Boston's improv scene is fueled by an underground network of musicians (hooked up to an internet mailing list), major academic centers ( Berklee and the New England Conservatory), indie record outlets (including the literally subterranean Twisted Village), and an army of open-minded listeners. If you only went to the two big jazz clubsScullers and the Regattabaryou'd might find yourself lulled to sleep by mainstream acts. But have no fear, there are plenty of alternatives.
Saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase eagerly straddles the boundary, performing with the celebrated Either/Orchestra or here with his own quintet. Play Free Or Die is some very daring and adventurous material, true to its title in every sense. These eleven tunes were performed live in 2001 and recorded on the sly by bassist John Turner. With a couple of exceptions, they're each at least ten minutes long, which means there's a lot of meat in the package.
Kohlhase's working quintet features a three-horn front line. In many ways it's reminiscent of Ornette Coleman's early work with Don Cherry. Rather than playing "free" with the esoteric aim of pure abstraction, these players insist on sharing a common focus, three voices coursing together to round out themes that are thoroughly rooted in the jazz tradition. Never in perfect unison, but somehow speaking together.
The Mad Suite (from 1988) closes out the record and the 21-minute first segment is as good an example as any of the horns actively mingling but never quite coming to terms. You sit on the edge of your seat, you test your patience, but the harmonious agreement never happens. Drummer Eric Rosenthal rides through with a long solo that's heavy on the snare and toms, playing with time but performing absolutely no timekeeping. The crowd in Waterville, Maine approves. And so on...
The quintet nods briefly to the jazz tradition with Monk's "Crepescule for Nellie," a soft, gently swinging ballad that briefly evokes a pensive mood. "Framework" dwells on similarly soft ground, but otherwise the mood is upbeat, rocky, and quite often intense. The opening notes of the first disc come from John Carlson's muted horn, whose rough-edged tones hint of things to come. "Pigpile" is a rough awakening, but by the time the tension-laden "Doom Is Yours" hits, you know you're firmly entrenched in the red zone. Credit bassist John Turner for turning up the heat, and the whole group for never holding back.
Play Free Or Die is old-school music in the best sense. It's organic, spontaneous, and involving. Melody plays an essential role. It's rockybut strangely lyrical at the same time. And it really does take two discs to span the entire range of the group's sound, which is a statement in and of itself.
Personnel: Charlie Kohlhase: alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone; Matt Langley: tenor saxophone; John Carlson: trumpet,
flugelhorn, pocket trumpet; John Turner: bass; Eric Rosenthal: drums & percussion.