Let me begin by admitting that I have never been much of a fan of what is often called free jazz—the more innovative and complex it got, the more I found myself floundering in its experimental cacophonies. The freer it got, the less I understood what was going on. So when the recently released album from the Christopher Alpiar Quartet, The Jazz Expression, arrived in the mail, and the publicity information described it as a “free-jazz, Coltrane inspired group of original music,” I was in no great rush to crank it into the CD player. While Coltrane is certainly an artist to be reckoned with, too many Coltrane-inspired musicians don’t manage to do their inspiration the justice he deserves. It’s like taking the name in vain.
Not so with the Chistopher Alpiar Quartet. These guys do Coltrane proud. And if this is free jazz (and it clearly is), the quartet is well on the way to changing at least this listener’s mind about it. Although the album’s five tracks had been recorded back in 1995, with the band members having gone their separate ways, the The Jazz Expression was only released last November. Sometimes you have to wait for a good thing.
Alpiar, who plays tenor sax, composed all of the album’s pieces. Pete Rende has a sensitive touch on the piano. Matt Pavolka is a classy bassist, and Bob Meyer contributes some stalwart work on the drums. They had played together in New York through the ’90s and they have a definite feel for one another.
The longest piece on the album is a 19-minute homage to the master himself: “Trane’s Pain.” It gives the band an extended opportunity for some dynamic exploration over a range of rhythmic variations and ideas. “Utsukushi” and “Snowy,” which ends the album, are softer and sweeter with just enough experimentation to keep from being saccharine. Indeed, for those of us with free jazz phobia, these may be the highlights of the album. “Utsukushi,” it seems, is named after the Japanese for beautiful, utsukushii. It is an appropriate title. “Welcome (Peace for the World),” which opens the album, and especially “Jupiter, Deep Space” are perhaps the more avant garde tracks on the album. Coltrane’s influence, clear throughout the album, runs throughout, but is perhaps most clearly felt here.
Alpiar, now based in Atlanta, has also put together a new group called 800 Giants, described on his website as a “Brazilian, Americana/Roots, Free-jazz fusion instrumental band mixing a unique blend of concepts and styles to create an exquisite pallete [sic] of sounds.” The band’s debut album is scheduled for release this spring. If it is as good as The Jazz Expression, it’s something to look forward to. I imagine if a CD arrives in the mail, I won’t be letting it sit around unheard for any length of time.