Henry P. Warner – b-flat clarinet, alto clarinet | Earl Freeman – bass guitar, piano | Philip Spigner – hand drums
All tracks recorded in 1984 at Sorcerer Sound, New York, recording engineer David Avidor. Tracks 1, 2 and 4 were originally released only on LP as Freestyle Band by Adeyeme Productions Unlimited in 1984 and produced by Marie C. Noto. Tracks 3 and 5 have never been issued before and they all now released in their original order. This release also contains an essay written by Ed Hazell, rare photos and flyers. Remastered by Arūnas Zujus at MAMAstudios. Design by Oskaras Anosovas. Produced by Danas Mikailionis. Co-producer – Valerij Anosov
NoBusiness Records thanks Ed Hazell and Adam Lore for their invaluable contributions to making this recording possible
Track list: 1. Dr. Nunez 4’13″ 2. The Roach Approach 13’04″ 3. Beef Thrust 11’43″ 4. Pelican 21’06″ 5. Bird Knows! 10’09″
Why should an album as good as this one
is be so obscure? Well, there are many reasons. There are all the ugly assumptions in the music world that poor black people can’t make serious art, the assumptions that George Lewis lays bare to such devastating effect in his history of the AACM, A Power Stronger than itself. There’s the economic corollary to that assumption: that if it’s not art, then it must be subject to the marketplace pressures of pop music, which European, or “real,” art music doesn’t have to contend with. Since avant-garde improvised music isn’t popular music, the economics always work against it. And so this album, and countless others, fade away due to social and economic neglect to become the quarry of avid record hounds.
The reasons albums like this one sink out of sight are not entirely due to impersonal social and economic forces, however. It’s not as if these conditions were mysterious or unknown to musicians. Indeed, they have always been a source of anger and frustration. By the early ’70s, this anger and frustration boiled up into the do-it-yourself, countercultural, and black separatist spirit of the loft movement. Rejecting the system that in effect rejected them, the musicians who lived and worked in the lofts established their own performance venues and sometimes their own record labels.
Operating outside the mainstream guaranteed a certain degree of obscurity, of course, but allowed artists total creative freedom and it was a choice many made gladly, including Henry P. Warner, Earl Freeman, and Philip Spigner—the three men who made up the Freestyle Band. So it was this combination of a hostile social and economic environment, the personalities and aesthetic choices of the musicians, and in the case of the Freestyle Band, a little hard luck as well, that conspired to keep this wonderful record out of the hands of many listeners who would have otherwise embraced it.
Henry P. Warner at the recording session in 1984
Henry P. Warner: Community Musician
Born in July 15,1940 in East Harlem, Warner began playing music at age nine. His father, who worked for the railroads, was a big jazz fan and bought Charlie Parker records for his son. As a teenager, Warner played trombone, sang in his high-school dance band, and eventually took up the clarinet. He took summer classes taught by John Lewis and Charlie Palmieri at City College. He also worked in a local Latin band. Warner has vivid memories of the hand percussionists who gathered in the parks to jam onthe weekends when he was growing up. He never lost his love for the conga and has rarely led a band that did not include hand drums.
Warner’s first marriage didn’t work out and he went into an emotional tailspin after his wife divorced him. By the early’70s he was living on the streets on the Lower East Side. As he began putting his life back together, he bought a clarinet from a pawnshop and started playing again. Just after that, he noticed that every time, no matter what time of day, he walked past a building in the neighborhood on East 6th St, he heard music coming from the basement. The music was decidedly not the bebop and hard bop he usually played, but he was intrigued. So one day, he walked down the narrow stairs and introduced himself to the musicians raising this strange and beautiful sound.
Thus began his education in free jazz at the Basement, an informal rehearsal space where musicians like violinist Billy Bang, drummer Clemson Parker, tenor saxophonist Uncle Marvin Nunez, Freestyle Band hand drummer Philip Spigner, and others played—and sometimes lived. It was a turning point in Warner’s life. He and Bang became fast friends and continued working together for the rest of their lives. And it was indirectly through the Basement that Warner also met his second wife, Akosua, who was a tenant in the building and to whom he is still married.
