Much has been said and written during the past fifteen years, both
positive and negative, about the so-called "young lions" in jazz.
Those who have been critical of the interest in young musicians have
noted that, while record companies are eager to sign the younger
artists, they do so at the expense of older and more established
master musicians. Those critics seldom admit, however, that if record
companies had not been willing in the past to record younger players,
we may never have heard the music of players like Clifford Brown who
died unexpectedly at age 25, or Charlie Parker who died tragically at
Still, it is too frequently true that some of the younger artists who have been signed to recording contracts have yet to develop musical individuality and identity. A frequent criticism heard from the older players is that the younger ones "all sound alike." Another is that the younger musicians "aren't saying anything" on their instruments. While those comments may be unduly harsh (at least with regard to some young artists), one must admit that there is a great deal to be said for jazz maturity.
Take, for example, trumpeter Malachi Thompson. Veteran New York musicians and fans, especially those who were part of the lamented "loft jazz scene," may recall Mr. Thompson and his Freebop Band as a fixture during the late 1970s through the mid 1980s. He eventually withdrew from the New York scene, and he has since made his home town of Chicago his musical base.
Since his return to the recording studios in the 1990s for Delmark Records, Mr. Thompson has achieved widespread and well-deserved critical acclaim. A particular standout among his recordings is his epic rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" featuring African percussion, a choir and brass orchestra; that particular recording deserves a place in the collection of every jazz fan. Most of his recordings have been awarded no less than four stars in reviews by Down Beat magazine. And . . . there is no reason why his recent recordings, "Rising Daystar" and "Freebop Now! - Twentieth Anniversary of the Freebop Band" should not follow suit. They are among his best.
Both albums are somewhat of an all-star affair, featuring recent and not-so-recent performances featuring past and present Freeboppers like saxophonists Gary Bartz, Billy Harper, Joe Ford, Oliver Lake and the late Carter Jefferson. As important as the great names, however, is the hard driving music to be heard there. That music is the result of the interplay between the star soloists and the other musicians who comprise the core of the band. And, it is a band (as opposed to a group of pick-up musicians or a record producer's idea of an all-star group). These musicians frequently play together under Thompson's leadership, and sound like they enjoy doing so.
Mr. Thompson explains that he heard the term "freebop" while playing with tenor saxophonist Roland Alexander and the late Norman Spiller. (Mr. Alexander, a long-time Brooklynite by way of Boston, once told me that he coined the phrase after a performance when someone asked him whether he was playing bebop.) While Mr. Thompson has been known for his association with the so-called "avant garde," there are many more examples of plain, hard-swinging post-bop playing on this recording. The standout numbers on "Freebop Now!" include a heated version of Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" and Mr. Thompson's original "Flight to Senegal."
Long time listeners of the Freebop Band will recognize "Busy Little Fingers" on "Rising Daystar" as Mr. Thompson's signature up-tempo blues, performed here as a scat vocal feature. "Flight to Senegal" re-emerges with lyrics as "Surrender Your Love." The title track is also outstanding, with a beautiful soprano saxophone solo by Mr. Bartz. The band also beautifully explores another Wayne Shorter composition, the rarely heard "Nefertiti." In addition, there is one of the final recorded performances of the great bassist Fred Hopkins, who crossed over shortly after the record date. The performances throughout both recordings are first rate, and each set comes highly recommended to all true jazz fans.