Heiner Stadler – Brains on Fire (2012)

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For the first time on compact disc, we hear some of the early works of this innovative pianist and (a particular focus here) composer/arranger.

Brains on Fire includes a series of tracks recorded between 1966-74 from Heiner Stadler, a vastly underrated German-American pioneer in the avant-garde jazz movement — with each of its two discs highlighting a separate element of his unjustly forgotten legacy.

First, there’s a series of quartet and sextet pieces from 1971 and ’73, each with the John Coltrane sideman Reggie Workman on bass. Of particular note on this initial CD is Stadler’s insightful reworking of Russ Freeman’s “Bea’s Flat,” originally composed for Chet Baker. It’s transformed on this date as a crashing big-band romp, and features onetime Maynard Ferguson drummer Tony Inzalaco and the famed North German Radio orchestra. As the second disc gets underway, Stadler leaves the bandstand to explore more fully his striking style of arranging. That allows Dee Dee Bridgewater, a future multiple-Grammy winner, the room to kindle a stirring embryonic fire on “Love in the Middle of the Air,” the then-relative unknown vocalist’s 20-minute duet with Workman from 1973.

Saxophonist Tyrone Washington goes on to cut through “U.C.S.” like a serrated knife. Return to Forever’s Lenny White, who also worked with Stadler on a terrific subsequent tribute to Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, is on drums for four of the two-CD set’s eight tracks — including a new quartet version of “Three Problems,” later a central part of Stadler’s Jazz Alchemy project.

ECM stars Barre Phillips, Albert Mangelsdorff and Wolfgang Dauner make important contributions, as well. Trumpeter Jimmy Owens is part of the fizzy, experimental “No Exercise” and the darker, more complex “The Fugue No. 2” — the oldest track here, and the album closer.

A tour de force in what we now lovingly refer to as whack jazz, Brains on Fire is the kind of record that makes you wonder why Stadler isn’t mentioned more often with modern post-free titans like Anthony Braxton and Carla Bley. Though he didn’t record nearly enough, there is ample evidence here of his lasting brilliance.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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