In the late 70s, it was becoming increasingly difficult for jazz musicians in the avant-garde to get a recording out. Most major labels had lost interest because avant-garde jazz didn’t generate enough income to bother with, unfortunately a lot of great music went unrecorded. In 1977 a small subsidiary of LA based disco label Casablanca, called Douglas, stepped up to the bat and released a set of compilations called “Wildflowers”, that documented New York City’s fabled ‘loft scene’ of the late 70s. This excellent series of compilations still gives us a vivid picture of what that vibrant and creative loft scene was all about. “Wildflowers 2” is of course the second album in that series, and features great performances by stellar musicians such as Anthony Braxton, and a very young Leo Smith, before he added Wadada to his name.
The generally accepted cliché about loft jazz was that everyone was playing ‘free jazz’, but “Wildflowers 2” presents a good example of how varied and unpredictable the loft scene really was. Side one opens with a grooving modal jam by Sonelius Smith that may remind some of Pharoh Sanders’ ‘spiritual jazz’. This track is followed by an extravagant post bop ballad featuring Ken McIntyre on flute and Richard Harper on piano. This song’s dramatic flourishes may remind some of Jaki Byard’s work with Eric Dolphy. This side is great, but the real fireworks come on side two.
Side two opens with the always brilliant Anthony Braxton and his ensemble romping their way through “73-S Kelvin”, a bizarre and often times humorous Braxton original that appears on a previous album with Braxton and Chick Corea’s group, “Circle”. At the end of the composition, Braxton launches into a furious sax solo that shows why he was, and probably still is, the master of extended techniques on the saxophone. The following track features Marion Brown solo on the saxophone as he combines tonal passages with some extended techniques of his own. The album closes with Leo Smith’s ensemble that features a young and very fiery Oliver Lake on saxophone. The opening melody is humorously deconstructive and deliberately obtuse, somewhat like a child that hates their music lessons. Its very refreshing to hear all of this because much of today’s avant-garde seems to be lacking in any sense of irony or humor. After the opening arrangement, Lake and Smith both take turns with solos that are careful in construction, as the ensemble is also very spare and careful in their contributions as well. This is a good example of that well-known AACM approach to free improv that values silence as much as noise.
Looking at the names of the various sidemen on here, many are unrecognizable and unknown, but one surprising name really jumps out, and that’s Stanley Crouch on the drums in Leo Smith’s group. Crouch has become well known over the years as a writer, critic and journalist who is often critical of the avant-garde in jazz. After hearing his flamboyant and devilishly clever contributions to the Leo Smith piece, it becomes obvious that his criticisms are certainly not based on ignorance or any timid feelings about this music.
Like most live recorded avant-garde jazz from this time period, the sound quality on here is a little rough, but back then it seemed like this sort of lack of polish was to be appreciated and admired. An almost kitsch staple of early avant-garde jazz was an acoustic piano that was worn out and out of tune and recorded with a room mic, so there was plenty of vague room reverb. The end result is an instrument that doesn't sound like a European concert hall component anymore, but more like something from Africa with its buzzing off center harmonies. You get a lot of that on here, maybe thats whats missing with today's scene, the pianos are too well cared for, ha.