For all the deep and impenetrable layers of pretense that plague the European free-jazz scene and believe me, it's thick with it the one thing that our Continental brethren have managed to keep alive is the spirit of reckless fun that comes from improvisation. When the American jazz mainstream ran screaming from freedom after meeting a professor who told them it was "important" and "in need of preservation," the Europeans were more than happy to continue along the squealing path of bleats and bellows that were once the music's universal hallmarks. Thus, since the late 1970s, the best place to look for jazz that's as fun as it is challenging has been Europe.
Belgian clarinetist Peter Vermeersch had the notion to start a big-band project in the early 1990s. Eventually, he surrounded himself and his prodigious cache of ideas with 16 other musicians who shared his playful and progressive notions about what to do with jazz traditions. The group was called the Flat Earth Society, as a sort of backhanded acknowledgment of the stuck-in-dogma ideology that weighs down a lot of jazz, especially big-band music. To be clear, there are many contemporary artists who are willing to mutate the big-band form; but with the exception of Sam Rivers and a small handful of others, most of them are European. Yet where many of the FMP school prefer to make their big bands annihilating, Vermeersch opted to make his entertaining. Difficult, but entertaining.
Six discs by the group have been released in Europe, but they are hard for potential American fans to hear, much less buy. Among them, there are two live discs, a kids'-movie soundtrack, music for a play and, most engaging of all, The Armstrong Mutations, a radical rethinking of Louis Armstrong. You've never heard "What a Wonderful World" quite like this, I promise. The arrangements are intricate and layered, but everything moves along at such an impressive clip, you're likely to neither notice nor care about all the subtleties at play. Careening themes and colliding tones are buckled together with a playfulness that's both respectful of Armstrong, but not unwilling to take the piss out of the legend. After all, when you're using samplers as freely as you're using reed instruments, anything's likely to happen.
There are only two Mutations tracks to be found on ISMS, a compilation of the group's material and their first U.S. release. But, as one of those is "(Little) King Ink" a sort of cosmic, melodic mash-up of Armstrong, Nick Cave, a field chant and the end of the world that's a perfectly fine representation. (The other is "Funeral & Binche," sadly, and not "What a Wonderful World.") Ranging from assaultive and epic moments to intimate and serene songs, ISMS gives a good overview of what FES is all about.
Mike Patton's Ipecac label is to be commended for bringing these tunes to American ears, though it's hard to predict what Melvins and Isis fans might think upon hearing it. One can't help but hope that when the roiling, guitar-driven skronk of "Zonk" bulldozes them, or the lilting, spy-caper melancholy of "Minoes op Boodschap" (from the kids' movie) settles them back down, those fans have an entirely new concept about real "extreme" music.