Free Radicals Examine Both Sides of The Freedom Fence

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Photo by Sarah Reid
Free Radicals are, strangely enough, one of Houston's most stable ensembles. Their music may vary wildly from song to song, from jazz and klezmer to ska and rap, but the band drummer Nick Cooper started in 1996 has had a steady core of members for most of those years. Baritone saxophonist Pete Sullivan joined a couple of years after that, bassist Theo Bijarro's tenure is approaching double digits, and Jason Jackson on alto sax has been around a while as well.

The group most often numbers seven members (also with guitarist Al Bear, percussionist Chris Howard and trumpeter Doug Falk), but Cooper recruited an astounding 48 musicians to assist on the Radicals' new album and first in eight years, The Freedom Fence.

On the 23-track album, which the band releases Saturday night at Fitz with a few guests, Free Radicals examine the idea of borders and boundaries from all possible sides and nationalities -- from the Israeli/Palestinean conflict, the Zapatistas, and even the Iron Curtain to issues a lot closer to home, such as Third Ward gentrification and the considerable number of Houston jazz musicians who have wound up in Ben Taub Hospital.

Rocks Off spoke with Cooper about the sprawling, complicated Freedom Fence -- and the sprawling, complicated Free Radicals -- earlier this week.

Rocks Off: There are so many songs on the album. Why not split it up into two or even three?

Nick Cooper: We really work hard to get an album that all gets in on the same kind of theme, that's timely and reflects the band at the time. We had a lot of material that we left off. We're ready to do another record, actually, in addition to all that stuff.

We have two more recording projects coming up right now. We're going to do an album of jazz-funk stuff for breakdancers, with Havikoro producing it, and we have a bunch of original Free Radicals stuff to do our next CD. So I usually try to fill up the CDs I put out.

RO: Where did the theme of the album come from?

NC: We have always kind of been in solidarity with immigrant movements and immigrants-rights' protests and all that. We also do stuff related to the Israel/Palestine issue, like the klezmer musicians against the wall that I produced. Border issues are something that we're interested in.

Then we started thinking about all the issues with borders in general. They don't all have the same meaning - Israel/Palestine is very different from Texas/Mexico. Apartheid in South Africa is very different from the Iron Curtain.

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So we just started playing with it, and then Jason Jackson, who's our alto sax player, came up with the idea. We were just walking around in New York, and they were putting up fences in Strawberry Fields in [Central] Park. I said, "Hey man, they're fencing off Strawberry Field," and he said, "That's the Liberty Fence, it sets us free," or something like that. The freedom fence.

That was our idea, but what was amazing is when we started working on this, we'd start collaborating with groups and they'd have different takes on it. The rappers that we worked with, maybe they'd want to talk about gentrification, the local rappers, where the Cuban rappers we worked with, Las Krudas, borders have defined their entire careers.

They were stuck inside Cuba, then they were stuck in Russia, then they were stuck here without proper papers. Everything related to this border issue for them, so it was really something they had a lot to say about.

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2706 White Oak, Houston, TX

Category: Music

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