The Right Prescription: An Alvin Fielder Mixtape

We here at Destination: OUT are completely excited and honored to host the following celebratory (and, one hopes, salubrious) mix, lovingly and knowledgeably compiled by Hank Shteamer (Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches). Please read, listen, and enjoy…

“I wanted to play my bebop as loose as possible
and I wanted to play my free music as tight as possible.”

–Alvin Fielder in 2002, as quoted in George Lewis’s AACM history A Power Stronger Than Itself

Aesthetic manifestos like the one above are easy to voice and tough to measure. But as any fan of Alvin Fielder will attest, it would be hard to devise a more apt description of this veteran drummer’s singular style. For many trap-set players, moving between a swing feel and more textural playing is like flipping a switch; in Fielder’s work, though, the two approaches blur together, mingling with unusually subtle and potent results. Over his five-decade career, he’s put this inside-out expertise to use alongside a host of avant-jazz icons — including Sun Ra, Roscoe Mitchell and Edward “Kidd” Jordan — demonstrating a rare willingness to adapt to the needs of the music at hand, whether it’s hard-grooving, visceral, abstract, whimsical or reflective. It’s fitting, then, that the 73-year-old drummer has made his living as a pharmacist: In his art too, he always seems to find the right prescription.

So why, even in the inherently insular world of free jazz, is Fielder so little known? (It’s a crucial time to ask, given trumpeter Dennis González’s recent announcement that the percussionist, his longtime collaborator, is suffering from acute heart problems.) It may just be a simple matter of geography, traceable to a decision Fielder made almost exactly 40 years ago. In 1969, after having played a key role in Chicago’s nascent experimental-jazz community, the drummer chose not to join his AACM colleagues as they set out to make their mark on the national and international scenes. Instead, he headed back to his home state of Mississippi to assume control of his father’s drugstore. He’s remained there ever since.

The move may have ensured his future obscurity as an artist, but it didn’t stifle his creativity. Along with a handful of like-minded associates, including González, Jordan and pianist Joel Futterman, he’s worked to establish a uniquely Southern school of free jazz. Fielder’s discography — which stretches from 1966 right through to the present day — is sparse yet meaty, offering plenty of proof that he’s one of the most versatile drummers alive. The following mixtape is intended as both a get-well card to Mr. Fielder and a long-overdue survey of his impressive body of work.



Roscoe Mitchell Sextet

Delmark : 1966

RM, alto sax, etc.; Maurice McIntyre, tenor sax; Lester Bowie, trumpet, etc.; Lester Lashley, trombone, cello; Malachi Favors, bass; AF, drums.

Sound is of course the record that introduced the AACM to the world. And on the daringly sparse title track — originally issued in a composite version of the two recorded takes — the first sound to appear is a hushed Alvin Fielder cymbal swell. Over the 19-plus minutes of the second version, Fielder avoids drums entirely; during Lashley’s trombone feature, excerpted above, the percussionist moves from taut hi-hat work to expansive crash-cymbal washes and back again. He stretches out more on “The Little Suite,” complementing each of the piece’s sections with a unique texture, including a playful march cadence at 1:30 and disembodied bop fills around 7:35; also, dig the “Shave and Haircut” figure at 6:49. In George Lewis’s book, Fielder credits Mitchell and AACM cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams for helping him to “loosen up,” but hearing the above performances, it’s clear that the drummer was as freethinking an improviser as any of his Chicago colleagues.

The Improvisational Arts Quintet
No Compromise!
Prescription/Danjor : 1983/2003 [reissue]

“Kidd” Jordan, alto sax; Clyde Kerr Jr., trumpet; Elton Heron, el. bass; AF, drums.

Aside from one seemingly impossible-to-find release — listed in several discographies as History Is Made Every Second No Compromise!, available only from Louisiana Music Factory, is Fielder’s next published recording after Sound. The disc debuted the Improvisational Arts Quintet, a variable-size group (despite its name) that has survived through to the present day, with Jordan and Fielder as co-leaders. The compellingly spacious “Three Pastels,” composed by the band’s sometime bassist London Branch and apparently recorded in 1978, bears a strong AACM influence. Fielder duets with each  player in turn; he sounds especially at home alongside Jordan, offering quirky hand percussion and delicate cymbal scrapes to complement the saxist’s patented false-register squeals. (Note the name of the original record label — likely a reference to Fielder’s pharmaceutical profession.)

Charles Brackeen Quartet
Silkheart : 1987

CB, tenor sax; Dennis González, flugelhorn; Malachi Favors, bass; AF, drums.

Dennis González New Dallas Sextet
Silkheart : 1987

DG, trumpet; CB, tenor sax; Douglas Ewart, bass clarinet; Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet; MF, bass; AF, drums.

Ahmed Abdullah Quartet
Liquid Magic
Silkheart : 1987

AA, trumpet; CB, tenor sax; MF, bass; AF, drums.

