Late summer last year, a mysterious cassette was dropped in our laps by the Chicago-based Radical Documents imprint. Entitled The Running of the Bulls, it was a cluster bomb of free jazz and featured five unheralded players from Philadelphia, New York, and the San Francisco Bay area. A maelstrom of saxophone, bass, and drums, there was so much energy imprinted on that spool of magnetic tape, it nearly melted both cassette decks and eardrums. Almost as inscrutable is the debut cassette from Violet Salon III, which appeared as the year leapt into being on the brand-new Philly-based label Unnecessary Sounds. Two of the names from the aforementioned cross-continental firestorm also appear here: tenor saxophonist James McKain and bassist Jared Radichel. Joining them on drums is Joey Sullivan. All three players are currently based in Philadelphia.
This trio of improvisers has been playing together for over a year and a half, and although Sullivan and Radichel are both graduates of Temple University’s jazz program, their approach to free playing is purely personal. McKain is somewhat of a nomad, originally hailing from southern Illinois and spending eight years in New York before landing in Philly just before the pandemic struck. The four lengthy improvisations on offer were recorded intermittently across 2020 in Radichel and Sullivan’s practice space and were mixed and mastered by Radichel himself in true DIY spirit. The result is a well-balanced and fresh-sounding recording. The clarity is astounding.
McKain, Radichel, and Sullivan get off to a rollicking start with “Streams of Locust,” the shortest piece on offer. McKain’s beefy horn sound whirls around the frenetic rhythm section before everyone stops on a dime in order to regroup. McKain lets out a few searching brays, answered by Radichel. Sullivan joins in with a snare roll, and the three fire up the engines again, taking off into orbit. “Chartreuse With Leo” comes into focus with some intricately bent bass work accompanied by the tiniest whisper of drums. McKain joins in with a series of plaintive phrases and the rhythm section locks on target. The trio takes their time as they strive to reach peak energy, eventually cresting the summit and leaping into the unknown. As the end draws near, Radichel breaks out his bow and lays down a molasses-thick cloud of vapor on which the other two hover.
Midway through “Between the Clouds and the Cockroaches,” the trio seem to switch their focus from the viscera to a sort of emotional center, with McKain firing off sentimental lines on his horn and the others reeling in their energy somewhat. Before long, Sullivan can’t help himself, and he begins dropping snare roll bombs and egging the other two on. The three chase each other around until a contemplative mood strikes and Radichel’s probing bass seems to take the lead. Closing piece “Ice Pick Memorandum” pulls elements from the three preceding improvisations – arco bass, searing horn lines, dextrous skin wrangling – but contains enough spontaneity and originality to signal that these three improvisers have only scratched the surface of their collective capacity. Keep your eyes and ears peeled, because there seems to be a new Philly free jazz underground poised to blow our collective minds.