Keepin' constant

NYC's Freestyle Music Series Presents Jazz's Cutting Edge When The Spotlights are Low

By Chris Kelsey

As all non-comatose jazz fans are well aware, New York City is without a major mainstream jazz festival this summer, which seems to have resulted in a boost of recognition for its yearly alternative jazz event, The Vision Festival. The annual avant-garde confab (which hits this week) once again features a huge selection of gifted free jazzers, raising the music's profile at a time when God knows it can use some raising.

Yet, as someone once said (and as I've been reading rather incessantly, lately), New York City is a year-round jazz festival. That certainly goes for free jazz; the Vision Fest gets the crowds in the summertime, but other dedicated musicians, promoters, and venues keep the fire burning the other 51 weeks.

Once such musician/promoter is Dee Pop, member of the free-jazz/roots-music trio Radio I-Ching, and longtime drummer for the punk rock band the Bush Tetras. For years, Pop has booked the Freestyle Music Series, a weekly event that features the finest leftward-leaning jazz artists from New York and beyond—including many if not most of the musicians who play the Vision Fest every year.

For years, the FMS convened on Sunday nights at the late, lamented CB's Gallery, the slightly upscale next-door neighbor to the equally-defunct punk rock mecca CBGB's, on the Bowery in the East Village. Pop shut down the series for a time in order to recharge his batteries (keeping free jazz alive on a weekly basis is an exhausting job). He eventually re-launched the series, finding a couple of temporary homes before setting down what is hoped are new roots on Sunday nights at Local 269, a Lower East Side bar on the corner of Houston and Suffolk Streets.

The last Sunday preceding the Vision Fest featured three acts for the usual ridiculously cheap five dollar admission: Radio I-Ching (drummer Pop, soprano saxophonist Andy Haas, and man-of-many-fretted-instruments Dan Fiorino) opened with a gritty stylistic mash up that drew on everything from Monk to blue grass to hard core. Bassist Joe Morris' trio changed the mood 180 degrees, with a set of swinging free bop of a nearly Tristano-esque bent, featuring drummer Luther Gray and the terrific Lee Konitz-on-acid alto saxophonics of Jim Hobbs. Finishing things was bassist Francois Grillot's French Contraband Quartet. The group (which also featured flutist Robert Dick, cellist Daniel Levin, and drummer Jay Rosen) utilized light and subtle textures in a thoroughly organic, earthy approach to collective improvisation.

The night's program was characteristic of Pop's catholic tastes and disparate approach to booking. It also—typically—featured several musicians who later in the week would take the stage of the Vision Festival. The difference is, the Freestyle Music Series happens every Sunday (venue willing), rain or shine. Festivals are great, but it's constancy on a smaller scale that keeps the music alive.