Ordinarily, if an artist’s introduction to a track on a live recording from 1971 began with the words, “This is called ‘Isis Unveiled,’ it’s based on an Egyptian scale,” you’re in for some heavy-duty prog-rock action. But in the case of Spirit Free’s ’71 album, Spirit Free Plays Starship, the scale in question is part of an aural investigation into the possibilities of modal jazz, a phenomenon still in its relative youth at the time. As it happens, Spirit Free was initially a quartet of forward-looking musicians from various parts of the country who ended up in Las Vegas as journeyman jazzers playing with swing bands, lounge acts and the like on the Vegas strip (at one point Paul Anka was the man signing the paychecks for some of the Spirit Free members).
A common interest in the new ideas that were swirling around in the jazz universe at the time brought the four players on Spirit Free’s lone album together. The start of the ’70s was a heady time in jazz, with the innovations of pioneers like Miles, Coltrane, Sun Ra, et al laying waste to preconceptions about the music’s parameters; saxophonist Rick Davis, keyboardist Ron Feuer, bassist Papito Hernandez, and drummer Santo Savino channeled these influences into their own variation on the embryonic electric-jazz format with Spirit Free Plays Starship.
The original album — released DIY-style and quickly lost to the drifts of time before its resurrection by the loving hands of the expert archivists at the Numero Group — contained five tracks of the quartet giving their all on improv-based cuts that bear the ecstatic freedom of Miles’ Bitches Brew, the loose-limbed spirituality of mid-’60s Coltrane, and on tracks like the aforementioned “Isis Unveiled,” the Egyptophile vibe of vintage Sun Ra. Keyboardist Feuer’s coloristic splashes of complex harmony seem to be the glue holding things together just loosely enough to allow the other players — particularly fiery saxman Davis — to reach deep inside and invest themselves fully in the fray. This reissue adds three lengthy bonus cuts to the bargain, the most striking being an 18-and-a-half-minute alternate version of “Starship” that ventures perhaps even further than the original. Spirit Free went through some major personnel changes after this album, but they never recorded again, and by the early ’80s they were no more, but fortunately this almost-lost chapter in avant-jazz history has been rescued from obscurity.