If you’re into the kind of long-form, experimental free jazz that aims at an aesthetic in which the music transcends conventions that often limit an artist’s musical vision, you’ll want to seek out composer/pianist Heiner Stadler’s two-disc release, Brains on Fire. If you like jazz that looks as much to the innovations of modern classical composers as it does to jazz innovators like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, Brains on Fire offers eight tracks originally recorded between 1966 and 1974 that will blow your mind. If, on the other hand, your taste runs to something less avant garde, Brains on Fire is more than likely not for you.
Heiner Stadler is not exactly a household name. Born in Poland and raised in Germany, he emigrated to the US when he was 23. He settled in New York, where his unique musical vision attracted a host of collaborators. His 1978 Tribute to Bird and Monk, which features an ensemble of experienced talents like Reggie Workman and Stanley Cowell, was lauded by Downbeat. He has been cited as one of those composer/arrangers taking the lead in the crossover of jazz and classical music. His music has been compared to others “responsible for shaping a new, intelligent, post-free jazz,” musicians like Anthony Braxton and Alexander von Schlippenbach.
Besides selections previously released on vinyl, the new CD release of Brains on Fire includes three works never released before. Of the eight tracks, seven are Stadler originals and one, the cunningly titled “Bea’s Flat,” is a Stadler arrangement of a Russ Freeman composition written for Chet Baker. Stadler himself plays on only five of the pieces—four with a quartet and one with a sextet. The sextet opens the first disc with “No Exercise.” Stadler is joined by Workman on bass, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, Tyrone Washington on tenor sax, Garnett Brown on trombone, and Brian Brake on drums. Owens and Brown are back in the sextet for “The Fugue #2,” which closes the second disc; they are joined by Joe Farrell on tenor sax, Don Friedman on piano, Barre Phillips on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums. Recorded in ’66, this is the oldest piece on the set, and in formal innovation it is a clear illustration of the Stadler crossover.
The quartet consists of Stadler, Workman, Washington and drummer Lenny White. Of their four tracks, Stadler says that “Heidi” is “one of the most satisfying performances I’ve initiated in its coherent integration of the written and the improvised.” “Love in the Middle of the Air” is a 20-minute duet between Workman and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, which has the young singer showing the chops that were to make her a star. “Bea’s Flat” is a 1974 recording by The Big Band of the North German Radio Station conducted by Dieter Glawisching. The variety of ensembles emphasizes the adaptability of Stadler’s compositions and arrangements.
Fairly exhaustive liner notes are the work of jazz critic Howard Mandel. If anyone can explain the essence of Stadler’s art, Mandel is the man for the job. Still, even he advises listeners “to let the music wash over you and to absorb as much as you can instead of analyzing the format.”