Warner’s formative experiences at the Basement inspired the track titles of the completely improvised Freestyle Band LP. “Dr. Nunez” is a tribute to Marvin Nunez, the tenor saxophonist and Basement co-conspirator whose beautiful light tone was also a part of groups Warner led in the ’70s. “The Roach Approach” is named for James Roacher, the building superintendent and sometimes soprano saxophonist who let the musicians use the basement rent free. “Pelican” is named in honor of Carl Lombard, a.k.a. Dr. E. Pelikan Chialto, the poet/artist/musician/philosopher who haunted the Lower East Side scene and would sometimes sneak into the Basement when no one was around and leave an original composition on the blackboard for people to play.
Warner led bands at Environ and Someplace Nice, among other venues. He played with Jemeel Moondoc, Sun Ra, Frank Lowe, Zane Massey, Roy Campbell, Sunny Murray, Charles Tyler, Wilbur Ware, Denis Charles, Ellen Christi, Reggie Workman, Warren Smith, Wayne Horvitz, and many others. His own groups included The Bakery, a trio with William Parker and Ade Yeme, which on many occasions included Parker’s wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson, to make a quartet. He appears on Parker’s Through Acceptance of the Mystery, Peace. He was a regular member of the first band led by Billy Bang, the Survival Ensemble, and appears on their only album, New York Collage, recently reissued by NoBusiness. Warner also performed with and rehearsed the orchestra on Bang’s 1982 album, Outline No. 12.
In the early ’80s, he, Akosua, and their children fled the drugs and crime of the Lower East Side and moved to Mt. Vernon, New York, where they still live today. This is certainly a major factor in why Warner was never widely recorded. Removed from the downtown scene, he focused his attention on performing in his immediate community, working with local musicians, many of whom had also fled Manhattan. He performed in local bars, community centers, city-sponsored events, prisons, and college campuses. Sometimes he invited Bang and Parker, or others such as Frank Lowe for gigs. For more than a decade, he taught at MindBuilders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx. Over the years, he self-produced several CDs and cassettes, featuring a repertoire of originals and standards.
“For me, I think that the people should know who the hell you are and that way it’s better,” Warner says in Conversations, William Parker’s book of musician-to-musician interviews. “They see you shopping and everybody on your street knows where you at, they know who you are. It’s a different kind of thing. Little kids grow up knowing that there’s a musician and .sometimes he ain’t here, he’s out of town, stuff like that. I think that’s important. I mean, to me it is…. I’ve made this area [Mount Vernon] work for me.”
Philip Spigner, a.k.a. Ade Yeme, at the recording session.
Philip Spigner: Freestyle Outlaw
Born on October 19,1951, in Manhattan, Philip Spinger grew up in Southeast Queens, where his father Archie Spigner, was a city counselor for 28 years and his mother, Christine, was a hospital administrator. Mixed up with drugs and petty crime as a teenager, he dropped out of high school. The angry young rebel was a member of the Black Panthers at 17. He eventually earned a high school equivalency degree in 1969 and a scholarship to NYU in 1972. By early 1973, he dropped out of NYU. He was getting a reputation as a hand drummer and the combined attractions of his outlaw lifestyle and the music proved stronger than the lure of higher education. He took the name Ade Yeme, Yoruban for “The crown becomes me.” He was regular at the Basement and often worked in groups led by Billy Bang, whom he’d met there. Although active on gigs, he left behind a vanishingly small recorded legacy. His recording debut is on Freeman’s large ensemble recording, Soundcraft ’75 (Anima). The Freestyle Band is by far the best recorded example of his music and it’s a revelatory document for his contributions alone. He is a forceful personality on the hand drums, with a concept that fuses African and free jazz elements. He called his way of playing congas “freestyle,” from which we can assume the band took its name. Not long after recording the Freestyle Band album, he left New York, and lived for a short time with his wife in Arkansas. Today he lives in San Diego, where he occasionally plays informally with local musicians.
Earl Freeman, in full combat aviator head gear, in the studio.
