Boston isn't a city that immediately springs to mind when you think of the history of the most adventurous extrapolations of jazz. New York and Chicago, undoubtedly; but not Boston. In spite of artists like pianist Cecil Taylor – still active now in his mid-‘80s and still vehemently trying to slough off the free jazz tag as an irrelevance – emerging in the city, and the esteemed Berklee school fostering an acclaimed jazz curriculum, it was commonplace for artists who developed their chops in Boston to hitch a ride on an Amtrak for the arguably more established and perhaps more accommodating scene further down the East Coast in the clubs of Manhattan.
True, some – like the sorely missed tenor saxophonist David S. Ware – saw the rich seam of overlooked Bostonian talent as fertile territory for his own developing aesthetic in the early 1970s, choosing to decamp to the city for the recording of his 1971 ‘The Third World’ LP; but while artists like Ware migrated into the city opportunistically, the pull of New York and Chicago left Boston bereft of a properly recognised avant-garde scene.
Horn player and band leader Mark Harvey feels like it's high time that Boston’s role in the development of the scene was given the recognition it deserves. ‘The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970 – 1983’ compiles nine tracks from various groups that were active in Boston, including his own unit, mostly culled from limited vinyl pressings by the groups involved. The album is accompanied by a spirited and well-crafted book from Harvey that seeks to position what was going on in Boston during a formative decade-and-a-bit as an overlooked hotbed of significant experimentation and forward thinking.
While the book offers a good insider’s perspective on the development of Boston’s scene, including just nine tracks of audio evidence – especially when Harvey’s group, saxophonist Arni Cheatham’s Thing and The Phill Musra Group each have two tracks on show – on face value does very little to redress the notion that Boston’s avant-garde scene wasn’t that important. This paucity of musical evidence is countered by the sheer breadth of musical ideas on display, ranging from Harvey’s own scratchy and often atonal spiritually-wild improvisations; the synth-augmented Baird Hersey group’s forays into Duke Ellington big band gestures locked into battle with acid-rock reference points; or Musra’s own channeling of John Coltrane’s seminal ‘Ascension’ LP via Ornette Coleman’s firebrand sensibilities.
Best of all are the tracks from Cheatham’s Thing, which co-opt the fusion sounds being developed by Miles Davis’s playing with the likes of John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, along with Weather Report et al. Here you find Cheatham’s group delivering a muscular, funky groove replete with intense percussion work-outs and a sub-strata of evolving melodic eruptions that nod to the likes of Miles’s ‘Bitches Brew’ and ‘In A Silent Way’, particularly with Vagn Leick’s electric piano and the interplay between Kian Knowlin’s drums and Dorian McGee’s congas.
Harvey’s compilation is a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to surveying the arguably overlooked Boston scene, and he knows it; there were far more recordings, far more artists active on the scene, or seasoned émigrés from the likes of New York looking to local talent to offer a different perspective. This is where the value of Harvey’s book comes in, particularly the discography of releases that encompasses and extends well beyond the nine pieces included on the accompanying CD. When seen as a mere primer, ‘The Boston Creative Jazz Scene’ is a decent introduction to a discrete, distinct scene-within-a-scene, and strong proof that avant-garde jazz has a map all to itself.
Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith
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