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Songs of Freedom

Can music free your mind from mental slavery? Depends which Free Radical you ask

Fifty musicians, dozens of different instruments from every continent on earth, and three and a half years in the making. Eighty minutes of music, comprising 32 songs with titles like "Supreme Order of the Attention Deficit," "Deathbed Orgy" and "The Brass Band Liberation Front." Singing, rapping, chanting and scatting. Rhythms from Brazil, Jamaica, Africa and America. All of it improvised, in locales from São Paulo, Brazil, to Cafe Brasil on Westheimer, and all of it dedicated to the two to seven million civilian victims of American bombs dropped from planes since 1942.

It's Aerial Bombardment, and it could be only a Free Radicals album, and in a way, it could come from only Houston. More so than other towns, we are still a city of big bands and big ideas. There's the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra, Guy Schwartz's New Jack Hippies collective and this bunch, all still active and all with ideas as large as Tom DeLay's ego.

We're also a town that likes to wing it. Planning isn't our strong suit. It's anathema to the Free Radicals, who make up almost all their music at each and every gig. Aerial Bombardment harvests some of the highlights of these shows. "The general recording method of this album is pretty consistent," says drummer/bandleader Nick Cooper. "There were a couple of tunes done in the studio, but generally the songs are recorded live, edited down, tightly condensed and then chosen from there. Out of a two-hour show, we might end up with ten minutes of edited material. There's a little bit of overdubbing here and there."

Don't tell Free Radicals drummer Nick Cooper (bottom row, center) his band is a metaphor for Houston.
Don't tell Free Radicals drummer Nick Cooper (bottom row, center) his band is a metaphor for Houston.

With any improvisational band, there's a danger of noodling and musical wankery. Most of this kind of stuff comes across as a great blob of undifferentiated musical protoplasm -- ever shifting, ever throbbing, but never arriving at a destination of any kind. Not so with the Free Radicals, at least the great majority of the time.

Free Radicals vibraphonist Harry Sheppard credits Cooper with keeping the band moving forward. "Most of these bands that play free -- the music doesn't sound like it goes anywhere. Years ago somebody called that stuff nuthouse music. Snake-pit…People walking around…It's insanity! But Nick does a different thing. It's a time thing, a pulse. We all go around that pulse, and that's about it. There's no restrictions, it goes about anywhere -- sometimes it evolves into the same key, sometimes there's two keys playing opposite each other, and that's interesting, but nobody's doing what he's doing -- keeping that pulse going. If they are doing it, it sounds too organized."

Sheppard says that music begins and ends with the beat. "Most of the time Nick starts playing. Nobody says a word to anybody. He starts playing the beat, [bassist] Theo [Bijarra] come in and builds and builds, and we listen to each other. It tells a story, it goes in this direction, it's always communicating and listening. It's total musical communication. Sometimes it has to be edited out, but most of the time it's very exciting stuff."

Sheppard's right -- about both the "most of the time" bit and the "very exciting stuff." On the negative side, there are parts of Aerial Bombardment that arrive out of nowhere as suddenly as a red wasp at a picnic and disappear just as fast. Then there's the reggae-capoeira "Quilombo Dub," a tune that collapses under the weight of its groove, its ambitious sitar and its Brazilian drum instrumentation. Still, it's merely plodding, a far cry from the nuthouse snake-pit of Sheppard's disdain, and the very next song, the hot and jazzy "Harry Stops the War," picks up the pace considerably and features a nice buildup.

Other highlights include the Coltrane-meets-James Brown summit of "Give It Up or Turn It Loose / Impressions," which finds the band sounding something like Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. And all of the vocals numbers -- be they Edwards's vampy blues on "Eyebrows," the raps of Zin or Perseph, or the spoken-word poetry of Keshia, Equality or Karega -- bring much-needed breaks from all the instrumental onslaughts. In fact, with the multitude of varied styles on the album, Aerial Bombardment feels more like a 40-minute quickie of a record than an 80-minute marathon platter. It's as interesting a headphone record as it is a cool thing to slap on as ambient background noise, and it would make a great record to play while watching FOX News on mute.

It's an easy metaphor -- a cliché, in fact -- but Houston's sprawl and no-zoning mentality would seem to explain the album's catch-all vibe. In the city where the porn shop stands hard by the church, so too can ska, blues, Afrobeat, jazz, dub, spoken word, samba and other Brazilian forms, funk and hip-hop all exist in the same band's repertoire, sometimes in individual songs.

Cooper's not buying the analogy. "If we're going to talk about Houston, let's talk about how it's the capital of militarism on the planet earth. The militarism of this country and this planet poisons all of us -- even those of us who are in the peace movement and want nothing to do with it."

Geez, you put forth an innocent cliché and get a sermon in return…It's par for the course with Cooper, who believes his music -- even when only instrumental -- is an extension of his politics. Not all of his collaborators feel the same way. Sheppard plays in the Free Radicals core band with Cooper and nine others, as well as part-time guest (and jazz, blues and R&B singer) Gloria Edwards. Both disagreed, Sheppard more strongly.

Together, the three musicians make for an interesting cross-section of humanity. There's Cooper himself, the thirtysomething Rice grad, vegan, left-wing activist and peacenik; Sheppard, a septuagenarian Jew from New York City; and Gloria Edwards, the Fifth Ward-bred blues, jazz and R&B singer who has in recent years become both more committed to her Christian faith and more politically active. Between the three of them, there's close to 100 years of professional musical experience, though the bulk of it was garnered in vastly different worlds -- Cooper's on the Houston punk scene back in his Sprawl days, Sheppard's on the New York jazz world of the pre-bebop era, and Edwards's on both the local blues scene in the wards and in the stylish hotel ballrooms along South Main, not to mention a fairly recent gig as the performer-in-residence at a hotel in Indonesia.

While Edwards is very political when she's not on stage, she believes in separation of stage, church and state. As does Sheppard. "Music should be happy," he says. "Politics isn't happy."

Cooper, who is also a journalist for the radical Web site indymedia.org, decides to put on his interviewer's hat. He presses Sheppard on the matter. "Clearly every time Free Radicals gets the chance, we play a benefit and things like that, how do you feel about that?"

"I'm there to play the music," Sheppard says. Edwards laughs and claps her hands. "You sound like my husband," she says, referring to veteran trumpet player and arranger Nelson Mills III.

"I'm going to play the music. That's all. I don't care," Sheppard says again.

"What if you get rounded up and they see your name on the CD?" Cooper presses.

"I've been rounded up before. I worked with Lenny Bruce. Are you kidding?"

A few minutes later, Cooper again picks up the tack. "So you're just there for the music, and that's great, and I'm happy to have you. But I was wondering if you thought the freeness of the music and so forth is consistent with certain types of ideology, like freedom and so forth."

"I don't think so, and I'll tell you why," Sheppard says. "I think one way -- I'm conservative on some things, but if anybody asked me if I was a liberal I would say yes. But do you know Bill Miller the bass player? He's the wildest mutha I ever played with -- there is nobody I know more liberal musically, but he's a conservative politically. I can't even talk to him about stuff, he's so far to the right. But we get playin', oh my God!"

And we left it that. But a few days later Cooper called back. "Harry said that you can play jazz and stuff even if you're not that free in your thinking," he said to the answering machine. "While I think that's possible, the music we play -- ska, Afrobeat, funk, jazz, capoeira -- has a history of being connected with struggles of liberation, and if you play this stuff and aren't part of that movement, I believe it's less authentic."

Having redeemed his politically suspect bandmate, Cooper said "peace" to the answering machine and hung up.

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