UnAMERICAN ACTIVITIES #65
An instigator of more foreign exchange from the United Kingdom than the foreign office or any number of 18th Century British explorers, peripatetic baritone saxophonist George Haslam has forged alliances with fellow improvisers in places where the British Empire’s sun never set. He led the first British jazz group to play in Cuba, was the first British jazz musician to play in Argentina, and now works regularly in those places as well as Mexico and throughout Eastern Europe—particularly Hungary and the Czech Republic. While his touring bands usually include fellow Brits like drummer Paul Hession and trombonist Paul Rutherford, he also welcomes becoming part of local aggregations. The 12-track collection 2002*2003*2004 (SLAM) attests to that.
FreeTime is the base quartet here consisting of Haslam on baritone sax and tarogato, plus Czechs Jozef Láska on bass guitar and bass, drummer Petr Zimák and the single-named Swetja on midi guitar, steel guitar and—most distinctively—singing saw and fujara, a flageolet style, deep-bass Slovakian shepherd’s flute, which is to flutes as the Didgeridoo is to trumpets. Recorded at different times and in different locations in the Czech Republic, guest musicians from the U.K., Estonia, Mexico, and locally appear on several tracks as well.
To be truthful, a couple of the sitters-in spice up the tracks on which they’re featured. A case in point is “Trust Nature”. Here with the Jerry Lee Lewis-like pumping piano of Estonian Tonu Naissoo added to the basic quartet, and Swetja playing steel guitar as if he was Nashville session cat Pete Drake, the performance echoes Paducah, Kentucky, more than Pardubice, Czech Republic where it was recorded. Granted the kinetic dynamics don’t make it western swing, but it is a refreshing bagatelle. The piece could have been even better, but unfortunately the tune fades just as Haslam begins blowing. Other tracks as well are afflicted with similar untoward fades.
Naissoo is also present for “Relaxing in Pardubice”, holding down the beat with drummer Zimák, as Láska’s ringing bass guitar accents back up Swetja’s coarse fujara vibrations. With Zimák’s shuffle preventing the tune from a becoming a Slovak folk dance, the fujara tones mix it up with vibrated tarogoto output, finally harmonizing in triple counterpoint as Haslam blows both his horns in tandem.
Swetja’s third implement is given its showcase on the descriptive “Wails from the Crypt”, with percussionist Jaroslav Korán substituting for Zimák. Manipulating his singing-saw like other workshop implement masters such as Roy Brooks and Paul Lovens, Swetja adds its ghostly chafing textures to Láska’s bass tones. An aural picture of Transylvanian vampires flying in and out of a haunted castle’s windows is the end result. Meanwhile, the saxman adds curvaceous smears to the quivering wingspan sounds, but irritatingly, the tune fades before he completes his thoughts.
The other outstanding track, “Mark’s Mode”, features Haslam and its namesake, Mexican pianist Mark Aanderud. Here, the reedist’s harsh tongue-stops and breath control are matched with high-frequency cadences and chiming chords from the keyboardist. Offering a cascade of irregularly voiced, but cohesive patterns, Aanderud assembles Latinesque tremolos with the same intensity that Haslam creates new forms from warm mouthfuls of slurred vibrato.
On the other hand, “Sagem Blues”, a quartet piece that replaces Swetja’s strings with Aanderud’s piano doesn’t fare as well. Bluesier—perhaps as a lampoon—than a conventional blues, it floats on the bassist’s steady pulse, with the pianist’s mainstream comping and the baritone saxophonist’s legato output making it sounds like a straight-ahead cop from Gerry Mulligan’s final decade, when the American baritone saxophonist finally came to terms with the piano.
No major compositional or performance breakthrough, 2002*2003*2004 still showcases some little heard Eastern European soloists. It also confirms that senior citizen status has enhanced rather than limited Haslam’s creative power and restless search for new playing partners.