George Haslam’s Freetime
JAZZ Review, August 2005
One of the few really free spirits of British jazz, baritone saxman George Haslam has spent much of his career collaborating with kindred spirits across the globe. In the course of his peregrinations he has performed in Cuba and Argentina – one of the first to do so – and Eastern Europe. This set keeps up that tradition, documenting gigs and collaborations with the Czech quartet Freetime in local clubs across the republic between 2002 and 2004. While the emphasis may be on isolating differing regional characteristics in the style of music the group plays as they travel around the country, Haslam demonstrates a fine discerning ear in editing and collating what must have been mountains of material into a cohesive and vibrant set that consciously eschews any hint of novelty. Indeed when Haslam takes up the tarogato – to quote Messrs Cook and Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, “a Hungarian instrument of parallel antiquity to the saxophone” – he succeeds in amplifying the pastoral idioms latent in so much Eastern European music. But if the pastoral idioms are embraced this is not to the exclusion of all else, Haslam and his gang sometimes embark on very free improvisations before reverting to some post-bop riffing.
At its heart Haslam’s Freetime is more about having a good time exploring fresh avenues to see what will happen next, so to that extent one cannot regard this set as a fully-rounded body of work. But as a journal and a voyage of discovery it is very persuasive and endlessly intriguing, providing plenty of room for speculation over which way Haslam will jump next.
George Haslam’s FreeTime SLAMCD 320
George Haslam (bs, tarogao); Jozef Laska (b); Petr Zimok, Jaroslav Koron (d); Swetja (g, fujara, steel g, saw); Mark Aanderud, Tonu Naissoo (p); Steve Waterman (t); Marcel Barta (ss); Vojtech Havel (clo)
Recorded 24/03/02, 11/11/02 and 24-5/02/04, Brno, Prague and Pardubice, Czech Republic
Until recently I was only aware of George Haslam in his role with the Latin-based Plaza Jazz Trio and their collaboration with Stekpanna on the excellent Latin from the North album, but when, a while back, I happened upon an entry for him in the monumental (and not very Brit-friendly) Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, I was intrigued to learn of his other identity as a respected free-improv player. I knew of his reputation as an incorrigible musical itinerant: in the past he’s made visits to Argentina, Cuba and (I think I heard) Albania, among other places, playing with local musicians and occasionally releasing the results on his own Abingdon-based Slam label. The man must run a bulging address book.
This album is evidence of the latter side to his work. It is, as the sleeve points out, a series of recordings of “the Freetime Quartet and their musician guests in the three-year period of impro concerts around the music clubs of the Czech Republic.” As such it functions almost like an album of snapshots, and as you will know from looking at other people’s photo albums, the experience is only as interesting as the contents of the snaps".
Luckily, there’s a lot of interesting stuff on display here, and none of it outstays its wecome. What I mean by this is that extended free pieces are all very well from a self-expression point of view, but I’ve always felt that even most solo players struggle to sustain interest over long periods, and when you’ve got three or four improvising together, the high points when they interlock are inevitably interspersed with periods of casting around for the next collective breakthrough. Releasing extracts from a longer performance is a way round this, even if it can come across as a bit episodic. The longest track here, Relaxing in Pardubice, is a 10 minute slow build over a bass pulse, while the shortest, a folky-sounding baritone/soprano duet intriguingly called Muffs, is less than two minutes long. Occasionally, the brevity can be a bit frustrating, for instance on Sweets, where Steve Waterman’s Miles Davis-like trumpet just seems to be hitting its stride when it fades. Elsewhere, as on the two and a half minute bass solo, some might be grateful.
Overall, though, this is best described as a series of moods and atmospheres, from the muezzin call drama of the opening Alternative Prelude featuring George’s tarogato (a Hungarian reed instrument) and sounding rather like the psalm part of A Love Supreme to the more wistful Hupky Dupky. In between, there’s the fast country blues of Trust Nature (not so much Trane-like as train-like, complete with steel guitar), the playful Sagem Blues and Wails from the Crypt, which kind of explains itself. There is, I repeat, a lot of music here to hold the attention - it may be freely improvised but it nearly always maintains a rhythmic pulse and remains melodic enough not to be intimidating to non-devotees.