For those looking for a quick synopsis of Free Forever, and they don't get much pithier than this, I can satisfy your curiosity in three words: Go Get It. This album has so much to offer. When I looked at the release date, I was a bit shocked to see 2011; I've seen most of the Best of 2011 Jazz Albums" posted online, but don't recall even seeing this mentioned. A quickly google search confirmed my suspicion. Ok, maybe I read the date wrong...nope, recorded in 2007, released in May 2011. Ahh...I know, the noted critic Ted Gioia did a top 100 albums and there was a pretty heavy emphasis on jazz. Damn, not only did Free Forever not show up in his top 100, but it didn't even make it into the next 25 denoted as honorable mention. Well, I'm here to tell youall these critics are wrong! Ok, that's being a bit facetiousI understand the best of..." and top 10, 50, 100 jazz albums of the year" are highly subjective and unimaginably hard to put together. That being said, how this recording didn't make at least a few of these lists is beyond me (not to mention being excluded from Gioia's top 125).
Since I already touched on Omer Avital's history during the Asking No Permission review, I'll use that as an excuse to give brief background sketches on two of the stars performing on this recordingAvishai Cohen and Joel Frahm. Both Cohen and Frahm (as well as pianist Jason Linder) have been performing with Avital for nearly 15 years. Like Avital, Cohen can trace his origins to Israel, where he began performing at age 10. After attending the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship, Cohen went on to a third place finish in the 1997 Thelonious Monk Jazz Trumpet competition. Following his high finish, Cohen moved to New York City where, also like Avital and Linder, he built on his budding reputation at the Smalls jazz club. Although relatively unknown outside the jazz world, Avishai Cohen is one of the up and coming young trumpeters carrying jazz into the 21st century; and after you hear this recording, you'll understand why. Besides performing as a sideman with Avital, Cohen is also an accomplished composer and bandleader, and most recently, as a performer alongside his sister Anat and brother Yuval in the trio 3 Cohens.
Joel Frahm is a saxophonist who has performed with the best of the bestand that experience is paying dividends. Like the noted jazz critic, yours truly, Frahm is a Wisconsin native. After studying classical piano and the bassoon at an early age, Frahm switched to the tenor saxophone at age 14. Following his families move to Connecticut, Frahm found himself in a high school jazz program with another young prodigy, Brad Mehldau. By 17, Joel and Brad had nailed down a weekly gig at a club in Hartford. While Mehldau went onto school at XXX, Frahm attended and graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. Since then, he has performed and recorded with, Jane Monheit, Maynard Ferguson, Lee Konitz, Andrew Hill, and Pat Martino.
So why dedicate two paragraphs to Cohen and Frahm? Easynot only are these two artists at the top of their game on this recording, but both are also at the top of their professionsand names you'll want to remember. Ok, well what about Free Forever? Although it wasn't released until 2011, Free Foreverwas recorded at the Panic Jazz Club in Marostica, Italy in 2007. All of the recordings here are original compositions from Omer Avital, and what compositions they are! While Avital takes somewhat of a backseat as a performer, his writing and arrangements showcase his unique, personal voice, and demonstrate why he is among the top composers of his generation. Turning over the spotlight to Cohen and Frahm (and to a lesser degree, Linder and Nemeth), Avital truly places the focus on the music and refrains from falling into the trap of inflating his own ego through lengthy or unnecessary bass solos. While his compositions are journeys of explorations centered on tempo and thematic shifts, it's the warm tones and feelings of hope convey through the expert use of vibrato and timbre by Frahm and Cohen which really grasp the listener. It's hard to pick a spotlight winner between Cohen and Frahmboth are exceptional at drawing the listener in and taking them on a sojourn. Although the two brass players distinguish themselves on this recording, drummer Ferenc Nemeth and pianist Jason Linder are also inventive and entertaining.
Free Forever is a recording sure to delight the experienced jazz fan; the feelings expressed by the brass men can only come from a place deep within each artist's heart. Although there is only a smattering of free jazz, novice jazz listeners may be put off by the journeys taken in each composition; this isn't the straight-ahead jazz of Wynton Marsalis. That being said, novice listeners, like all listeners, will be rewarded by the expressiveness convey by Cohen and Frahm. This recording is unique in the fact that there are few, if any, comparisons that can justly be made with other albums. The compositions are as original as those done by Mingus in his day, and the execution of the material is spot on.
