The jazz genre was said to be in decline and decay from the about the late Sixties onward and, in terms of sales and popular attention, there was probably some reason for this assertion, as rock, R&B, funk, soul and other forms of music sapped audiences away from jazz, which had a peak of popularity in the late 50s and early 60s.
Yet, there was phenomenal music being made just as the form was said to be dying on the vine and much of the finest work came out of Chicago, this blogger's hometown, where the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) was blazing trails through the work of Muhal Richard Abrams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and many more, including the trio that made up AIR (Artists in Residence.)
Bassist Fred Hopkins, drummer Steve McCall, and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill made some of the most exciting jazz in the Seventies, starting with Air Song, a 1975 recording, and continuing with a slew of studio and live recordings over the next several years.
The project actually began in 1971 when Threadgill was asked by Chicago's Columbia College to develop a program based on the music of ragtime master Scott Joplin. While Joplin was known for his piano compositions, the trio was challenged by making music on other instruments that took its inspiration from the keyboard instrument. In fact, Threadgill has frequently used ragtime as a basis for his music ever since.
The opening track (all four titles were written by Threadgill) of Air Song is simply called "Untitled Song" and opens with McCall's powerful drumming before the trio moves into forms of interplay that aptly demonstrate why this was such a remarkable group. Later in the piece, Hopkins gets an extended solo that is simply awesome. Threadgill is typically lyrical, playful, offbeat and challenging on alto, playing that instrument in a way that is totally his own.
Threadgill has a knack for fanciful and, perhaps, nonsensical song titles, maybe because, particularly in freer forms of jazz, descriptive titles are hard to justify. In any case, "Great Body of the Riddle or Where Were the Dodge Boys When My Clay Started to Slide" is another amazing piece, anchored by Hopkins' rich bass work, McCall's inventive percussion, and a highly earthy and creative solo by Threadgill on the baritone sax, an instrument not generally heard often in jazz and certainly not by Threadgill.
"Dance of the Beast" is another superlative effort by the rhythm section as McCall and Hopkins shapeshift frequently and keep the piece humming along with invention and precision, while Threadgill overblows, honks, sputters and wails his way around the piece--evidently providing much of the impetus for the title, although his compatriots certainly comprise a "beast" of a rhythm section, as well.
Threadgill begins the title track with a somber flute solo, punctuated by a splash of cymbals by McCall and arco bass by Hopkins, who sympathetically and brilliantly accompanies Threadgill's playing, with the occasional cymbal crashing and triangle playing by the drummer. In addition to Threadgill's staggering soloing, Hopkins's masterful bass and McCall's restraint are key to the success of this low-key, but highly impressive performance.
In fact, this is what made AIR's debut so remarkable--the trio performed as a totally integrated, synchronized unit, putting the collaborative above the showy and the plurality above the individual. Air Song is a brilliant work by a superlative group of jazz musicians.