Fricke's Picks: Free, Bluesman Alexis Korner, “Scandinavia Action Jazz” - Rolling Stone
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Fricke’s Picks: Free, Bluesman Alexis Korner, “Scandinavia Action Jazz”

Guitarist Paul Kossoff of the British blues-rock quartet Free was two months shy of his eighteenth birthday when he played the quick, fierce solo in “Waiting on You,” the B.B. King cover that opens Live at the BBC, a two-CD set of Free’s studio and concert appearances on British radio between 1968 and 1971. Kossoff barely lived into adulthood; he died at twenty-five, in 1976, after years of heroin addiction. But in his teens, he was already a matured soloist — melodically terse, wringing long black-cat moans from each note with controlled tremolo and feedback — and these no-frills BBC dates are full of his electrifying precocity: the taut, curled snarls in “Woman”; his spiked shrieks in “I’ll Be Creepin’ “; the heavy, grinding melancholy in “Fire and Water.” Live at the BBC also showcases the advanced class of Free’s songwriting — all but four songs here are by singer Paul Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser — and the titanic backbeat of drummer Simon Kirke. You can find those qualities in better fidelity on Free’s original studio releases. But the claustrophobic tension and young-lion fight of Kossoff’s playing on these takes (some pulled from off-the-air tapes because the Beeb wiped the original reels) are an exciting memorial to a short life lived fully in the blues.

Alexis Korner lived a much longer life in the blues. He was also the unlikely ground zero of British R&B — a Paris-born singer-guitarist of very non-Delta roots (Korner was part Greek, Turkish and Austrian) who, as bandleader and spiritual godfather, virtually gave birth to an entire generation of superstars and cult heroes. Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry, Robert Plant and most of the original Rolling Stones all studied folk-blues roots and truths under Korner, informally or in his group Blues Incorporated. In fact, Baldry, Plant and Free’s Rodgers and Fraser all appear on Kornerstoned: The Alexis Korner Anthology 1954-1983 (Castle Music), a two-CD set that starts with Korner’s earliest skiffle recordings, includes seminal sides with guitarist Davy Graham and harpist Cyril Davies, and ends with the poignant autobiography of “Mean Fool,” taped by Korner for the BBC just before his death.

Finnish organist Sami Nieminen and drummer Juha Litmanen call their music “Scandinavian Action Jazz.” It’s smart, sharp shorthand but doesn’t quite capture their rhythmic empathy and the brawny fusion of jukebox-R&B drive and psychedelic liftoff (’66 Booker T. and Fillmore-era Lee Michaels) that I caught at a recent club set in the Finnish city of Tampere and that you get on More Adventures With Nieminen and Litmanen (Grandpop), the duo’s fine second album of four-fisted swing.


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