Like most people, I came into contact with the work of Jef Gilson by collecting records on Palm, the French label he founded in 1973. American free jazz players represented on Palm include Byard Lancaster, Baikida Carroll, Frank Lowe, David Murray, David S. Ware, Butch Morris, etc. Anyone chasing the fuse of fire music back in the day would come across the label at some point. Palm also recorded many cool contemporary French musicians -- Raymon Boni, André Jaume, François Jeanneau, Jean-Charles Capon, and others – so it was a label I started to look for on its own merits. When a copy of Malagasy at Newport-Paris came through Rhino, I snagged it. The album was not as blazingly free as I'd hoped, but the sextet sounded pretty great in what I then thought of as the free-bop tradition – working from arrangements, but with enough looseness in rhythm and modal constraints to allow some scorch to break through. Now I'm not so sure free-bop'd be the correct terminology, but what the heck? It was an intriguing album. Jef Gilson was listed as composer and pianist. Who was this cat, pictured on the cover with a mod Prince Arthur haircut?
"Gilson was one of the truly key figures in the French underground music scene."
As it turns out, Gilson was one of the truly key figures in the French underground music scene. Besides his work as a musician, Gilson also ran a studio and recorded every ex-pat from Bud Powell to Frank Wright, as well as free-rock combos like Mahogany Brain. Beginning in the late '50s as a clarinetist with the band fronted by Boris Vian (the uber-hip French polymath), Gilson switched to piano and started recording on his own in 1962. His earliest recordings have been well-documented on two earlier Jazzman sets -- The Best of Jef Gilson and The Archives. Both survey his entire career, and show a composer moving from Miles and Monk-influenced combos into Middle Eastern modalities, then African rhythms via a very crooked route. Along the way there are a wild variety of stops, from the femme-voiced Chansons de Jazz (which vibes similarly to Serge Gainsbourg's pre-Yé- yé productions), to the “spirit-jazz” for which he has become best known. Besides being a constant innovator, Gilson also had a very sharp ear for new players. He was instrumental in starting the careers of everyone from Jean-Luc Ponty to Christian Vander, and the entire French scene would have been a lot different if he'd never come along. Who knew?
"Besides being a constant innovator, Gilson also had a very sharp ear for new players. He was instrumental in starting the careers of everyone from Jean-Luc Ponty to Christian Vander, and the entire French scene would have been a lot different if he'd never come along."
But our real subject here is Malagasy, since Jazzman has put out this box set of all their released recordings, plus an additional batch of newly-uncovered work. And yeah, I realize that the reissue concept is a little bogue vis-à-vis having originals, but I just checked Popsike, and the last three copies of the albums re-uncorked here would've cost you over $1,200. And the single that's included has never been offered. There's also a detailed booklet explaining Gilson's long association with Madagascar and its musicians. Add another two LPs of previously-unheard treats, and you are talking “value” with a capital “V.” This may make you think again of Boris Vian (the Big V), but Boris died in 1959 (suffering a heart attack while watching a motion picture adaptation of one of his novels, which he found appalling) and so he was off the scene by this point. Thankfully, Boris left a son on this planet, Patrick, who was a member of the incredible Futura label band, Red Noise, and later cut a decent electronic album for Egg. But that's not really our subject, either.
Madagascar is a former French colony. A large island off the south east coast of Africa, it is known for having indigenous flora and fauna (ring-tailed lemurs and the like), as well as a unique musical culture. In May 1968, at the height of the Paris Riots, Gilson and his band left for a series of gigs there. They played concerts and met local musicians, many of whom impressed Gilson with their innate musicality and tendency to just grab any handy instrument and go for it. Many jam sessions resulted, and Gilson promised to return with both recording equipment and a big pile of records.
