Monday, October 28, 2013

Last Exit: Headfirst into the Flames, Live in Europe

Ronald Shannon Jackson, a masterful drummer who played with Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and others and who fronted such bands as The Decoding Society, passed away on 19 October at age 73.  Jackson also had a long association with the omnipresent Bill Laswell, including holding down the rhythm section with the bassist in the stunning "free jazz" supergroup, Last Exit.

From their debut in 1986, Last Exit was devoted to completely improvised, live music with as much sonic firepower and as little political correctness as possible.  Jackson and Laswell had a formidable job trying to hold down the bottom while Peter Brötzmann on reeds and the sublime guitarist Sonny Sharrock were a formidable front line of screams, cries and other generally generous forms of musical mayhem.

A particularly interesting recording of the band is Headfirst into the Flames, recorded in 1989 in Munich and Stockholm and featuring the group in all of their wild and woolly glory.  Nine pieces stretching over an hour represent the epitome of Last Exit's fearsome power, masterful playing, sense of humor and perhaps among the purest forms of musical democracy one will find anywhere. 

An extra bonus is the adaptation of quotations by the American poet and novelist Kenneth Patchen from his experimental novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight.  Titles include "Don't Be a Cry Baby, Whatever You Do;" "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows;" "Hanged Man Are Always Naked;" "I Must Confess I'm a Cannibal;" and a favorite of this listener, "Jesus!  What Gorgeous Monkeys We Are."  Given Last Exit's free association live work (there was one studio album, the interesting Iron Path, which is utterly tame and almost melodic compared to the five live releases--Brötzmann, in particular, tends to shun the studio for the immediacy and connectivity of the stage), these titles are truly meaningless, but they sure are fun to read.

In any case, listening to any Last Exit album is an experience not to be found anywhere else in the wide panoply of music generally labeled "free jazz" and the chaos is held together by the amazing musicianship and, again, the able work of Laswell and Jackson.  The latter may not be a name many folks recognize, but his body of work from the mid-1960s onward is truly impressive.  His time with Last Exit and his playing on Headfirst into the Flames are an excellent testament to his abilities.  May Ronald Shannon Jackson rest in peace!

Last Exit:  Headfirst into the Flames, Live in Europe (Downtown Music Gallery, 2008/Muworks Records, 1993)

1.  Lizard Eyes  5:30
2.  Don't Be a Cry Baby, Whatever You Do  6:35
3.  So Small, So Weak, This Bloody Sweat of Loving  4:25
4.  Headfirst into the Flames  3:00
5.  A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows  6:25
6.  Jesus!  What Gorgeous Monkeys We Are  11:01
7.  Hanged Man Are Always Naked  10:05
8.  No One Knows Anything  5:15
9.  I Must Confess I'm a Cannibal 10:40

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