Web surfers and Boston-area listeners can turn to WZBC-FM, Boston College’s radio station. For three hours each Monday night, “Free Association” features “the interrelationship between jazz and improvised music and the revolution-era soul music of the ’60s,” according to the program’s creator and host, Brian Carpenter.
“Free Association” lives up to its name, as Carpenter segues handily from turntablism and free jazz to techno and avant garde, blurring the distinctions along the way. Carpenter maintains there’s a method to his musical madness: “I have a clear strategy, a way of building a bridge from something generally accessible to something relatively inaccessible.”
Carpenter describes one set that began with a ’70s soul singer and eventually settled into a piece by a renowned improvisational artist: “One caller asked me, ‘What is this music? You were playing Al Green and all of a sudden I’m listening to music I’ve never heard before. I don’t remember how we got here but I like this.’ I was playing Albert Ayler. This listener would normally never listen to free music. If I had played Ayler right after Al Green, he would have shut off the radio.”
Slightly more than a year old, the program has already made a name for itself among members of Boston’s improv scene. According to Ed Hazell, co-founder of the Boston Creative Music Alliance, “Radio programs featuring creative music are increasingly rare. Brian not only has a good sense of what’s going on internationally, he knows the Boston scene intimately and gives the city’s music important exposure.”
Composer and saxophonist Ken Field, who has appeared on “Free Association,” agrees that the program makes a significant contribution to avant-garde and other fringe music. “A lot of jazz stations around the country have a tendency to stick with tried-and-true artists,” says Field, who’s also a member of the ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. “It’s important to have a show like Brian’s that really pushes the stylistic edges and presents things that don’t have the opportunity to be heard on mainstream shows.”
Carpenter sees to it that the program’s style of presentation is as much an experiment as the music he plays. About a quarter of the show features what Carpenter calls his “thematic layering approach.” Over a bed of electronica that’s familiar to his audience e.g. To Rococo Rot or Spring Heel Jack he’ll add a less familiar track. “I once had Sun Ra’s Cosmic Rays singing doo-wop over Dr. Octagon’s ‘Blue Flowers,'” Carpenter remembers. “Oh my God, that was beautiful.” Once he feels he’s hooked his audience, he’ll drop out the electronica underneath and let Sun Ra, Ornette, etc. stand on their own.
And what would “Free Association” be without a few free associating listeners? One of Carpenter’s fans is a caller who goes by the moniker, “The Naked Baboon.” “He’ll give me very terse and pointed assignments,” Carpenter says. “He’ll say something like, ‘Just play me a beat, man.’ Or, ‘Take me out to space, man.’ And then he’ll hang up. I do my best.”