Free Radicals – Outside the Comfort Zone – Free Rads 

by | Jan 20, 2018 | Jazz CD Reviews

A brash, brassy and boisterous band.

Free Radicals – Outside the Comfort Zone – Free Rads RWE017, 68:28 [9/23/17] ****:

(Pete Sullivan – baritone saxophone; Jason Jackson – alto saxophone; Aaron Varnell – tenor saxophone; Tom VandenBoom – trombone; Matt Serice – trumpet, keyboards; Nick Cooper – drums, percussion; Al Bear – guitar; Jacob Breier – bass; Nick Gonzalez – sousaphone; guest musicians: Bob Chadwick – flute; Subhendu Chakraborty – tablas; Harry Sheppard, Damon Choice – vibes; Al Pagliuso, Charlie Perez – percussion; Henry Darragh – keyboards, trombone; Lynn Bechtold – violin; Doug Falk, Nelson Mills III – trumpet; Pelayo Parlade – piano; Will Van Horn – pedal steel; Muhammad Jafari – doumbec; Theo Bijarro, Paul Winstanley – bass)

What would you call a group which performs jazz, funk, hip-hop, avant-garde, ska, reggae, African music, Indian music, punk, klezmer, polka and Latin jazz? Welcome to the wild world of Free Radicals. The Houston, Texas nonet has been dazzling, confounding and turning heads since drummer Nick Cooper founded the band in 1996. The ensemble has issued half a dozen records, including their newest, the 68-minute Outside the Comfort Zone. Free Radicals love to invite guests to their recording sessions. For this album, 14 additional musicians are listed with extra instruments which include flute, tablas, violin, pedal steel and more. Over the years, Free Radicals have performed at marches, fund-raisers, peace festivals, charity events, protests and other occasions where they have supported myriad causes from immigrant rights to demonstrations against corporate malfeasance. The band’s commitment to peace and justice continues through the 23 (yeah, 23!) tunes on Outside the Comfort Zone. There are no vocals but the titles speak volumes, such as “Doomsday Clock” (which has inched closer to midnight since a certain golf addict moved into the White House), “Chica Revolución” (a timely tune given the ongoing sexual harassment issues in the US), “Audacity of Drones” (reflective of the escalation of police surveillance against the citizenry) and “Ambush ICE” (a commentary on how federal agents waylay immigrants at courthouses or other public places).

The energy level throughout Outside the Comfort Zone is both breathtaking and breathless. The vibrancy flexes right away on the Latin jazz kicker “The Legals Have a Lunch,” where percussion, guitar, many horns, drums, bass and piano push, prod and propel the melody. Then it’s on to some upbeat ska with the rhythmically lashing “Doomsday Clock.” There are some obvious Mexican musical influences which jostle through “Chica Revolución,” and blues takes things down a notch (but only a notch) on the Southern jazz-laced “Carry Me to My Grave,” which is readymade for hip swinging. African music meets funk jazz on the contemporary cut, “Dadaab,” named after the Kenyan refugee area where over 200,000 Africans have escaped droughts, civil conflict and other problems. Soul-jazz graces the lengthiest piece, the 5:22 “Angola 3,” which is inspired by three former inmates who spent many decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola Prison).

Some tracks are not directly motivated by specific causes, people or incidents. The boogying “Water Beats Rock” is a mid-tempo number fronted by several solo horns, from sax to trombone. A reggae backbeat suffuses the rollicking “Space Witch,” which has a witty arrangement with some instruments managing to make belching or laughing noises. Blues rock permeates “Cabinet for Sale,” highlighted by Al Bear’s Santana-esque electric guitar, and some fine trumpet, sax and trombone interaction. Another apex is a grooving rendition of Sun Ra’s “A Call for All Demons,” which comes from a 1956 Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra session. At five minutes, this is the second-longest tune on the Free Radicals album, and showcases the band’s multi-horn communication and ability to fashion jazz which makes everyone want to dance. Ska-punk/jazz rears up during the hectic and brief “Manifest Dust Bunny,” where electric keyboards and wah-wah guitar provide a celebratory sheen. The shortest composition —under a minute long—is “Cheeto News Coma,” which has an underlying Middle Eastern tone, but concludes in an abrupt way. The CD ends with the succinct jam “American Food Chain,” which fades out too soon: perhaps there were some ideas which didn’t pan out on these concise cuts. If you need party music with intellect; merry-making material which takes aim at the many things which make the Ship of State flounder; and wide-ranging fusion which never falters, then look no further than Free Radicals.

The Legals Have a Lunch
Doomsday Clock
Chica Revolución
Carry Me to My Grave
Freedom of Consumption
Angola 3
Manifest Dust Bunny
Water Beats Rock
Solidaridad de la Sierra
Audacity of Drones
Beyond Vietnam
Space Witch
Scrapple from the DAPL
New Sanctuary Movement
Cabinet for Sale
Stump Stomp
Cheeto News Coma
Survival of the Oblivious
Ambush ICE
A Call for All Demons
American Food Chain

—Doug Simpson

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