Yesterday at Sandhills Community College, as part of the Palustris Festival, in Pinehurst, North Carolina, there was a JLP event featuring the Ron Free Trio, with Bob Bowen on bass and Court Stewart on piano. The event began at 4pm. We were pitted against UNC-Kansas in NCAA hoops on TV, no small thing in this state, and in one of the capitols of golf we were faced (again, on TV) with Tiger Woods winning Arnold Palmer’s tournament for his first title in two and a half years. Against the odds, there was a good, engaged turnout.
(It wasn’t lost on us that a Eugene Smith-based event in North Carolina was competing with a basketball game featuring a school from his home state of Kansas. Of course, another legendary Smith, retired UNC coach Dean E. Smith was also from Kansas).
I’ve enjoyed the opportunity of collaborating with the remarkable Ron Free on a number of JLP events. His trio isn’t always this precise configuration, but I think yesterday’s set was the best I’ve heard from his band. The Owens Theater at Sandhills was beautiful visually and the acoustics were above normal. The Trio’s setlist offered an intriguing sequence:
1. When Lights are Low – Benny Carter
2. Off the Top – Jimmy Smith
3. Ceora – Lee Morgan
4. Bob’s Blues – a blues improv based on a composition by bassist Bob Bowen
5. Dolphin Dance – Herbie Hancock
6. An abstract collective improv introduced by Ron Free this way: “You’ve never heard this before, and neither have we, and you’ll never hear it again.” It was the pinnacle of the set.
7. Lucky Southern - Keith Jarrett.
This trio should be recorded. There is a fresh, open nature to their sound that reflects Ron’s connection to the so-called golden age of jazz along with his relentless desire to find new patterns – in life and music, which makes his younger bandmates natural partners.
Ron is recorded on over 100 reels of Eugene Smith’s loft tapes, around 300 hours of sound. He’s the most ubiquitous presence on the tapes. As has been oft-reported in the book, the JLP public radio series, and more, his drum work is the secret to many of the loft’s jam sessions. Unlike many jam session participants, Ron wasn’t in it just for himself.
You can hear the same sensitive inventiveness in Ron’s work today. Bob Bowen and Court Stewart have internalized the music from the loft era, as indicated by several tunes in their setlist, but they add their own fingerprints to the music. The trio’s improvs revealed a trust and intimacy these musicians have won and shared over time. They’ve played together in Virginia, off and on, for several years. Their music yesterday sounded better than most of the ad hoc loft jam sessions.
Finally, many kudos and thanks to Denise Drum Baker for organizing this event. As I mentioned in my remarks, the rewards for this kind of work are the people you meet along the way. Denise is a new example.
Here is a photograph Denise sent me today from yesterday’s soundcheck. More photos to come soon.
Court Stewart, piano. Bob Bowen, bass. Ron Free, drums.