"And yeah, I realize that the reissue concept is a little bogue vis-à-vis having originals, but I just checked Popsike, and the last three copies of the albums re-uncorked here would've cost you over $1,200. "
His second trip was in March '69 with cellist Jean-Charles Capon. They recruited people there to flesh out their band and played a series of concerts which resulted in the newly-released versions of “Colchiques dans le Pres” and “Les Touches Noires.” Both tracks sound a bit like a garage version of Coltrane's mid '60s quartet with a slightly more soul-oriented edge. The first side of Gilson's Malagasy LP was recorded during this visit as well, most of it at the CCAC (Centre Culturel Albert Camus), although the title-track was recorded in Paris in 1971, using the French trio that played on Gilson's Futura label LP, Le Massacre du Printemps. The Malagsy album-proper is a bit more arranged and R&B-friendly than the earlier live tracks. Tenor saxophonist, Serge Rahoerson, has that wide sound portly collectors seem to dig so much. It's a very solid set with lots of Gilson's great melodies (the more I hear 'em the more I like 'em), and probably is friendly enough for even squares to dig.
Gilson came back to Madagascar for a third visit in October 1969. Among the records he'd brought on the last trip was Pharoah Sanders' Karma, and in his absence the band had put together a great arrangement of Sanders' “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” which they recorded immediately. For many people this recording is a definitive moment in Malagasy's history. And it's what has assured them a place in the pantheon of “spirit jazz” greats. The same recording was edited down by the local Jazz Club de Tananarive and issued as a single (mistitled “Karma”), backed with the otherwise unavailable “Pemba.” Very nice to have a repro included in the box. There are also four tracks listed as “Untitled,” which probably date from this visit, although some may be from the previous one. They stem from jam sessions and rehearsals and document Gilson's interest in experimenting with local instrumentation (bamboo zithers, bamboo flutes, etc.). The electric guitar (presumably by Arnaud Razafy) is particularly hep on one of these tracks, and the percussion/wind interaction throughout is extremely boss. Even if you already have the three released LPs, this stuff will validate your purchase.
For his fourth and final visit to the island (funds to underwrite further trips having become impossible to glean), Gilson's schedule was so tight there were few jam sessions. The band he brought (with Raymond Boni on guitar) gigged relentlessly and split without recording anything. Gilson was always collecting instruments, however, and a passel of them would be utilized for the Massacre LP he would cut the following year.
"This set, with its detailed liner notes, is a super interesting piece of the Euro Jazz puzzle."
From 1972-1975, Madagascar was in a state of political upheaval. Many people expatriated themselves to get clear from the trouble. A few of those who ended up in France included the musicians Gilson would use to form his new line-up of Malagasy. Gilson was using electric keyboards now, and the previously-unreleased sides recorded with this band have a slightly more percussion-heavy feel than the Malagasy at Newport LP. No doubt there will be many dribbling over its deep “spirit buzz.” And it is quite a cool session.
Two of the players from this line-up of Malagasy were multi-instrumentalists Sylvin Marc and Del Rabenja. They both composed on their own, so Gilson signed them up for the 1973 LP, Madagascar Now – Maintenant ‘Zao, also included in this box. The band is basically Malagasy without Gilson, and the music is a wild blast into Afro-jazz-fusion of a particularly odd variety. Thick bass, much percussion and blabber -- just great. The first side spotlights Rabenja's work on valiha – a tubular zither that's Madagascar's national instrument. It works really well in this context. The other side highlights Sylvin Marc's compositions. Their texture is more similar to other Malagasy recordings, but Marc's writing is less formal than Gilson's. That fact, combined with the session's spacey Fender Rhodes work, should make the “spirit-jazz” crowd tingle.
After this, the members of Malagasy did mostly session work, notably on two Byard Lancaster LPs, Us and Funny Funky Rib Crib (both on Palm). There's also the odd Fiesta in Drums LP which pairs Malagasy's drummer, Frank Raholison, with Christian Vander (even though the pair reportedly never actually played together), and the much-lauded 1974 Gilson/Hal Singer LP, Soul of Africa. Sylvin Marc made a successful career in France, moving into fusionoid R&B turf, and Del Rabenja made a few waves as well. But the bulk of their heaviest work was with Malagasy, and the final side in this set is a fantastic free-form jam in which the band is joined (probably) by Byard Lancaster, Khan Jamal and Clint Jackson III, who blow some great gusts. It's possible Jazzman has more such goodies in their Gilson archives. If they do, it'd be great to hear them. This set, with its detailed liner notes, is a super interesting piece of the Euro Jazz puzzle.