The discographies of jazz are filled with obscure artists, role players to the superstars that become legendary. Some are mysterious because of early deaths, others because of careers ended prematurely. But there are a few who transcend this anonymity. South African drummer Selwyn Lissack, whose playing was limited to a decade and who participated in only two recording sessions, is one of those figures. For that we can thank the steadfastness of the avant-garde listening community that seeks out and champions musicians exactly like Lissack.
Lissack hails from Cape Town but was younger than players like Abdullah Ibrahim and Chris McGregor. South Africa under Apartheid was a difficult place to make music and Lissack recalls it being even more difficult for him. Though his musical endeavors began at 15, his plans to leave for "other pastures came about at the earlier age of six. Like many other musicians, his goal was to come to the States, "where all the records that we heard, that were smuggled into South Africa, were fromthrough those records we dreamed our dream. Lissack, because of a lengthy waiting list for South Africans to enter the US, made a three-year detour to England, indirectly following previous players like McGregor and the Blue Notes to the country. By the time he arrived in 1966, he felt that much of the energy he had felt during an earlier trip to Europe in 1961 had dissipated. But it was during this period that he established the relationships that would lead to his only two recorded appearances.
In September of 1969, Lissack recorded his only album as a leaderFriendship Next of Kinfor the Goody label, an offshoot of BYG (like the Actuel series). Appearing with Lissack was an international complement of players: fellow South Africans Mongezi Feza, Harry Miller and Louis Moholo, Englishman Mike Osborne, Jamaican (but living in London) Kenneth Terroade and American Earl Freeman. The two side-long tracks (one borrowed from Terroade's earlier release Love Rejoice on Actuel) have little in common with the European music produced at the time, instead sharing an aesthetic framed by American ex-pats working in Paris during the late '60s. However, the recording was badly produced, a real slight to some very substantial music played by substantial musicians. Lissack feels strongly that "I had such trouble with [label producer] Claude Delcloo that he ended my career on the back of that record. It was his nonsense on the back of that record that ended my career in print. Delcloo is notorious in the world of avant-garde jazz for his 'unseemly business practices. "He ripped everybody off to boot, Lissack continues. "I'm the only one who has the contract. They went around to everybody else and bought back the contracts from all the musicians but they didn't get mine. This ownership of the recording has allowed Lissack to remix the album to his satisfaction and oversee its long overdue reissue.
A few months later in January 1970, Lissack had one more opportunity to be documented. The late trumpeter Ric Colbeck (another obscure player, known primarily for his work with Noah Howard) released one album as a leader on the British label Fontana and invited Lissack to play drums. Osborne appears again and the quartet is filled out by French bassist extraordinaire Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark. A fiery, advanced post-bop session, The Sun is Coming Up may be one of the best entries into the free jazz pantheon. Sadly, Colbeck died shortly thereafter ("Ric was an idiot. He was drinking himself to death while we were doing it. ) and Lissack, moving to New York finally, very soon gave up playing. "I arrived here...the potential to get gigs, Lissack recalls. "Four months later I just quit. I decided if I were to try to pursue this, it would be an early demise.
Thus began Lissack's second life. During the '70s, he was involved in the nascent holography and dichromate movement after beginning traditional painting in the early '60s. At one point, he even had a collaborative relationship with surrealist Salvador Dali. Sadly, Lissack's negative experiences with music were echoed in this new art world, one which he felt was rife with odd personalities and lots of jealousy and resentment. Fast forward to today and Lissack's most recent project is one combining laser technology and music into a new visual artform, something he was inspired to explore from an experience when he was "in New York and I played with David Izenzon and Alan Silva down in SoHo. And at that time there was a fellow by the name of Philip Cross and he had a laser system... We did this concert, just on the cuff and there his system was sound sensitive and that's where I had this wonderful euphoric feeling.
But now with the reissue of Friendship Next of Kin and The Sun is Coming Up being listed online by Thurston Moore as part of his "Top Ten from the Free Jazz Underground , Lissack moves back into the realm of music, if only long enough to perform in New York for the first time in decades. Though a participant in only a small slice of jazz history, Lissack is lucky enough that there are still listeners who understand its importance. And considering the fates of most of the players on Lissack's two albums, he is fortunate to be around to receive the adulation.
· Selwyn Lissack - Friendship Next of Kin (Goody-DMG, 1969)
· Ric Colbeck - The Sun is Coming Up (Fontana, 1970)