Earl Freeman: Hipster on the Fringes
Often sporting a leather aviator hat and goggles (he is also rumored to have worn a parachute onstage on at least one occasion), the eccentric Freeman left a deep impression on all who knew him. The late trumpeter Raphe Malik, who led a quartet that included Freeman, drummer Jerome Cooper, and saxophonist Hassan Abdullah, said Freeman was “the ultimate hipster on the fringes,” in an Opprobrium magazine interview. And Daniel Carter, who played with Freemen in the Music Ensemble, described him as “a poet and an artist and a self-styled revolutionary.”
Freeman actively cultivated his outsider image and deliberately avoided the spotlight. “I watch the things all around me and I shy away, reject and go away, and sometimes it’s more successful,” he told Valerie Wilmer in “Freeman Fighter,” a 1972 Melody Maker profile.
Freeman was “probably the most sensitive human being I’ve ever known,” Warner recalls in Conversations, “He would always be happy. When I would meet him, man, he’d be smilin’, he’d be happy, even though he’d be messed up sometimes, you know? We would talk and go on for hours, man.”
The available details of Freeman’s biography are sketchy. He was born in Oakland, California, in 1937 or 1939 (sources differ) and studied graphic design before he took up the acoustic bass. The covers he drew for the Freetyle Band and Soundcraft ’75, and the flyers he made for Freestyle Band gigs, with their sure line and attention to detail, betray his early interest in art and design.
At some early point in his career, he played with Sun Ra. He told Wilmer in the Melody Maker profile that he was “apprenticed” to Sun Ra when he was 10. Other sources say that he briefly traveled the space ways with Sun Ra in Chicago at the more likely age of 19, sometime during the late ’50s. It’s certain that by the late ’50s he was a working jazz bassist. There is a photo from around that time posted on http://theoriginalcellarjazzclub.blogspot.com/ that shows him in a band with West Coast saxophonist Bill Perkins at The Cellar, a Vancouver jazz club run by local musicians.
He spent time in the armed forces, probably stationed in Korea. It’s been claimed he was a Korean War veteran, but this seems unlikely since he would have been 14 or 16 years old when the war ended in 1953. During his time in the service his lungs were damaged and he received veteran’s disability payments. Some have said he was injured in a gas mask training exercise when the gas he was exposed to seared his lungs.
Freeman joined the free-jazz migration to Paris in the late ’60s. He appears with Archie Shepp on Yasmina, a Black Woman (BYG), Black Gypsy, Pitchin’ Can, and Archie Shepp & PhillyJoe Jones (all for America). With alto saxophonist Noah Howard, he made Black Ark (Freedom) in 1969, and later in 1971 in The Netherlands, Patterns. He also worked with English alto saxophonist Mike Osborne on Shapes, recorded in England in February 1972, and appears on London-based South African expatriate drummer Selwyn Lissack’s Facets of the Universe, on which he also recites a cryptic imagist poem on the title track. He contributed to psychedelic art-rocker Daevid Alien’s first Gong release, Magik Brother (BYG). He also plays percussion on Clifford Thornton’s Ketchaoua and Sunny Murray’s Homage to Africa, both for BYG.
Sometime in the early ’70s, no later than early 1972, French state investigators hauled Freeman in for questioning and subsequently declared that he possessed a “dangerous political image.” Freeman attributed this treatment to a performance at a Black Panther rally and a trip to Algeria with Shepp, Cal Massey, Don Byas, and Steve McCall on which African American radical Eldridge Cleaver was their guide. The French officials’ actual motives are still unknown. Under threat of imprisonment, he hightailed it to Amsterdam. His brief stay in Holland ended when some people smashed his bass (the reason is unclear). He was back in New York and performing at Studio Rivbea with Noah Howard’s quartet in July 1972 during the New York Musicians Festival, a musician-run festival organized to protest the Newport Jazz Festival’s booking policies. He recorded again with Howard at the Village Vanguard in August.
Freeman played occasionally with The Music Ensemble, an informal collective of musicians that included William Parker, Billy Bang, Daniel Carter, drummer Roger Baird, and trumpeters Dewey Johnson and Malik Baraka. Parker remembers him playing acoustic bass at first, but Freeman switched to electric bass sometime in 1972 or before and it became his primary instrument thereafter.
