Saturday, June 16, 2007


Compiled by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and music journalist Byron Coley, Jazzactuel is a three-cd-box collecting free jazz, as well as some psychedelic and avant-garde music from the French record label 'BYG/Actuel'. The compilation was issued in 2001; the collected tracks date from the period 1969-1971.

The tracks were recorded for the record label as a result of an invitation to a large number of African-American free jazz musicians to record in Paris in august 1969, in the wake of the Panafrican Festival held in Algiers in july that year. This exodus to the promised land of France from the land of the American pharaoh Nixon continued a tradition of black musicians fleeing the US for Paris, a tradition which started in the roaring twenties (the Bal Nègre in the Rue Blomet, Josephine Baker) and which continued through the years (Miles Davis making the soundtrack to Louis Malle's 1958 film 'Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud', Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk appearing in Roger Vadim's 1959 film 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses').

The musicians that recorded for BYG were perhaps one of the last waves of black musicians fleeing the US to Paris - can you imagine contemporary black musicians - hiphop, hyphy, crunk - leaving the States for France? The last group of prominent black musicians who came to Europe were Detroit's godfathers of techno - and they went to Berlin rather than to Paris, and rather than flee racial oppression by whites they fled the indifference with which the black community in the US treated their Great Black Music.

'Jazzactuel' brings together many famous Free Jazz names: Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry and Sonny Sharrock; but also lesserknown artists are represented. The collection showcases how variegated a genre Free Jazz was. Some tracks are so dense, chaotic and noisy they would do Merzbow proud (and hasn't Masima Akita always said he was inspired by Free Jazz?), while other tracks are more laidback; some even explore romantic themes in a hardbop style. Psychedelic Prog by Gong and an electronic piece which sounds like an army of babies crying their lungs out by Musica Elettronica Viva only add to the diversity. Compared to Soul Jazz Records excellent "New Thing!" compilation, the music on Jazzactuel is more intransigent, more demanding, less languid: here political Pan-Africanism, no mystical Indian/Jazz-fusion a la Alice Coltrane.

My personal favorite is the slowly smoldering fire music of Archie Shepp's 'Blasé', the title song of Shepp's eponymous 1969 album. Shepp is assisted by brilliant musicians: Lester Bowie on trumpet and flugelhorn, Dave Burrell on piano, Sunny Murray on drums, and - above all - Jeanne Lee vocalizing poetry full of tender resentment.

However diverse the compilation is, all Free Jazz tracks display that lion-like fierceness, that rebellious pride that was prevalent in the Afro-American community of the era - Jazzactuel's sound is very much the sound of Black Power. In that sense, one wonders whether the musician's really went to France to seek refuge from the racial tensions of the USA, or if their they were attracted to the violently revolutionary situation in France - as moths are to a flame?

In any case, what Surrealist author Michel Leiris wrote in the fourth Documents magazine about the jazz revue "Lew Leslie's Black Birds", who performed at Paris' Moulin Rouge from june to september 1929, can also be said of these recordings, made 40 years later: they "...take us to another side of art, to a point of human development at which that bastard son of the illegitimate love of magic and free play, [had] not yet been hypertrophied"...

Post scripta

  • Here is a link to a French-language article on jazz and ethnography.
  • Many BYG/Actuel recordings are being reissued by the Italian 'Sunspots' record label.

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