. "There have been great musicians and great records, but I don't think anything new has been developed."

Asked whether he made money off the Wildflowers enterprise, Douglas laughs. "No, of course not. It's paying now more than it did then. But I feel I was lucky enough to have produced something classic. That inevitably pays. If nothing else, it pays emotionally."

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