The common critical consensus is that the 1970s, particularly the latter half of the decade, were the historical low point for jazz in America. Very few albums survive from that era, compared with the avalanches of reissues and vault clearing box-sets of 1950s and 60s groups. Part of this is, of course, due to the short shrift granted the avant-garde by most jazz historians. The music of the so-called "New Thing," which by rote doctrine had burned itself out by 1968, in fact continued throughout the 1970s, expanding to Europe in search of audiences and growing and evolving artistically to astonishing levels of power and beauty. This is not the story offered in most histories of the music, though; instead, the story is one of dwindling audiences and artistic stagnation, lame attempts at fusion coupled with session work on disco albums and other ignominious attempts to remain somehow culturally relevant.
Truth, as always, is much more complex than history. The jazz of the 1970s, particularly in New York, was a vital and searching music, just as the best jazz has always been. Musicians like Sam Rivers, David Murray, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the World Saxophone Quartet, Cecil Taylor and many others worked tirelessly, expanding their tonal vocabularies and creating shimmering and brilliant soundscapes for whoever was still listening. The audiences were, indeed, smaller. But the scope of the artistic achievement was as grand as ever.
The 3-CD set Wildflowers documents one small part of this forgotten music scene. Recorded over ten days in May 1976 at Sam Rivers’s Studio RivBea, this set (originally released as five albums) contains an overwhelming amount of truly beautiful jazz performances, by names recognizable to almost anyone with a serious interest in the music. Saxophonists include Sam Rivers, David Murray, David S. Ware, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Byard Lancaster, Oliver Lake, Jimmy Lyons, Julius Hemphill and Henry Threadgill. Drummers include Sunny Murray, Don Moye, Steve McCall, Andrew Cyrille, and Stanley Crouch (yes, the same). Bassist Fred Hopkins is practically omnipresent here.
This music is composed, thoughtful, and artistic in every sense. The cliche of avant-garde jazz, that it is mere inchoate bleating, is repeatedly disproved here. There are some long, mantralike pieces (Roscoe Mitchell’s 25-minute "Chant," which closes Disc Three, is particularly beautiful) but there is also a nearly straight reading of "Over The Rainbow" by David Murray and Byard Lancaster on tenor and alto saxophones respectively, with Sunny Murray on drums, Fred Hopkins on bass and Khan Jamal on vibes. The opening cut on Disc One, "Jays," is a throbbing, funky saxophone-bass-drums strut which could have served as the theme to any 1970s cop show on TV with no problem.
This is an astonishing document, sonically wide-open to anyone with an ear for music of the spirit. The performances are varied enough, and sequenced in such a manner, that the most palatable, groove-oriented works will draw the listener in that he or she may appreciate the more abstract, experimental works as well. This music’s vitality is timeless; these recordings should be heard by anyone with anything more than a glancing interest in jazz.