Jazzman Records’s Spiritual Jazz 4: Americans in Europe does exactly what a compilation of its kind should: it teaches. “The Call,” for example, is on its surface a beautiful and bouncy 12-bar jam featuring a delicious rhythmic motif by Jimmy Hopps. But it’s also the story of Sahib Shihab, the American saxophonist who converted to Islam in in the ‘40s and, fed up with racism in his home country, decided to move to Copenhagen after touring there with Quincy Jones in the late ‘50s. Such details could probably be gleaned from any sort of compilation, but here they seem especially pertinent. As a compilation that investigates the results of a mass jazz exodus to Europe, Spiritual Jazz 4’s context is inevitably wrapped up in the way it sounds. Even the quick opener, Pierre Cavalli’s “Studie Nr. 1 fr 12-saitige Gitarre,” sounds like the blues filtered through the oceanic climate of Cavalli’s native Zurich.
Not all tracks here reflect their European influence through mere regional factors. Albert Ayler’s stunning rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” sounds like a violent, Civil Rights Movement-era reaction to the hazy tones of that song, composed 30 years earlier. Ayler beautifully squeals and bawls through his saxophone, seeming to reject not only the violent and institutionalized discrimination of the country he has now left but also Gershwin and his attempts to reproduce, even rewrite, black culture and history through a white lens. This does not mean that Gershwin wasn’t a brilliant songwriter; he was, and Ayler certainly recognized this. But with his cover, one gets the sense of something--music, culture, language, feeling--being rightfully taken back. In escaping postwar America, jazz musicians like Ayler were able to circumvent the institutions that had kept them confined for so long.
Every single track here as a result feels invigoratingly unchained, if not always pleasurable. Sun Ra’s “Enlightenment” might be a little too out there for me; Ra’s knowingly eccentric invitation to his “space-world” deters me from engaging with him seriously. Even so, Spiritual Jazz is chock full of songs that genuinely feel enlightened, the peak of which might be Don Cherry & the New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra’s “Humus”. Apparently some sort of collaboration with the Polish avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki, the strikingly ambitious piece moves from macabre to gorgeously lethargic to pure and ecstatic. Exasperatingly “hip” a reference point though it may be, I think of Flying Lotus, also of Godlike status in his own music-world, drawing from the constellations and celestial bodies. And then Lee Konitz’s pretty, loopy “Five, Four and Three” comes on, and the Earth settles once again.
This seems to be the theme of Spiritual Jazz 4: immensely talented artists attaching and detaching themselves from the social, cultural, and aesthetic mores of their native country. That freedom radiates throughout this lovingly assembled compilation until its finale, Eric Dolphy’s 19-minute “Springtime”. The album, focused as it is on context and historical narrative, could probably have been a doctoral thesis instead of an album; as I said earlier, its ostensible goal is to teach you about these artists and how and why this music came about. Even so, this is also a compilation about the beautiful noise musicians can make when they are finally uninhibited by their culture and environment. Spiritual Jazz 4 is a history lesson, but when history lessons come packaged like this, I’ll be listening eagerly.