Folks have been saying jazz is dead longer than many of us have been alive. The perplexing thing, of course, is that people keep making jazz, and a bit of it is good, though never widely acclaimed. Out on the fringes of modern jazz you'll find the free music movement, and near the edge of the fringe you'll spot Jim Ryan and his musical collective.
Ryan, a former beat philosopher who took up music in the late '60s while kicking around in Paris with the likes of Anthony Braxton and Archie Shepp, is considered a major player in California's Bay Area improv scene. On this two-disc set, Ryan's fourth with his Forward Energy project, he plays alto and tenor saxophones, flute and a touch of percussion amid a revolving cast of ten other musicians.
The first disc of the set is packed with tight and actually fairly enjoyable noodles, musical tug-of-wars and other experimentations. The pace is quick and the various players stay on message with the musical themes at hand, making this set a very cohesive effort -- especially considering the fact that, well, it's free jazz. Dulling its punch slightly, the recording doesn't always seem to offer the truest fidelity to each performance.
Configurations 2002's second disc, a live recording complete with supportive howls from the audience, turns up the funk. The highlight is the half-hour opus "History Lesson", which offers some low-down hustler swing beginning about 11 minutes into the exploration. The section is one of the most cohesive of the set, and about ten minutes later, as the jam evolves, we are reminded, "Oh yeah, this is a free jazz record."
Another lively moment comes when Ryan breaks out the flute and jams mano a mano with percussionist Spirit (Damn -- how much of a badass do you have to be to go by just "Spirit"?). The spare repartee has almost a narrative quality, much in the same way as Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, though you'll have to provide your own storyline for this duet.
This raises perhaps the most important point about Configurations 2002: listeners will be surprised just how, well, listenable this record is. That's because its most solid, lively moments challenge the popular conception that improvised music is merely noise. Ryan's successes are making listeners think about and feel his music -- and so long as he can do that, his jazz isn't dead yet.