Jason Linder opens the first track, Simcha," with a hauntingly beautiful piano vamp. First Cohen on trumpet, and then Frahm on sax, takes turns introducing the melody. Their opening choruses set the tone and warmth which they'll carry throughout the album. Avital then steps with a bass riff which shifts the tempo and gives the tune a Caribbean feel. The rest of the group quickly joins in and the tune blossoms into a fully-fledged groove. Linder's piano work is subtle, but his fills are memorable and perfectly placed. The group quiets slightly before shifting to a groove with an Eastern influence. After building to a satisfying apex, Linder is given some space to recite the melody on piano; it's a delicate, beautiful solo which speaks to an ethereal, light feeling. Coming out of the solo, the rest of the group slowly drives the song to a rising climax, exploding with that Latin-Caribbean feel. Oh, what a way to open the album!
One of the highlights, perhaps the highlight, is the second track, Shepherd." Again, the track opens with a simple piano vamp, before giving way to Frahm's incredibly light, airy, lyrical statement of the melody. Cohen softly picks up the next chorus where Frahm leaves off and expands on the warm, comforting tones of the sax. His solo throughout this number, as well as Frahm's, is heartfelt and drive from the soul; it has the emotion which can only come from deep within a person and is expressed as naked truth. Cohen has a keen sense for adding flavor to each track, and this one is no different; listen as he leaves the melody and very causally bends in a flatted noteit's only one note, but it's expertly placed and demonstrates his uncanny knack for expanding on a musical concept. Throughout the track there is a back-and-forth between sax and trumpet which calls to mind two song birds in conversation. All of Avital's skills as a composer are on display here; his ability to create a dramatic song with a melody which is beautiful whether stated alone by piano, sax, or trumpet, or harmonized by trumpet and sax. After listening to this recording the first time, I immediately returned to this numberhooked by the solos of Frahm and Cohen. That being said, Nemeth's work on the drums is worth a dedicate listen.
Avital finally comes center stage to stretch his fingers on Bass Solo in C." Although he does display the speed you'd expect from an expert bassist, his solo is really about building a groove which he'll carry into the next track. As such, his ability to slide into, and bend notes hints at the blues and he continues using melodic expressions to drive the solo forward.
The most experimental piece on the recording is Piano Interlude." It opens with a cluttered conversation between bass and piano. Fans of Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer will appreciate Linder's solo here; he entertains a bit of an evil sound, working on the low end of the register. Like Moran, his solo goes off on some free jazz, but never gets too far away from the melodyalways close enough to hint at it. If experimental jazz isn't your thing, skip this track, but not the album.
Ray of Sunshine," the final track, opens with a bass vamp and rhythmic clapping which gives it an Eastern feelingand perhaps calls back to Avital's Israeli heritage. Trumpet and sax enter and reinforce this theme throughout the melody. Like the rest of his compositions, Avital builds a dramatic song which rises and falls with tempo changes. After Frahm and Cohen exchange solos, Nemeth lets loose, albeit briefly, with his only drum solo on the album. The song draws to conclusion with a building tension that resolves as all the musicians join in for the final climax.
4.5 out of 5, What makes this album so enjoyable, and gives it such a high rating, are the numerous highlights found throughout. Frahm and Cohen are exceptional! The feelings they express are hard to matchand I'll go so far as to say, this is some of the best trumpet and saxophone playing of the 21st century. Avital's original compositions are another treathis melodies are beautiful and infectious and his tempo and thematic shifts create songs which carry the listener on a journey. Finally, although they take somewhat of a backseat to the brass men, Linder and Nemeth are the perfect additions; subtle yet great compliments to the group. Add all those together and you not only get a highly rated, exceptional recording, but you get an album that harkens for repeat listenings. There is so much to entertain and arouse a listener that this recording is sure to see ample playtime. Now if you'll excuse me, Omer Avital and company are beckoning for a repeat listenand I'm more than happy to oblige.
Joel Frahmsaxophone, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
Omer Avitaldouble bass