Free Radicals are, strangely enough, one of Houston's most stable ensembles. Their music may vary wildly from song to song, from jazz and klezmer to ska and rap, but the band drummer Nick Cooper started in 1996 has had a steady core of members for most of those years. Baritone saxophonist Pete Sullivan joined a couple of years after that, bassist Theo Bijarro's tenure is approaching double digits, and Jason Jackson on alto sax has been around a while as well.
The group most often numbers seven members (also with guitarist Al Bear, percussionist Chris Howard and trumpeter Doug Falk), but Cooper recruited an astounding 48 musicians to assist on the Radicals' new album and first in eight years, The Freedom Fence.
On the 23-track album, which the band releases Saturday night at Fitz with a few guests, Free Radicals examine the idea of borders and boundaries from all possible sides and nationalities -- from the Israeli/Palestinean conflict, the Zapatistas, and even the Iron Curtain to issues a lot closer to home, such as Third Ward gentrification and the considerable number of Houston jazz musicians who have wound up in Ben Taub Hospital.
Rocks Off spoke with Cooper about the sprawling, complicated Freedom Fence -- and the sprawling, complicated Free Radicals -- earlier this week.
Rocks Off: There are so many songs on the album. Why not split it up into two or even three?
Nick Cooper: We really work hard to get an album that all gets in on the same kind of theme, that's timely and reflects the band at the time. We had a lot of material that we left off. We're ready to do another record, actually, in addition to all that stuff.
We have two more recording projects coming up right now. We're going to do an album of jazz-funk stuff for breakdancers, with Havikoro producing it, and we have a bunch of original Free Radicals stuff to do our next CD. So I usually try to fill up the CDs I put out.
RO: Where did the theme of the album come from?
NC: We have always kind of been in solidarity with immigrant movements and immigrants-rights' protests and all that. We also do stuff related to the Israel/Palestine issue, like the klezmer musicians against the wall that I produced. Border issues are something that we're interested in.
Then we started thinking about all the issues with borders in general. They don't all have the same meaning - Israel/Palestine is very different from Texas/Mexico. Apartheid in South Africa is very different from the Iron Curtain.
So we just started playing with it, and then Jason Jackson, who's our alto sax player, came up with the idea. We were just walking around in New York, and they were putting up fences in Strawberry Fields in [Central] Park. I said, "Hey man, they're fencing off Strawberry Field," and he said, "That's the Liberty Fence, it sets us free," or something like that. The freedom fence.
That was our idea, but what was amazing is when we started working on this, we'd start collaborating with groups and they'd have different takes on it. The rappers that we worked with, maybe they'd want to talk about gentrification, the local rappers, where the Cuban rappers we worked with, Las Krudas, borders have defined their entire careers.
They were stuck inside Cuba, then they were stuck in Russia, then they were stuck here without proper papers. Everything related to this border issue for them, so it was really something they had a lot to say about.
RO: Corralling 48 musicians onto one album sounds like a logistical nightmare. Was it?
NC: Oh no, not at all. Most of the people on this album have been on a previous album. So it's just like, "Hey Harry [Sheppard, vibraphone], new album's ready -- come over when you're ready to track everything," so he comes over and plays everything and we use the stuff that really works. We call up the tabla player and say "come on over" and he comes over and plays on a bunch of tunes. It's very organic.
And we had so long to do it. Anything that we had been working on with anybody, we had time to do it.
RO: How permeable is Free Radicals' lineup?
NC: Well, the important distinction is, and a lot of people get confused about it, is that we have seven people in the band, and those seven people have changed over time - or it's between six and eight people. There have been people in and out over the years, but those people rehearse and write songs together, and play together every week. And then there are lots of people who are just guests, people who are in the band for a little while.
But if you take a look at the lineup, I've been in the band since '96, Pete's been in the band since '98, Theo's been in the band since 2004. There's people who have put in between eight and 12 years, and even the people who have been in the band less have been in five-six years.
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People have really put a lot of years in working and rehearsing together. The lineup hasn't changed. Over the years we've had different bass players, and they've kind of defined different eras of the band, but me and Pete have been doing this for over 14 years now, and that's true for a lot of the folks.
Especially with the guests. Harry Sheppard, the vibes player; Subhendu Chakraborty the tabla player, they're on every single album. My brother [Dan], who lives in New York, he's on every single album. These are folks we've been working with for years and years.
Coming up: Cooper's thoughts on how the Radicals' audience will greet Freedom Fence's controversial, wide-ranging subject matter.
Free Radicals release The Freedom Fence 8 p.m. Saturday, June 16, at Fitzgerald's with special guests Samaa Soul, Soular Grooves, Havikoro and members of H.I.S.D.