David Izenson, rarely recorded outside his role as bass player for Ornette Coleman, and Ismet Siral, known as the “Turkish Coltrane,” are among the musicians appearing on the about-to-be-released three-CD set of recordings from Creative Music Studio (CMS). The CD set, first of several re-mastered collections, features music taped in the 1970s and 1980s at the CMS center in Woodstock, where greats such as Don Cherry and John Cage participated in ground-breaking experiments in musical improvisation.
“We’re very lucky to get this archive preserved,” said Woodstock resident Karl Berger, who co-founded CMS with his wife, vocalist Ingrid Sertso, and the support of Ornette Coleman himself. “This is music that didn’t happen anywhere else. It was a rather loose atmosphere at CMS. People who would never think of playing together in New York — who wouldn’t even think of going to each other’s concerts — had a chance to collaborate.”
CMS workshops took place at the old Ohler’s Lodge West Hurley site where New York Conservatory of the Arts is now located. Weekend jam sessions were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes that were labeled haphazardly and stored away. Over the past two years, through a grant from Columbia University, which will archive the tapes, Berger and CMS participant and sound engineer Ted Orr have been listening to the roughly 400 tapes. First the tapes have to be baked to dehumidify the petroleum-based material, and then they begin to degrade as they are played. Orr digitizes the recordings to preserve them, and highlights are selected for the CDs, while full versions of each participant’s music are created to give to the artists themselves.
There’s a problem in the case of Charles Brackeen, a saxophonist who played with Ornette and recorded only a handful of albums with his own band. “He seems to have fallen off the face of the earth,” said Rob Saffer, president of the board of directors of the Creative Music Foundation. “Even his ex-wife doesn’t know where he is, if he’s still alive and still sane.”
The first CD opens with several duets between Brackeen and drummer Ed Blackwell. A rippling soprano sax evokes a Mideastern ambiance that mingles impeccably with Blackwell’s innovative drum lines. Izenson plays bass in several numbers with Berger and Sertso. Violist Leroy Jenkins teams up with guitarist James Emery to create fascinating textures. Olu Dara, best known as a cornetist, guitarist, and singer, fronts a blues orchestra, leading on harmonica. Other tracks feature Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Nana Vasconcelos, Frederick Rzweski, Ursula Oppens, and Foday Suso and the Mandingo Griot Society.
Berger is glad to have the re-mastering supervised by Orr, a multi-instrumentalist who cooked meals at CMS as part of a work-study exchange. “Ted knows the recordings and the people on them,” said Berger. “They were live concerts, and the people who recorded them weren’t aware they should annotate the tapes. They’ll be labeled, say, ‘May 17,’ with no year, or just one name when there were 16 people playing.”
Very rare material
The early version of CMS ran from 1971 to 1984, but the tapes only went up to 1981. A few weeks ago, Berger was contacted by Stuart Leigh, an independent radio producer who has made field recordings in Africa and was in charge of some of the CMS taping. Leigh heard about the digitization project and delivered another 75 recordings that were in his possession.
“Just a few people have heard this stuff,” said Saffer, who has brought his skills as a producer and an organizer to rejuvenate CMS since the digitization project began. “Karl is 78, a wonderful artist. The last thing he should be doing is running an organization. He should be composing, teaching, and playing.”
Saffer met Berger by taking one of his Gamala Taki rhythm training workshops, studying the techniques that enabled musicians of different genres to improvise together at CMS. The experience gave Saffer insight into the artistic and historical value of the work. “CMS has meaning for a lot of museums and fans,” he said. “It stands for improvisation, freedom, honesty, and a non-dogmatic, non-genre approach to music.” He was determined to bring the music and the method to more people.
The need for CMS
After over two decades of teaching workshops on their own around the world, Berger and Sertso have begun to lead five-day CMS retreats, in which they are joined by renowned musicians who teach during the day and give public performances each evening. The third such event will be held June 8-11 at Full Moon Lodge in Oliverea. Meanwhile, Berger has put together an Improviser’s Orchestra that performs in New York City with a rotating group of about 75 musicians.
“The need for CMS is still here, more than ever,” said Berger. “People have less time to get together and experiment. School programs are conservative in their stylistic training. They don’t allow much exploration. Our last two workshops at Full Moon had amazing concerts that you can’t hear anywhere else.”
The new CDs will expand the music’s reach still farther. The set features liner notes on the recordings from the 70s and 80s, the history of CMS and its Archive Project, and rare photos from the CMS Archive. Also are included are interviews with Olu Dara, Oliver Lake, and other artists, part of the Creative Music Foundation’s Oral History Project. ++
The three-CD set Creative Music Studio Archive Selections, Volume 1, was released on iTunes and at retail stores on April 29. The set costs $29 and is also available through the Innova label at www.innova.mu. For more information on CMS and the programs at Full Moon Lodge, to be held June 9-13, see https://www.creativemusicfoundation.org/.