He also directed the Universal Jazz Symphonette, as heard on the hard-to-find Soundcraft ’75 album on Anima. While its fidelity is a bit murky, the LP is a valuable document of early work by Parker, Carter, Raphe Malik, Bang, and many other young free-jazz players of the early loft years, including Warner and Spigner (who is incorrectly credited as Abe Yeme on the LP sleeve).
He led a band called Spiritual Fire featuring Carter, Rashid Bakr, Susan Miller, and John Mulkerin at the Sound Unity Festival in 1984. Later that year, he collapsed on stage at a loft performance and probably not long after that, Freeman died. The exact circumstances and date of his death remain a mystery, like so much else about him.
I Was so Happy with that Group
By the early ’80s, Spigner and Freeman were roommates on the Lower East Side. It was a sometimes-troubled friendship, however, that would occasionally erupt into violent arguments. Despite the frictions in their relationship, they made an incomparable musical team. Sometime around then—Warner doesn’t remember exactly when—they asked him to join them to form the Freestyle Band.
It’s been difficult to track their performance activity over the three or four years they were together. Warner says they played mostly at Neither/Nor, a bookshop on East 6th St. with a room that musicians used as a performance space. Warner tried booking and promoting the group, but it was hard at times to corral the free-spirited and volatile bassist and percussionist for gigs. “I was so happy with that group. Jesus Christ, man, I really was,” Warner told Parker. “I’d say, ‘Come on, let’s play here.’ But the cats didn’t want to do nothin’. It was really wild.”
Warner hoped to use their self-titled album to drum up more recognition and gigs for the band. He used a mailing list given to him by William Parker to send copies to magazines and major festivals in Europe. However, his efforts were short-circuited by Yeme’s angry ex-girlfriend, whose apartment was used as the label’s address on the album’s back cover. “The magazine articles were comin’ to her,” Warner told Parker. “Festivals wrote to us offering gigs, but instead of them sending the communiques to me, they sent ‘em to her and she destroyed about six gigs for us. I said, ‘How could you do that to us?’ She said, ‘Oh Ade Yeme, he don’t want me no more/ or somethin’ like that. That was really crazy.”
The Freestyle Band LP
Fortunately, the album and about 20 minutes of previously unissued material from the recording session has survived the brief, chaotic, and otherwise undocumented life of the band. Produced by Spigner and issued on his own label, Adeyeme Productions Unlimited, it’s a startling document, featuring a band with one of the most unconventional, yet soulful, sounds to emerge from the lofts. So much about the album is singular that there are few albums to which to compare it for context. There were no working bands with this instrumentation at the time, and maybe none ever. Aside from albums by Perry Robinson, John Carter, and Alvin Batiste, there were few other free jazz recordings that featured clarinet exclusively, and even they used the usual acoustic bass and trap kit rhythm section. In Philadelphia, hand drummer Keno Speller often worked in free jazz settings with saxophonist Byard Lancaster, but no albums were ever issued that have similar instrumentation to the Freestyle Band. Alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe’s 1977 Bush Baby album with Ahkmed Abdullah on conga is similar to the Freestyle Band, but Blythe’s inclusion of Bob Stewart on tuba gives the music a different texture and rhythmic feel.
However, the Freestyle Band, with its unique instrumentation, can be seen in the context of the jazz avant-garde’s tradition of personal expressive freedom and its rejection of convention and commercialism. Everything about the band, from its instrumentation to the music it made arose from the search for freedom that was the essence of loft culture. They did not iet tradition dictate the form of the band or the music it made. Instead they let the chemistry among them, their individual aesthetics, and their collective will dictate the music. That license to do whatever they and the music required is exhilarating andtheirjoyand enthusiasm permeates every minute of the album.
The music sounds unprecedented from its opening moments. Warner’s roots in bop and his affinity for the blues are evident, but he’s expanded that fundamental vocabulary with the vocal inflections and extended techniques of free jazz. Spigner’s rhythmic patterns are clearly inspired by traditional Afro-Cuban and African musics—reclaiming African roots in an American context was an important aspect of the music for many black musicians at the time—but Spigner’s playing is not at all traditional, asserting an Afro Modernism that still sounds fresh and exciting today. And then there’s Freeman’s otherworldly electric bass. Freeman, through careful manipulation of the attack and decay and timbre of individual notes, turns his bass lines into strings of bubbles with colors dancing over their surfaces. His lines balloon and pop, sidling along with the music at oblique angles with an oddball, imperturbable logic all their own. No one before or since has played the instrument quite like him.
