After my less-than-subtle attempt to kick-start an Elevator Bath fan club, it might surprise you to see my focus shift back to Austin, Texas less than a month later. But a new collection of recordings from the remarkable cassette label Astral Spirits has forced my hand. “The New Wave of Heavy Free Jazz and other Electronic & Experimental Oddities,” as the team describes itself on Bandcamp, is pushing the envelope all over the American southwest.
Andrew Smiley’s 27-minute epic Dispersal is among the label’s most recent offerings. Written for his own guitar and vocals, this debut solo recording is packed solid with great ideas. Foregoing the usual effects pedals, Smiley picks, fingers, scratches and heaven-knows-what-else his guitar to within an inch of its life. In his words: “The sounds are wide ranging, dynamic, sharp, percussive and at times very dense.” It’s the kind of thing metal-heads ought to listen to when they grow up.
Brooklyn’s W-2 dropped Fanatics, their free jazz bomb on the same sunny day in June that Smiley released his tape. Although you’ll find it hard to picture either Sam Weinberg or Chris Welcome in any setting other than an aging, downstairs nightclub sometime after 3:30 a.m. The duo describes itself as an electroacoustic band, but this one’s firmly rooted in the free jazz tradition. Weinberg’s tenor sax is late-Coltrane great. When paired with Welcome’s expert synth abuse – as it is throughout this cassette – the result is exhilarating.
Where Weinberg and Welcome paired tenor saxophone and synthesizer, fellow New Yorkers Michael Foster and Ben Bennett have put drums together with tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones and aerophones. In It belongs on your Best Jazz of 2017 list; it really is that good. Like all great free jazz, it is both chaotic and harmonious. The two complement one another like Billy Higgins and Ornette Coleman.
By no means least, improvisation quartet HMS has Tetrad for us. This fourth album is a bit lower key than those produced by their label mates. Combining electronic and acoustic sounds, this is the most modern sounding of Astral Spirits’ four new releases. “Retriever” is a particular highlight – the percussion is detailed and grainy. Gorgeous stuff.
All four cassettes are also available as digital downloads.