Note: This is an extensively modified and expanded version of a review, originally published by SoundOhm.
An extension of the efforts of one of the best record shops in Europe, since beginning with a flurry of activity in 2014, the Parisian imprint SouffleContinu has shown a deep dedication to repairing the sins of time – particularly those inflicted on the shadowy depths of the French avant-garde. On the heels of the momentum created by their widely heralded reissue of Barney Wilen’s legendary Moshi, their incredibly important work continues with a triplet from Cohelmec Ensemble – one of the great lost gestures of indigenous European Jazz.
Cohelmec Ensemble – Hippotigris Zebra Zebra (1969 / 2017)
Arguably, after America, France holds the most important place in the global history of Jazz. Even in the art form’s earliest days, the country was quick to see past the color lines which plagued the geographies of its birth – offering its innovators forum, swelling audiences, and opportunity. For all of the years that this music represented the pinnacle of sonic cultural expression, France was the golden pasture for its players – the place to be. For decades, composers and musicians rushed its borders – becoming the evolving soundtrack for multiple generations – inspiring many of the first realizations of this music beyond the country of its origin.
Though there are exceptions – Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt being among the most notable, until the late 1960’s France was generally a place that foreign figures of Jazz came to, played gigs and recorded, before returning home. This changed as the idiom become more explicitly avant-garde and entered its free improvised form. Escaping their own country’s racism and increasing neglect, many of America’s Free-Jazz pioneers migrated to France during this era – some for a handful of years, others permanently. Like those who had proceeded them, they were received by enthusiastic audiences and open arms.
The musical context of France during the politically charged atmosphere of the psychedelic era, is among the most fascinating in the history of organized sound. The country’s audiences were unique – seeing music as an action which extended from social change and revolution – looking beyond genre, direct association, and signifier. Radicalism was embraced and championed. Unlike most other realizations of the counterculture, French listeners did not abandon Jazz for Rock & Roll. Rather, they departed from the previous era with a broadened willingness of approach. They were progressive, offering ear to an incredibly diverse range of sonic expression from within and without – incubating and giving host to some of the most exciting and revolutionary music of the period. The country’s forum of Free Jazz was no exception.
The history of French Free Jazz (which is not to be confused with other realizations of improvised music, or those employing indeterminacy) is fragmented. There are three narratives – one which focuses on American luminaries working within its borders, one which primarily relates to collaborations formed between French and American players (though it does extend more globally), and the autonomous activities of certain indigenous artists – those working largely outside the international network.
As is usually the case, our vision and understanding of history is sculpted by the availability of artifacts – in this case, vinyl records. During the late 1960’s and through the 70’s, French recording studios gave way to one of the greatest canons of free improvised music ever assembled. Particularly due to iconic status of the BYG Actuel series, as well as the America and Shandar catalogs, much of the focus has been offered to the American players who then resided in France, extending toward their local collaborators. It largely bypasses French players with whom these artists did not have direct connection and collaboration – those whose efforts were documented by more obscure and idiosyncratic labels like Futura and Saravah. While figures like François Tusques, Barre Phillips, Barney Wilen, Bernard Vitet, and Jacques Coursil have enjoyed consistent and wide praise for their work, countless others – those operating with more individual autonomy, have drifted into the shadows of time.
African American culture unquestionably deserves credit for the origins of all primary forms of Jazz. It is also worth acknowledging discrete aspects of its histories – its more diverse components. Following quickly on the heals of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, Jazz rapidly evolved into a multiracial, and increasingly cross-continental music. Nearly every country on the globe has hosted unique and culturally specific iterations. Though explicit progress and creative paradigm shift almost always grew from the innovations of African American composers and musicians – each generations moving on from the groundwork of the last, it is important to recognize that this music has rarely allowed itself to be culturally or racially hermetic. A single claim is complex and filed with shades of grey. Jazz, like the country from which it grew, has almost always been a melting pot – a place for people to meet with equity and communicate – be that the diversity displayed by its players, or that of its audiences. Jazz is a language, spoken by many. Given how willing players have always been to collaborate across cultural lines, it seems fair to presume that this is part of its intent. The difference lays between recognizing who began the conversation, and who contributed to it. This music is one of the great historical actors in the fight against racism and cultural division. It is global discourse of many streams. There is no exception when regarding the origins of Free Jazz. The seminal quartet which recorded Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come – generally regarded as the first recorded work of Free Jazz, features a white player – Charlie Haden. The New York Art Quartet included John Tchica, who was Danish, and Roswell Rudd, who is white. Cecil Taylor’s first record features Buell Neidlinger and Steve Lacy, both of whom are white. Albert Ayler’s first recordings are entirely backed by a Swedish ensemble, while Eric Dolphy’s final gestures (recorded in 1964) are backed by different groupings of European players. The list goes on and on. Even the AACM, the great collective effort of black music, did not always host entirely African American membership – there were a number of early white contributors who were later voted out as the group’s political concerns evolved.
