Episode #63: Is This the End of the Line?

Sam Billen and his daughter, Hannah

I wish I had Sam Billen’s knack for self-promotion and his ability to see a project through to completion.  It’s not that I don’t write and record a lot of (great) songs, it’s just that I lack some of the traits that might get me noticed.  For instance, I know I talk more about about others’ music than I do my own.

Billen is constantly recording, but he can focus on actually finishing an album.  Me?  I record TONS of songs, but I don’t usually feel they fit together as an album.  Billen’s released two albums this year, in addition to a slew of songs on his SoundCloud page.  I play one of his newest this week; it’s from a Christmas album he and his friend, Josh Atkinson, released on Wednesday.  In the spirit of Christmas cheer, good will and all that junk, they have made the album available for free.

This week, I start discussing free jazz.  Like so many other styles I address in these episodes, I know neither one song nor a brief discussion can begin to cover it well.  That said, whether you dig this Ornette Coleman song or not (although you probably will), I’d highly recommend tearing through records by some other artists in the genre: John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Alert Ayler and Don Cherry.  (The proliferation of MP3 blogs on the internet makes this an incredibly easy task nowadays.)  One cannot make generalizations about an entire style with only listening to a song, especially with a style as diverse as free jazz.


  1. “Sugar” – The People (The Premise is Sound/self-released/2000)
  2. “Eventually” – Ornette Coleman (The Shape of Jazz to Come/Atlantic/1959)
  3. “Iced Lightning” – RJD2 (Since We Last Spoke/Definitive Jux/2004)
  4. “Hark Hark” – Sam Billen and Josh Atkinson (A Word of Encouragement/self-released/2010)

Radio Free Raytown – Episode #63 (12/3/10)

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3 thoughts on “Episode #63: Is This the End of the Line?

  1. Brandon says:

    Dude, I am totally going to have to disagree with you on your interpretation of artistic abstraction in its relation to theory. You mentioned that what makes free jazz so interesting and conceptually definitive is its connection to history and culture, while in the same breath negating the historical relevance of art in the post industrial age. There is not other way to say this but, you misunderstand how art, particularly that of painting, has had more theoretical and conceptual relevance in the last 100 years than in the last 2,000 years. The focus of modern and post-modern fine artists was deeply rooted in context and understanding historical position.

    I certainly can’t share all of the nuances of this argument in the comment section of your blog. This is a conversation we will have to have offline but I thought I should make my opinion known. I will say that whether intended or not you slighted fine art in this podcast, relating it to “something a child could make,” a very distasteful statement.

    This podcast would have been an excellent way of tying jazz to fine art, speaking to the inspiration that music and art and on one another in the jazz/post-jazz era, Kandinsky through Picasso.

    • I have to say that I am a little surprised at the length of your response. You know me and that I read and discuss art history quite frequently; I can also be an intellectual bull in a china shop. Some random, new listener to the show may not know that. While I would usually feel tempted to argue that my reputation precedes me and that you should know what I’m talking about, I think you do bring up a good point that needs clarification (because I certainly don’t think art in the post-industrial age is irrelevant). Instead of a backhanded apology or simply recoiling, I’ll just try to more accurately write what I meant to say.

      On the surface, free jazz appears to most to be a mess. In fact, it usually becomes the brunt of jokes from those who don’t want to take the time to understand what’s going on.

      This happens in visual arts, as well. I remember being taken aback by a Picasso painting on corrugated cardboard at the Art Institute in Chicago. He had unlearned almost everything seemingly “right” about techniques in art in an effort to allow more unrestrained (primal?) lines, brush strokes and design to develop. It did, indeed, look like something a child could make.

      It’s tempting to ignore the idea behind a painting and merely focus on the image; it’s also tempting to hear cacophony and walk away. I tire of seeing folks who refuse to engage with the idea and focus on technique. I’ve heard many folks remark, “I could do that,” when looking at a Jackson Pollock painting.

      For me, what differentiates free jazz from a lot of modern art (both are insanely huge classifications…so bear with me as I make a generalization) is how it was created and the artists’ ultimate goal. A lot of artists from Kandinsky to Picasso to Man Ray worked alone (not necessarily ostracized, though) and seem to focus on self-expression of some sort, while free jazz artists worked in tight-knit ensembles that usually communicated something about community, civil rights, etc.

      Both groups ignored a lot of conventions and created important work. I am more moved by free jazz artists and how, even in their non-traditional approach, they came full circle with something that sounds much more traditional than many visual artists achieved.

      In the end, never confuse my opinions for facts, unless I’m discussing jangly 80s British rock bands.

  2. Shane says:

    Another good show. Also, loving Sam’s Christmas record!

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