Houston’s Free Radicals has always operated as a core band plus collective, butand the new “The Freedom Fence” is no exception. Over 23 tracks the band and its admirable guest list of collaborators move through jazz, hip-hop, poetry, dub, Afrobeat, New Orleans brass, blues, reggae, klezmer, as well as sounds that hail from Russia, Mexico, Ethiopia and other far-flung locales. Likewise the guests’ roots are all over the map (Russia, Nigeria, South Africa . . .), with an emphasis on talent both young and old from Houston (jazz flutist Bob Chadwick, musical saw-ist Geoffrey Mueller, blues great Little Joe Washington).
The album’s title is its unifying theme: Fences, walls and borders from all over the world are referenced and disparaged. For such a cranky premise, the album pulses with positivity and the global tone is fetchingly festive and infections as well. Drummer Nick Cooper talked about the album’s complex construction.
Q: Was there one song that tipped the whole theme into motion
A: Jason Jackson, our sax player, came up with the idea for “The Freedom Fence.” We’ve been working on the album for years. It just required a lot of work. We knew there were some things we wanted to include, things about gentrification, neighborhoods and borders in various countries. We had an Ethiopian song, so we took the time to call up the Ethiopian Cultural Center to learn about border issues there. We wanted it to be relevant and we don’t want to offend anybody. Even the art was a process that took months, a back and forth trying to get it just right. I think the next album will come much more quickly. We’re in good recording mode after doing this one. And we have to act quickly. Harry Sheppard (a legendary vibraphonist) just had a stroke and he’s in his 80s. I don’t know how many albums he has in him. We had two people die before the last album came out.
Q: Despite the various styles of music, the album’s flow feels natural. How difficult was it to sequence?
A: Well, I’m a drummer and producer so I approach things from that standpoint. There are things that work together in my head, and it helped that I wanted a lot of short tunes. A diverse group of short tunes. There were a lot of tunes that didn’t fit on this album. They’re pieces we’ll use later or not; it’s always nice to have stuff around. But we had so much material that it wasn’t too difficult to find things that worked together. And there was no pressure to cram everything on it.
Q: You’d mentioned some Ethiopian influence on “Badme,” but I feel like I hear some “A Love Supreme” in the mix, too.
A: Yeah, I think that’s right. The title references that ’70s Ethiopian instrumental scene, but there’s also some modal jazz in there. If Jason is soloing that’s going to come out, and he also wrote the song. It was a springboard for him to solo, a baritone solo and then an alto solo. Every time Jason plays he’s got the blues, John Coltrane, all the things he listens to popping out. Similarly our bassist, Theo Bijarro, he’s got Charles Mingus and the world of jazz in his fingers. You hear it more live, somebody touching on something and it comes and goes. You can grab onto it but you don’t have to.
Q: “Ben Taub Blues” strays from the sorts of walls and fences of most of the other songs. But it seems to get at the ways older musicians struggle to find work and, ultimately, health care.
A: Yeah, that song was not written with the idea of it fitting on “The Freedom Fence.” I was sitting with Theo at Ben Taub Hospital. He’s blind and waiting for his doctor. They called a name and Theo said, “I know that guy, he used to play trumpet. He was a bad (expletive) trumpet player.” They were on the jazz scene together and Theo hadn’t heard from him in 20 years. But he was still alive and going to Ben Taub. The song is about this place where these old jazz musicians go for treatment and, sometimes, to die. I guess there are lines and walls between having and not having, between living and dead. If you put a gun to my head I can tie it into the album’s theme.
Q: Little Joe Washington was a well-chosen guest. He seems like he has nine lives.
A: We brought him in to do a guitar solo but he kept saying these great things so I asked him if he minded if we set up a mic. He said OK. (Laughs.) And he just started talking, “As long as I’m at Ben Taub, I’ll be OK ...” He talked about being in pain and living in pain. Jason plays with him all the time, he asked, “Do you feel OK now?” Joe said, “Well I got diabetes, I got this and I got that ... .” Pain isn’t just something where you go to Ben Taub and they fix you up.
Q: This seems like it could be difficult to pull off live. How’s the preparation going?
A: We’ve been rehearsing with a group of seven guys; that’s our core. Everybody else who guested on the album is invited to join and we’ll have some of them: the tuba player, Harry Sheppard, all of the rappers, Geoffrey Muller from Sideshow Tramps will play musical saw. Some of these people have been playing with us since the mid-’90s, so it’s a loose collaboration but still a long-term thing.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fitzgerald’s, 2706 White Oak
Tickets: $6; 713-862-3838 or www.fitzlivemusic.com