Blues, free improvisation, Portugal, and the abstract truth.
This June marks the relatively high-profile release of four records by the avant-garde guitarist and musician Mike Cooper. Cooper, an under-recognized, though key, figure of the British blues scene of the ‘60s (he was apparently asked to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones at one point), began to explore overlaps between folk and free improvisation in the early ‘70s. He released a series of groundbreaking albums that fuse folk, blues, psych, and avant-garde free jazz. Three of these remarkable records—Trout Steel, Places I Know, and The Machine Gun Co. with Mike Cooper—have just been reissued by the Paradise of Bachelors label. Each of these records presents Cooper’s career in microcosm, shifting fluidly from country blues to psych rock to free improvisation and jazz idioms. Songs like Trout Steel’s eleven-minute “I’ve Got Mine,”—featuring a tenor solo that invokes Pharoah Sanders—to the series of experiments with songwriting styles that make up Places I Know, hint at the directions that Cooper’s work would take in the following decades.
Cantos de Lisboa, a new collaboration with Steve Gunn, out June 24th from RVNG Intl., is an excellent introduction to Cooper’s more recent work and an impressive collection of seamless improvisation from the two guitarists. The record, recorded in Lisbon last year, is part of RVNG’s FRKWYS series, which pairs young musicians with groundbreaking forebearers. Gunn’s recent album, Time Off, (also released on Paradise of Bachelors) was widely named one of the best albums of last year and placed his work very firmly in the experimental tradition exemplified by Cooper’s career.
Like Cooper's, Gunn’s music has a wide scope, encorporating everything from free improv to American Primitive to verse-chorus-verse songwriting to Popol Vuh-like guitar meditations. He’s very busy lately: in addition to near-constant touring, he’s also recently released a collaborative improve record with Mike Gangloff of the group Pelt, and is currently wrapping up another album of more structured songs.
I spoke to Steve and Mike—in Brooklyn and Rome respectively, on the morning of Sun Ra's 100th birthday, appropriately enough.
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