Winter 2009

Black gold

Freedom Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83

SJR Publishing<br>&pound;19.95

If there can be such a thing as a revolutionary coffee table book, Freedom Rhythm & Sound Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83 (SJR Publishing, £19.95) is it – a chance to wallow in the Afrocentric visual language of the non-mainstream black jazz vinyl of this extraordinary fertile and creative period.

The book provides a vivid and surprising alternative to the period of popular music culture spanned by youth subcultures such as Mod, hippie, disco, punk, rap and electro (and all too easily summarised by their attendant visual clichés).

Compiled by DJ Giles Peterson and Soul Jazz label founder Stuart Baker, this book fills out the story. The Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), whose inspiration can be seen in Chess Records, Earth Wind and Fire and its founding musicians the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is now the longest-running African-American music, arts and education collective in the US. Sun Ra’s El Saturn company dates back to the mid-1950s, one of the very first black-owned labels.

Independence, however, is no guarantee of musical or graphic excellence; one worries that some inclusions – from hippie drippiness to emaciated cut’n’paste – are here more for their rarity and ‘crate-digging’ value. Design historians will learn little about the designers and illustrators: Baker’s erudite introduction and commentary foregrounds the context, the music and social history.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the musical story told on the accompanying double CD is more focused than the visual narrative of the book. Freedom Rhythm & Sound spans everything from illustration (Abdul Mati Klarwein’s cover for This is Madness by The Last Poets) and hyperactive hand-lettering (Pharaoh by Pharaoh Sanders), through several inept and / or hasty paste-ups, to Vee Alexander’s Lawrence Weiner-like reductionism for Steve Reid’s Odyssey of the Oblong Square.

The most timeless and effective sleeves are those that make powerful use of photography, including Archie Shepp’s Coral Rock, Cecil McBee’s Alternate Spaces and Mary Lou Williams’ Black Christ of the Andes. And there are few covers (in any genre) that can match the simplicity and appropriateness of the Robert Flynn / Viceroy cover for John Coltrane’s Ascension on the Impulse label.

While the musical legacy of this era of music (which also included pioneering figures such as Gil Scott Heron, Oliver Lake and Laraji) lives on in rap, black theatre, ballet, cinema and even ambient music, this collection of neglected cover art is a welcome addition to the canon of music design.

First published in Eye no. 74 vol. 19 2009


Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.