All recorded at the same Dallas studio within a single week in February 1987 and featuring overlapping personnel, the above tracks serve to demonstrate not only Fielder’s continued excellence but the remarkable vitality of the ’80s avant-jazz scene. Kudos go to Dennis González for convening all these heavyweights in his hometown. “Open [Take 2]” finds saxist Brackeen (a brilliant player who’s sadly MIA as of this writing) piloting a scorching freebop unit including both Fielder and his old AACM colleague Favors. Here, the drummer maintains a furiously fleet pulse, occasionally sounding like a freer version of his onetime teacher Ed Blackwell. “The Separation of Stones” showcases González’s lushly eccentric writing in addition to some gorgeously airy Tony Williams-esque cymbal work from Fielder. The festive “Ebony Queen” features the drummer at his loosest and most festive; at around 6:00, listen for his springy solo, which works in a number of Max Roach licks.

The Improvisational Arts Quintet
The New New Orleans Music
Rounder : 1989

“Kidd” Jordan, tenor sax; Clyde Kerr Jr., trumpet; Kent Jordan, flute; Elton Heron, el. bass; AF, drums.

Recorded in the mid-’80s and issued on a compilation that also included five pieces by the New Orleans Saxophone Ensemble, this track reconvenes the band from “Three Pastels” above, with the addition of “Kidd” Jordan’s son Kent. Fielder skillfully navigates the eccentric contours of the tune, offering a marchlike staccato on the bookend theme statements, subtly propulsive bop underneath Kerr and wispy brushwork during Jordan’s solo.

The Joel Futterman-“Kidd” Jordan Quintet
Nickelsdorf Konfrontation
Silkheart : 1995

KJ, tenor sax; JF, piano; Mats Gustafsson, baritone sax; Barry Guy, bass; AF, drums.

Fielder’s career arc eventually led him to Europe for several live recordings. For this date, he journeyed to Nickelsdorf, Austria in the company of Jordan and the Virginia Beach-based pianist Joel Futterman, whose expressionistic and highly energetic technique nods to Cecil Taylor and Bobby Few. (Fielder, Jordan and Futterman have worked together in various settings ever since.) Also onboard are European free-improv titans Gustafsson and Guy. On this track, Fielder has a ball with the former, matching the saxist’s muscular outbursts with bursts of clattery swing and rumbling tom-tom rolls.

“Kidd” Jordan/Joel Futterman/Alvin Fielder Trio
Live at the Tampere Jazz Happening 2000
Charles Lester Music : 2004

KJ, tenor sax; JF, piano, flute, soprano sax; AF, drums.

The most recent of several Jordan/Futterman/Fielder trio discs, the Tampere recording is also the strongest. After building to a feverish peak at the conclusion of the main set, the group begins its encore romantically, alluding to the classic Coltrane quartet in ballad mode. Fielder sets the pace with a slow, lusciously airy strut, remaining laid-back even as the other two escalate into a vigorous sparring match, during which Futterman switches from piano to flute to soprano. The performance ends with a wild Futterman-Fielder coda and a brief press-roll flourish from the drummer. (In the intervening years, Futterman and Fielder have often mined similar territory in a trio with the brawny Bay Area saxist Ike Levin; several recordings of this band are out on Charles Lester.)

Alvin Fielder Trio
A Measure of Vision
Clean Feed: 2007

Dennis González, trumpet; Chris Parker, piano; AF, drums.

Some four decades after his recorded debut, Fielder issued his first session as a leader. It’s a brilliantly understated set, featuring the core trio of the drummer, the Arkansas-born Parker and González, as well as guest spots from the trumpeter’s sons Aaron (bass) and Stefan (drums and vibes). The band’s improvisations stretch far beyond the compositional forms, though they rarely touch on anything resembling conventional free jazz; more often they resemble a coolly abstract form of postbop. “À Mon Frère,” a Parker arrangement of a piece by Spanish composer Federico Mompou, uses a melancholy waltz as a launchpad into a hauntingly spare González/Fielder duet. Much as he did on Sound, the drummer plays pure texture, which comes off as ghostly yet gripping.

Most of the above releases are still in print on CD: Visit Delmark, Louisiana Music Factory, Silkheart, Charles Lester Music and Clean Feed for ordering info. (The New New Orleans Music is available as a digital download from Amazon.) Special thanks to all the labels for the use of the tracks above and to Dennis González for discographical assistance. Most of all, thanks to Mr. Fielder for the music. We wish him a speedy recovery and many more years of fruitful musicmaking!


Further reading:

* As previously mentioned, George Lewis’s  A Power Stronger Than Itself contains excerpts from several Fielder interviews, in which he discusses his AACM work in detail.

* John Litweiler’s 2001 Jazz Times piece thoroughly chronicles Fielder’s early years, including his time with Sun Ra.

* Clifford Allen’s excellent and exhaustive All About Jazz interview from 2005 delves deep into Fielder’s drumming influences and the history of the Southern free-jazz diaspora.

* Joe Milazzo’s 2001 One Final Note interview with Dennis González offers some compelling reflections on working with Fielder over many years.

* Brian Beaulieu’s brief biography/interview surveys Fielder’s career from a Mississippi-centric perspective. Check the final paragraph from some great insights re: how Fielder prepares for gigs (“I train like a boxer.”).

Further listening/viewing:

* A clip of Fielder (and Jordan) performing alongside veteran brass player Eddie Gale, with a nice close-up of the drummer around 6:35.

* An intense 2007 appearance by the Fielder/Futterman/Levin trio.

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