Power to the Polka

Frank Wright Quartet
Last Polka in Nancy?
Center of the World : 1973

FW, tenor sax; Bobby Few, piano; Alan Silva, bass; Muhammad Ali, drums.

What? Yeah: polka.

The title of Frank Wright’s 1973 live album is no joke and neither is “Doing the Polka.” This is a genuine free jazz polka. No wait! Keep reading — because it’s also an extraordinary track, featuring a whomping, herky-jerk groove, fearsomely dissonant soloing, and a side-splitting sense of humor.

There’s a spectacular unhinged buoyancy to this 8-minute piece. Recorded live in Nancy, France, the laughter bursting from the stage seems like a compositional tactic. You can easily imagine it infecting the audience. But nobody in Wright’s stellar quartet is making fun of the polka as much as imbibing its celebratory essence and letting the joy spill over.

This track is hugely unexpected coming from Frank Wright – famously influenced by Albert Ayler and urban street-noise – but no less welcome. It’s as serious as your life in the way that the Holy Modal Rounders are. Its playfulness is the exact measure of its seriousness. Wright and his quartet understand that only the truly glib are cynical enough to always play it straight and solemn.

“Doing the Polka” is utterly singular in the history of avant jazz, a hilarious anarchic blast that’s a spiritual cousin to Louis Armstrong’s “Laughin Louis.” In some ways, this feels like free jazz cartoon music. We could use more of it.

For some more extreme polka, here’s one that despite all it’s rage is just a rat in cage and also wants to fuck you like an animal. Enjoy!

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STAY TUNED: Early next week we’ll have a special guest post from Dave Douglas about some unique trumpet music.

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