With no cymbals or piano to intervene between the bass and drums and the clarinet, the trio is all sonic extremes. On each track unusual sounds and textures hit the ear from above and below. The short, sharp slap of palm against congas penetrates the melismatic blanket of clarinet. The envelope of rounded electric-bass notes enfolds the freshet of hand drums and the vocal cries of the clarinet. The hand drums speak like an ancestral voice in dialogue with the modern, electric burble of the Fender bass. “Bird Knows!” gives us an excellent chance to hear Freeman’s piano playing, which like his bass, creates volumes of sound and intriguing patterns that fit into the ensemble in sneaky ways. “Dr. Nunez” is a neat survey of all the band’s virtues: its oblique togetherness, its refusal to settle down into a conventional form, the dazzling range of color and rhythm they orchestrated as they improvised.
It is music of extraordinary rhythmic vitality even in the absence of a stated beat. On “The Roach Approach,” Freeman’s slow motion cascade of low, pear-shaped tones drags against conga’s momentum. Sometimes it seems like Freeman is off in his own world. Yet Freeman’s ears are wide open. He frequently makes an oblique reference to Warner’s improvisation and his stealthy lines are in sync with the tension and release in Spigner’s patterns. The conga keeps up it’s own lyrical patter, defining an advancing and receding pulse teeming with detailed embellishments and fills.
Warner’s tightly constructed solo, at first composed of coiling, highly contoured lines that are vibrant with rhythmic surprises, explodes into intensely emotional shouts and wails with a different kind of percussive impact. The braid of sounds is constantly in motion, continuously changing, and full of surprise.
“Pelican” breaks down the trio into an opening sequence of unaccompanied solos without any loss in rhythmic vitality or sonic presence. The mystery of Freeman’s lateral thinking only deepens and the subtle details of his playing are more evident when heard all by themselves. Warner’s big, tough tone is one of the most full-throated sounds ever gotten from a clarinet. His soliloquy ranges through the full range of the instrument with no attenuation in the upper register and no loss of volume in the lower. His expert control of bent notes, the nuances of his manipulation of pure sound and expressive wails also stand out in the unaccompanied setting. Spigner’s very canny orchestration of his instruments and the organic unity of his sound also hold up well on their own.
Toward the end of his solo, Spigner breaks into a 5/4 groove, setting up a bravura group performance in odd-metered swing. There’s a very relaxed, sinuous collective vibe in the opening minutes, with Warner at his most lyrical, Freeman shadowing Warner’s phrases with his own covert countermelodies, and Spigner comfortably settled into the groove. When Spigner breaks away from the beat, Warner soars upward in an arching ribbon of hot sound, Freeman’s lines splinter into dangerous angles, and the music boils until coming to ground the welcoming arms of the 5/4 beat.
The Freestyle Band never courted fame, but they never welcomed obscurity either. The choices they made to follow their individual muses and to independently document their efforts were conscious ones. Of course there was bound to be disappointment and frustration with the album’s initial fate, but Warner, for one, has not an ounce of self-pity or regret about what he did. They made this music in the faith—perhaps certainty is a better word—that its power and integrity would ultimately triumph over shortsighted commercial pressures and America’s racist attitudes toward black artists. Perhaps this reissue does a little bit to validate that faith. — Ed Hazell
A Note on Sources: The master tapes of The Freestyle Band could not be located, so two sources were used for this reissue. The material from the original album was remastered from a mint condition copy of the LP provided by Adam Lore, proprietor of 50 Miles of Elbow Room. The new tracks came from a cassette in the possession of Henry P. Warner. Many thanks to both of them for their help.
The author would like to especially thank Adam Lore. An early believer in and fan of The Freestyle Band, he generously shared his research into the history of the group and its members. His work forms the bedrock of these notes. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
CD version (incl. shipment cost world-wide)