Following Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound, alto saxophonist Joseph Jarman was the second AACM member to enter the studio with Delmark Records’ Chuck Nessa, emerging with Song For, his own contribution to the collective’s early legacy. Jarman’s band, as captured here, was one of the major regular working groups within the late ’60s AACM, along with Mitchell’s sextet and the Anthony Braxton/Leo Smith/Leroy Jenkins trio. Within a few years, Jarman would join the core of the Mitchell group to form the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and increasingly that group would become the public face and most popular manifestation of the AACM’s ideas and influence. In 1966, though, the collective was still mostly undocumented and unknown, especially outside of their Chicago hometown, and various regular and ad hoc groupings within the larger AACM were stretching out in all sorts of varied directions.
Jarman was joined here by tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, trumpeter Bill Brimfield, pianist Christopher Gaddy (in his only appearance on record), bassist Charles Clark, and drummers Steve McCall and Thurman Barker. Many of the same players would join Jarman again for his second LP a year later. Jarman was particularly close to Clark and Gaddy, and when both died within a year of one another towards the end of the decade, Jarman’s band dissolved and he entered Mitchell’s Art Ensemble orbit.
Compared to Sound, Jarman’s debut captures some of the more theatrical and poetical currents of the AACM. That extra-musical sensibility is especially apparent on the second track, “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City,” a 14-minute epic built around Jarman’s poetry recitation. The track opens with a brief sax statement, a nervous bass pulse, and a rollicking drum solo from Barker, soon calming down as Jarman reads a poem replete with urban imagery and enigmatic musings on blackness, education, and power. One thread through the poem seems to be Jarman dealing with the tension between the intellectual – he references the Dada movement throughout the first verse, for example – and the “non-cognitive” experiences of the city. Another key line, part of a torrent of rapid verse, suggests the experience of the black creative individual in a city, or country, that mostly doesn’t pay attention: “see me see me I exist.” Frustration with limited opportunities for playing original music had led to the formation of the AACM in the first place, and even after that crucial organizing step, the fledgling group’s often difficult music sometimes struggled for attention.
Jarman’s readings are set against a sparse backdrop, with Gaddy dropping foreboding clusters amidst the spacious plucking of Clark’s bass. Both Anderson and Brimfield sit out on this track, so it’s played by the stripped-down quartet of Jarman and the rhythm section. In between the recitations, the music shifts unpredictably. During one such break, there’s an abrupt, passionate burst from Jarman’s sax, the music swelling to sudden catharsis and then just as suddenly cutting off, returning to the subdued late-night atmosphere dominated by Clark’s bass. Another interlude features bowed bass, with Jarman playing a sweet, low-key sax solo and Gaddy shifting into more melodic playing. Jarman’s solos are all concise and carefully considered, with no grandstanding; when he picks up his sax on this track, it’s only for very short bursts before he allows the focus to shift back to his rhythm section. It’s a democratic approach, leaving plenty of room for the other players, even with Jarman ostensibly in the spotlight reading his verse.
“Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” was one of two pieces that Jarman recorded at an October 1966 session, not long after the recording of Mitchell’s Sound. The other track from that session was “Little Fox Run,” in a longer take that Jarman wound up not using. He returned to the studio a few months later to finish the album, and a new take of “Little Fox Run” would open the record. On the surface, it is a comparatively straightforward free jazz blowout, with all the horns soloing aggressively, often joining one another in unison statements of the simple, staircase-like theme.
The AACM aesthetic emerges in subtle ways: shrill whistles sporadically join the horns in the background, and at times unison statements by two horns contrast against the third soloist contributing screechy cries. In fact, the structure is enjoyably, subtly slippery. Instead of the usual format where a theme leads into an extended period of one-by-one soloing before returning to the melody at the end of the song, themes and free playing alternate and overlap, breaking down even the loose forms of free jazz. The music may resemble other free jazz on a superficial level, but its non-hierarchical construction and openness to both unusual instruments and unpredictable sonic clashes make it stand apart.
The record’s B-side opens with “Adam’s Rib,” which juxtaposes melodic and melancholic horn lines against an arrhythmic backdrop. Clark occasionally emerges with little ringlets of scratchy, scraped bass, circular figures that agitate the music’s surface. The drums mostly avoid a beat, instead filling the space – or not – with layers of cymbal sizzle and sporadic taps and rolls. After an initial unison minor-key melody that gradually builds to a fanfare that still manages to sound forlorn, Jarman steps out with a squealing, unpredictable solo, with momentary snatches of melody and tonality laced in between plaintive honks, bursts of machine-gun screeching, and atonal cries. Brimfield, in comparison, is restrained and controlled, his crisp, well-defined notes often left hanging for a moment or two before the next note appears; even when he plays faster, the line never blurs together or loses its sense of precision. Anderson, too, is elegant and low-key, with a short and mournful solo.
Jarman stands out for the boldness of his playing here, his ability to reach the same emotional place as the other two soloists while also wringing strange sounds from his horn and mostly avoiding the familiar or the safe. Despite the oddity of that solo and the looseness of the rhythm section, this is the most traditional and concise piece on Song For, and the best place to get a sense of the three horn players’ respective styles within a relatively conventional structure.
Certainly, the 13-minute concluding title track provides little such grounding. This was Jarman’s analog to Sound‘s similarly epic title track, a study in dynamics that opens with tinkling bells and chimes, seemingly with multiple band members joining in on the percussion and “little instruments,” as they often would. Gradually, elements are added: a rhythmic chant, whistles, a gentle sax melody with wheezing harmonica lapping at its edges, hammered piano chords, a constantly shifting drum beat that leaps from flat-footed stomping to funky syncopated rhythms, without ever settling into a steady forward pulse for long. The track becomes quite dense and busy, but it never spins off into anarchy as it often seems poised to. Whenever things become too cluttered, the group pulls back, letting the layers peel back to a core of percussive accents and Gaddy’s sporadic piano clusters.
It’s a fascinating push-and-pull, forceful and exciting without indulging in overbearing histrionics; even at its most rousing, there’s a sense of space here, a depth to the music that allows it to be dense without obscuring the individual contributions in an overall din. That balance is characteristic of Song For, and of the nascent AACM in general. Even though a few major players, Jarman included, soon emerged as the most prominent and recognizable of the collective’s members, the group’s aesthetic was in some ways opposed to that kind of emphasis. Certainly, here, a large part of this album’s appeal is the restraint that all the musicians display. Solos, though often formally adventurous, aren’t sprawling or prolonged; they’re concise, direct statements that make a point and then step out of the way for the next player to “speak.” The album’s form shifts constantly from collective improvising to traditional soloing to a more freeform space that could easily devolve into chaos but is kept back from that edge only by the attentiveness and democratic generosity of the whole group.