home | declarations

Chico and His Freemen

[Introduction and review of a jazz concert by Chico Freeman Quintet, in Chennai, in the 1980’s]

Musically, jazz as an organised sound has had the most curious alchemy in its creative cauldron. A blend of primordial African shriek, combining a search to escape the onerous social inequities during the days of slavery in the southern United States in the nineteenth century, the melody and rhythm evolved into songs and sounds to be chanted as a foil to oppressive work in the fields and plantations, to a pulsating, primitive, body-stomping, shuffling or swaggering march.

New Orleans was the place and although not “invented in the bathroom in 1910”, as apocryphally claimed by one of its leading lights, Jelly Roll Morton, jazz – spiritual, sensual or secularly free-spirited, quickly spread along the Mississippi to New York and Chicago catching the avid inquisitive imagination of the entire United States, even as formalised European classical music did not become unfashionable.

Culturally, it established more than anything else an evolution representing the aspirations and dynamism of the unity within diverse ethnic forces that united the States, and in the past couple of decades, along with Coca Cola, has seduced people all over the world. With its scream, or rumble, or groan or whimper it touches some unsuspected nerve fibre which releases unmanageable volumes of adrenaline that rouses and stirs the body of the most reluctant participants.

Although at one time considered dangerous and even devilish because of its instant uninhibitive effect on human disposition, it began to gain respect in addition to the mass following it had already acquired, as jazzmen like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and others began to try it out with larger orchestras, finally raising jazz to the stature of concerts, with the irrepressible talent and passion of George Gershwin.

In India paradoxically, while it is among the more easily and feverishly accepted of western musical influences, there is not a very active movement for its expression. This lack does not however keep people from using opportunities both to enthusiastically attend performances from abroad and to establish a frenzied rapport with the touring musicians.

Chico Freeman Quintet, which performed at the Music Academy on 22nd March (at the instance of American Centre and MMA), was not an exception, but additionally demonstrated the rapid changes the tone and even the idiom of jazz has been making which first came into evidence with the performance by Mingus Dynasty two years ago, both of which have been sweepingly experimental and shrewdly innovative. An interesting contrast between the two, however, was that while Mingus performers pelted fire and poured out sound pickled with vitriol and lava, Chico was almost reverential in vesting every sound that he cajoled out of the many instrument he adroitly played, with gentle lyricism. He trickled the audience into woods of delight, and doused them with romantic tenderness, before coaxing them into cascading rain and wakefulness from a heart-throbbing dream.

The proceedings of the evening started with traditional respect for unpunctuality, but Chico succeeded in invoking empathy at once, which never let up. His playing was surpassed only by the dazzling quality of his own compositions which was spell-binding in nuance and intrigue.

Burrage on Drums, Barron on Piano, Seay on Bass, and Roney on Trumpet, forming with Chico the famous Quintet, in final analysis left little doubt that they have only a handful of peers in the world of jazz.

Chico’s expressed desire has been to “touch the soul of the listener.” Even if the sometimes recalcitrant audience showed impatience with the unfamiliar avant-garde structural forms of jazz numbers, which Chico boldly introduced, there was no uncertainty that he ended his show having accomplished his wish in full measure.

ramesh gandhi

home | declarations