As in America, European Jazz has a difficult and complex history – particularly during the 1960’s and 70’s. Free Jazz – the dominant form during the era, is a political music which grew from the African American experience and struggle. As it began to take root in Europe – notably in England, France, and Germany – inspiring a new generation of players, intellectual circles began to question the authenticity of these creative gestures – asking if the efforts of white Europeans were cultural appropriation. While these questions have largely fallen away – few fans and players of Free Jazz currently deny the importance of contributions made by Europeans, their consequences still linger. When looking at the legacies of European iterations of this music, the names which loom the largest -Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Peter Brötzmann, François Tusques, etc, are almost always those who sought collaboration with their American peers. There is a structure of validation through association lingering below the history we know – the result of reconciliations made within the cultural debates of that era.
Beginning during the 1960’s, and continuing today, Europe has offered the world a steady stream of indigenous realizations of Free-Jazz – some part of a global network, others landlocked and working in more isolation and autonomy. Among the most interesting of later, is the greatly neglected Cohelmec Ensemble – the focus of SouffleContinu’s latest three reissues.
Cohelmec Ensemble – Next (1971 / 2017)
Founded by Jean Cohen (saxophones), Dominique Elbaz (piano) Jean-Louis Méchali (drums) and François Méchali (bass) – each member symbolically offering a truncated portion of their name to the whole – COH / EL / MEC, the Cohelmec Ensemble was a true product of the era of May ’68 – a gesture in the radical collectivist sound – an ensemble without leader. The group was an effort in the politics of listening as much as conversation. A gesture of mutual aid and responsibility – to build rather than break. A utopia of sound, giving way to one of the great unheralded gestures in European Jazz.
Between 1969 and 1974 – emerging from the hands of an ever fluctuating line-up of collaborators, the Cohelmec Ensemble released three albums – Hippotigris Zebra Zebra, Next, and 5 Octobre 1974, the first two on Saravah, and the final on Chevance. Approached today – speaking from the shadows of a neglected and often unheard history, each offers revelation and shock – standing outside of the narrative – rewriting it with three single blows. Though emerging from an entirely different context and sociopolitical concern, when addressed sonically and structurally, the Cohelmec Ensemble strongly resemble many of their American cousins – joining improvised music with the carefully composed – looking for new terms of collaboration and sustainability. The products are striking and unique – more emotional and spiritually infused than many of their European peers. From intricate textures and interplay, to a rising sea of energetic fire, the group’s efforts swell from sensitivity and mutual respect – proof that politics could be heard.
Cohelmec Ensemble – 5 Octobre 1974 (1974 / 2017)
Hippotigris Zebra Zebra, Next, and 5 Octobre 1974 each offer a new vision of the history of Free Jazz – presenting it as an indigenous French social music. Within these grooves lay the sounds of a struggle which, through empathy and solidarity, grew from another. This is a revolutionary music looking for the common thread – for a collective voice of humanity – for sonic structures which transcend race, class, and culture, while nodding to the credit they are due. This is the unheard voice of European Jazz at its best. Reentering the world in the embrace of love and care, once again SouffleContinu offers remarkable artifacts which change the terms – repairing the sins of time. Whether placed within the narrative of Jazz, or more broadly as a neglected thread of the French avant-garde, these works which highlight the many optimisms and possibilities of organized sound. Filled with joy, conversation, intellect and experimentation, they are entirely of their moment, while infused with the power to rewrite the present with every note. You can check out samples below, and pick them up from the label direct or via SoundOhm. Both offer them individually or as a bundle.
Cohelmec Ensemble – Aventures Terrestres Aquatiques, from Hippotigris Zebra Zebra (1969)
Cohelmec Ensemble – Lude and Panama Red, from Hippotigris Zebra Zebra (1969)
Cohelmec Ensemble – Desert Angel, From Next (1971)
Cohelmec Ensemble – Colchique Dans Les Pres, from Next (1971)