FreeWorld: A Jam for the Ages


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In a town like Memphis, buzzing with so much talent that players lend their chops to multiple bands, ensembles that retain their name and personnel for many years are rare. Jeffrey and the Pacemakers, just celebrating their ten year anniversary, are notable for their longevity. Yet FreeWorld leaves all the others in the dust where longevity is concerned: for 30 years, they have been a fixture on the local scene, and show no sign of slowing now.

The group was jump-started when young bassist Richard Cushing met saxophonist Herman Green back in 1986-87. The veteran jazz man, now in his 87th year, instantly took a liking to the youngster. To his credit, Green needed no coaxing to step out of his jazz/soul wheelhouse and work with a generation of players who grew up admiring the Grateful Dead or Frank Zappa. As other players were added to the line up, FreeWorld grew into what one writer described as “the best of Memphis, New Orleans, and San Francisco.”

Of course, other players have circulated through the band over the decades, but the core and vision of the band has remained constant. One reason is that their particular blend of influences has played very well on Beale Street, which has served as ground zero for most of their tenure.

  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Herman Green
This week will witness celebrations of that longevity. Tonight (Wednesday), they'll be hosting a listening party for their latest album, What It Is, at Ardent Studios, where it was recorded. Dedicated to longtime drummer David Skypeck, whose ill health has interfered with his ability to play lately, the album is as tightly arranged as anything they've done, with an emphasis on their funk influences. The outliers might be the Beale St. boogie of “Another Sunday Night,” which name checks Herman Green and the street where he first played professionally; “Dinja Babe,” which evokes '70s power pop and includes Big Star's Jody Stephens on drums; and “Eve Waits,” which evokes Indian tonalities. For the most part, the group's latest dispenses with the Dead-influenced jams and conjures up more raucous nights of funk with powerful horn and synth blasts.

They've seen plenty of those, and Memphians can hear them celebrating their many years together this weekend. They'll be the featured group in the Levitt Shell's Orion Free Music Concert Series this Friday, with guest artists joining them. And the next night, they'll throw down at The Bluff on Highland, with members from every period of the band joining them onstage as the night rolls on.

The FreeWorld listening party will be at Ardent Studios, tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 11) at 8:00 pm.

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