I see a lot of people talking about seeing live music lately. Excited posts about festival lineups (Big Ears, which was this past weekend, has been the big one, but there are others, too), bitter discussions of ticket prices for huge stars that contrast the Cure’s approach versus that of Bruce Springsteen, and more.

Live music is kinda out of the question for me, for a couple of reasons: First, I’m in Montana. I don’t know of any jazz clubs near me, and artists I might potentially want to see aren’t likely to be playing in Kalispell anytime soon. Second, I am still skittish about being in crowded indoor spaces with other humans. Since moving here, I have eaten several meals in restaurants and bars, with nobody around me wearing masks, but my fellow patrons were far enough away that I didn’t feel especially imperiled. But standing shoulder to shoulder with shouting, sweating strangers in a dimly lit room? Even though I’m vaccinated, that’s just not gonna happen.

If you feel the way I do about this, trust that I see you. And you’re not wrong to want to stay safe. But if you also do miss something about the viscerality of live music, I get that too.

Trombonist Steve Swell is releasing For Jemeel — Fire From The Road this week, a triple live CD featuring his band Fire Into Music, which consisted of alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, bassist William Parker, and drummer Hamid Drake. Moondoc (whom I interviewed in 2014; he died in 2021) and Swell made several albums together, and were clearly kindred creative spirits. This set includes two performances from Texas in October 2004, and a third from the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada from September 2005. The first disc consists of a single 55-minute piece; the other two have three tracks each, which range in length from 12 to 32 minutes, so this is music for diehards or folks who are willing to plant themselves in a comfortable chair and let the music wash over them for a while.

All of these guys have a long collective history. Moondoc and Parker played together in the saxophonist’s band Muntu during the loft jazz era in New York, and many years later made the brilliant duo album New World Pygmies; a second volume added Drake to the mix. Parker and Drake, of course, also drive the bassist’s quartet, and were the rhythm section for Fred Anderson, Peter Brötzmann (in Die Like A Dog and on the trio double-disc Never Too Late But Always Too Early), Frode Gjerstad, Roy Campbell, and probably some others I can’t think of right now. Their ease with each other, their ability to be perfectly supportive while also bending and shaping the music to their own creative ends, is just breathtaking. When they’re at their best, as they are here — and look, I’ve never heard them play anything I didn’t like; they’re one of the most incredible teams in the history of music — time ceases to exist. You’re just floating in an endless blissful moment. Meanwhile, Moondoc and Swell are absolutely going for it, throwing out one spontaneously generated riff after another, exploring them in a lyrical and at times even beboppish fashion. (There are compositions performed: Moondoc’s “Junka Nu” shows up twice, and two Swell pieces, “Space Cowboys” and “Box Set,” are also performed; finally, there’s a collective work, “Swimming in a Galaxy of Goodwill and Sorrow,” which they recorded for a 2006 studio album of the same name that RogueArt hasn’t put up on their Bandcamp page yet.)

This collection reminds me of going to the Vision Festival and Tonic and the Cooler in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when free jazz was having a comeback moment. (It never went away, and it still hasn’t, but people were paying a surprising amount of attention for a little while. Then they stopped, and recently they’ve started again, thanks to a whole new generation of high-flying musical thrill seekers.) The performances I saw in those years — the David S. Ware Quartet, Fred Anderson/Kidd Jordan/William Parker/Hamid Drake, Die Like A Dog, Charles Gayle, Other Dimensions in Music, Test and many, many others — had a wild and convulsive energy, but more than that, they had a joy and vitality that you could feel in your long bones. This music has that same joy. It’s not trying to blast you through the wall or overwhelm you with raw sound; it swings much harder and more often than you might expect, and the love pouring off the stage is impossible to miss. There may be better starting points, but even if you’re new to these guys’ work, this collection will make your head bob, your knee bounce, and it will put a smile on your face.

Phil Freeman

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