Pianist Joel Futterman was originally a Chicagoan, but he’s been a Virginia guy for a long time now. His roots are in the Windy City’s AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), and it certainly shows, though the immediate influence that impresses through his improvisational attack would be Cecil Taylor. The biggest noticeable difference between Futterman and many of the other Taylor-ite players on the scene is that he feels less like an exponent of a conservatory environment and more rooted in a classic jazzic “live-music” tradition: the club/rehearsal space as sound lab. This isn’t to infer that Futterman’s playing isn’t academically challenging (and rewarding), it just feels more descended from the hotspot that produced Taylor’s masterpiece NEFERTITI, THE BEAUTIFUL ONE HAS COME than the perhaps safer shelter of the accelerated learning atmosphere that’s aided the work of Anthony Braxton and the late Bill Dixon. I’m not proposing that the academy is inferior to the club stage (especially since there isn’t a player that ranks higher for me personally than Brax), I’m just observing. Futterman’s great gush is very much in the grand stream of “excellence through performance”, which is where the AACM influence really comes into focus. Having a founding AACM member to join the proceedings on SOUTHERN EXTREME gets those fine roots showing even more. Alvin Fielder is one of the lynchpin names in the history of the ‘60s Chicago avant-garde movement. He played on SOUND, Roscoe Mitchell’s essential Delmark release and then disappeared from the recording scene for a couple decades, moving to Mississippi and working as a pharmacist. In the ‘80s he reappeared through the indie-label jazz renaissance, hooking up with Futterman and others and thankfully insuring that his legacy would be something other than another lost name. Fielder is one of many underappreciated guys from the original avant-wave that learned and played extensively in an “inside” context” before satisfying the urge to head into fresh territory. He’s quite an expert on the subtleties of assorted modern jazz masters that proceeded and inspired him in the drum seat, and the deep effect that his knowledge and influence of history has on his playing makes him a fine partner not only for Futterman, but especially saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan, a New Orleans legend whose profile has risen over the last few decades due to his deep connections with some long standing greats like William Parker, Hamid Drake and the late Fred Anderson. Jordan’s recorded pedigree is notable for its R&B sessions, including backing the great Professor Longhair, so it should be no surprise that his playing is infused with a sharp bluesy edge that could surely be described as Coltranian. Certainly Jordan was touched by the influence of John, and that certainty is quite pronounced at times in his work on SOUTHERN EXTREME, but it’ll probably be a bit more useful to describe his playing on this disc as remindful of the late Taylor collaborator Jimmy Lyons. Some may consider that a stretch since Lyons played alto and Jordan, a multi-instrumentalist, sticks to tenor on this date. A few of Futterman’s earliest recordings included work with Lyons (stuff I REALLY want to hear), so I’ll admit to that knowledge possibly influencing the above comparison. But only a little bit. Because there are long passages on this live recording that boil like a smaller group version of Taylor’s amazing UNIT STRUCTURES. There are also extended spots that don’t sound like that at all, including the end of track two, where Jordan works himself into a scorching lower-register frenzy that collides with Futterman, who appears to be channeling McCoy Tyner under the influence of trucker speed. When the pianist really connects with Fielder’s percussive abilities he can briefly summon a similarity to the great Muhal Richard Abrams (more Chicago), and furthermore occasionally tosses out ideas that seem inspired by players as diverse as Paul Bley, Andrew Hill and even Jaki Byard. He has a wide ranging conversational strength in his fingertips, but doesn’t stop there, also blowing a couple of fine horns, namely the soprano sax and Indian wood flute, and when he steps away from the keyboard to flex his lungs the sparks do indeed fly. The segments where wood flute and drums mingle and stretch out are a bit like falling through a time-hole to find Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell playing on a Copenhagen street corner for the sheer love of it on a cool overcast day in 1970 (or thereabouts). And the fine saxophone tussles with Jordan are some of the disc’s highlights.
In comparison to the late Richard Grossman or John Blum, Futterman’s done a whole lot of recording, appearing on over sixty releases. In spite of his prolific output, he remains terribly underappreciated as a top-rank post-Taylor improviser as vital to the continuing progress of the music as Marilyn Crispell, Matthew Shipp, or Myra Melford. Where Grossman’s neglect is comparable to the master pianist Herbie Nichols and Blum’s relative lack of opportunity thus far feels similar to the early portion of fellow piano great Horace Tapscott’s career (this of course is subject to change), Futterman’s lack of recognition seems to stem in part from his geographic circumstances, and the artist that I can’t seem to shake in relation to his work isn’t a pianist but a writer. Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker spent the majority of her life in rural Wisconsin, and the largely posthumous interest in her outstanding work has revealed that her lifestyle was inextricably linked to her creativity. It seems incorrect to opine that the factors necessary for artists like Niedecker and Futterman to flourish also works against their best interests somehow. One surefire obstacle for creative minds is recognizing the environment that best suits their endeavors, and the notion that artists thrive on the often erratic pulse of the urban milieu is true for many, but obviously not for all. Joel Futterman is proof of that, as are Jordan and Fielder. If the trio on SOUTHERN EXTREME suffers a lack of recognition, the fault lies not with them or their outstanding work but with their potential audience’s lack of diligence. Seek and ye shall find, you know?