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Frequency is the self-titled debut of a Chicago-based avant-garde jazz supergroup that spans multiple generations. Combining written material and free improvisation in equal measure, this ensemble eschews stylistic boundaries. Building upon a deep AACM heritage, Frequency makes "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future" more than just a slogan.
Multi-instrumentalist Edward Wilkerson makes a rare appearance outside of his flagship ensemble, 8 Bold Souls, as a collaborative member of this group. Brash and tough but also tender and soulful, Wilkerson is one of Chicago's most undersung improvisers, and his contributions to this recording are among its many highlights. An up-and-coming critical favorite and the first female co-president of the AACM, flutist Nicole Mitchell shares front-line duties with Wilkerson, holding her own during intensely heated dialogues and serenely beautiful conversations. 8 Bold Souls bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Avreeayl Ra, a long-term AACM member, hold down the rhythmic foundation, alternately charging furiously ahead or holding back with knowing restraint.
The album opens with one tune written by each member (two from Mitchell), but the second half consists of collaboratively written compositions. Relying on more traditional jazz structures, the individually written tunes contain more formal aspects. The righteously swinging openers, "Pitiful James" and "Take Refuge," take no prisoners with furiously swinging momentum, intense, acerbic solos and fluid, freeform breakdowns. Longer tunes like the epic, suite-like "Satya" run through a gamut of styles and moods, from Wilkerson's emotionally apocalyptic tenor sax exhortation to Mitchell's contemplative flute meditation. Harrison Bankhead's "Portrait of Light" demonstrates the ensemble's tender side with lyrical mellifluousness.
Evoking wide-ranging spirituality from Native American chants to African tribal rituals, the second half of the album focuses on delicate AACM-inspired work and features an abundance of tiny percussion instruments, bells, wood flutes and found objects reflecting in somber, ritualistic prayer. Although more open-ended and expansive than the other, more formal tunes, these compositions benefit from thematic consistency and an internal logic that keeps them from drifting into self-indulgent meandering.
Breaking the ceremonial silence of the album's mostly free second half is Mitchell's resolutely funky "The Tortoise." Dividing a set of elliptical, ethnic-tinged sound explorations, the tune's pulsating polyrhythms, pneumatically propulsive tenor solo and spiraling flute incantations arrive like a surprise wakeup call.
Frequency is a rare beast: a supergroup that actually lives up to its billing. Drawing equally from individual strengths without holding back inspiration, no matter how far out, this is a winning document of the finest creative jazz Chicago has to offer.
Track Listing: Pitiful James; Take Refuge; Satya; Portrait of Light; Fertility Dance; From the Other Side; The Tortoise; Optimystic; Serenity.
Personnel: Edward Wilkerson: tenor saxophone, clarinet, wood flute, bells; Nicole Mitchell: C flute, alto
flute, piccolo, bass flute, melodica, Egyptian harp, vocals, plastic bag; Harrison Bankhead:
contra bass, cello, wood flute, bells; Avreeayl Ra: percussion, kalimba, Native American flute,
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.