Free Radicals
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Free Radicals

Houston, Texas, United States | Established. Jan 01, 1996 | SELF

Houston, Texas, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 1996
Band Jazz Ska

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Aug
27
Free Radicals @ Bar 5015

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Aug
20
Free Radicals @ Bar 5015

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Jul
09
Free Radicals @ Bar 5015

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Music

Press


"The horn-heavy, continually evolving collective Free Radicals produces a wildly eclectic fusion that has as many influences as there are items in the Houston, Texas, pawnshop in which they honed their sound during all-night jam sessions. The mark of such musicians as Henry Threadgill, Charles Mingus, James Brown, and the Skatalites can be heard on the twenty-nine songs on the band's self-produced debut CD, "The Rising Tide Sinks All," which, by the way, features fifty-five musicians. Expect fewer live performers, but no less of a wild show." - The New Yorker


"If Eric Dolphy, George Clinton and Frank Zappa led a ska band, they might sound something like Houston's Free Radicals. It's a fitting name for a band who are completely unafraid of the inherent risks of bastardizing jazz, ska, funk, rock, rap and world music, yet acutely aware of musicality at all times. The music that results is groove-soaked experimentation. But the liberty Free Radicals take with such a diverse array of musical forms stops well short of avant crap. Free Radicals keep things real by creating some of the most carefully arranged hybrid songs around and keep things fresh with an ever-mutating conglomeration of musicians--some 50 players appear in their most recent release, The Rising Tide Sinks All (Rastaman Work Ethic). No two songs are alike and not a single one can be effectively safety-pinned to the lapel of any genre. The ska-based songs have surf guitar breaks, the free jazz rides a funk wave and lounge swank gets its winking eyeball pierced by double-edged rock guitar--the combinations are endless and so is the pleasure of listening to Free Radicals work their weird magic. Free Radicals are a music writer's dream: with bands as capable and imaginative as this, one doesn't have to be careful with words like "unique." Bands like this embody the very concept."
--Michael Henningsen - Albuquerque Weekly Alibi


"Houston-based Free Radicals includes former members of Sprawl, a band that played OC pretty regularly back in the early 90's and even had a following here. If you were among that following, you should know that Free Radicals are playing a bunch of shows around here after the new year. We'll be there for at least one of them, and so should you because if they're as tasty live as The Rising Tide Sinks All promises, they'll smoke. The Free Radicals hammer out a startlingly superb blend of genre-jumping rhythms and riffs that stretch from jazz to funk to ska to R&B to hip-hop to world beat, and back again - sometimes in the same damn song - and they make it all work without any bad, show-offy aftertaste. The Middle Eastern tabla thumping on "Larium Dreams" is exotic and peaceful; the old-school two-tone that pumps up "Home of Easy Credit" sounds like ska being birthed; "Ilalihamani" - the word itself is cool - is haunted by dreamy tribal chants that float above phat, shit-about-to-happen conga hits; song titles like "The School of the Americas," "Elegy for Ken Saro-Wiwa" and "The Capital Punishment Capital" tell us about their politics; and the stream of consciousness Leftie-ish rap that makes up "The Occupation" is only made freakier by the oom-pah-pah tune that blares uncaringly in the back, as seductively rough as the rhymes on "That Ain't No Lamb" are silky and supple. At 74 minutes - not one of them wasted - The Rising Tide Sinks All and the Free Radicals come off sounding as if War, Miles Davis, the Skatalites, Gil Scot-Heron and the Watts Prophets all got together in a studio, fired up some fatties, and jammed till they were sore. When we were blaring this in the Weekly office, some people thought the disc's sloooow jazz/R&B workouts sounded so salacious that they could only be songs from a porno flick. In a way, they're right: Free Radicals guarantee a great fucking Time."
--Rich Kane - OC Weekly, Orange County CA


"Not only is Free Radicals the best unsigned band in Houston, it's the most hyped band in town likely to never land a deal. That stigma, however, has nothing to do with quality or proficiency: An ever-mutating, en masse collective, Free Radicals - at one time or another - can boast the participation of no less than 60 of the city's finest and most visionary players, all coming together under the premise of a vast and indefinable fusion. Jazz, hip-hop, rock, ska, soul, experimental noise - Free Radicals don't discriminate; it's music just the same. And if there is a reluctant beacon of sanity in all the improvisational chaos, it's Nick Cooper, whose impassioned political poetry blankets the liner notes of the group's self-released debut CD, The Rising Tide Sinks All Ships, and whose steady hand behind the drum kit often steers the Radicals' on-stage excursions. Live, of course, the band's membership drops to a more manageable number (usually under ten). These guys are good, but they're not contortionists." - Houston Press


"Ever since Free Radicals invaded the Houston music scene in 1996, the continually evolving collective has been ballyhooed as "the most unique" band in Space City. And as clichŽd as that sounds, there is no better way to describe this innovative group and its eclectic fusion of jazz, funk, ska, reggae, African and Indian music, and Latin jazz.
Front man Nick Cooper founded the horn-heavy hodgepodge of musicians with both experimentation and a high level of musicality in mind.
Our Lady meets both his goals. With influences ranging from Charles Mingus to the Skatalites, Free Rads' second CD, Our Lady of Eternal Sunny Delights, is a treasure chest filled with 31 gems.
To keep the music fresh, over 50 players lend their talents to this CD. Songs like "Killer Bee Honey" and "The Planets" show that Free Radicals isn't afraid to keep things real. These groove-drenched cuts are so funky, the body wants to get up and move something -- right down to the atomic level where the protons and neutrons are doing some finger-snappin' and toe-tappin' of their own. Other "how the hell did they put those sounds together" cuts include the Asian-influenced "Musafir Wapas" and the James Brown-style "Skillets."
Free Radicals' strident political voice rings through loudest on "Nyamezela Kwedini," a tribal ode that puts the listener right in the middle of African tradition and ritual. This is definitely the kind of music one would expect from a group who once delivered a nonstop 24-hour benefit concert for community and political progress. Free Rads has always been less about the kind of change you find in your pocket than the kind you effect with placards and ballots.
Overall, this trippy Lady seems like one of the more hallucinatory characters in Alice in Wonderland . Somehow, though, Free Radicals' superb blend of genre-jumping rhythms and riffs has managed to make sense out of what would seem to be a recipe for improvisational chaos. Expect a wild and seductive ride."
-- Maurice Bobb - Houston Press


Nick Cooper is surprised to hear that his band, Free Radicals, won Best Jazz honors. He called the Press the day after the Wednesday event and got the good news. But didn't his band tell him first? "No, I really should call those guys," Cooper said. Cooper played the Sunday gig and then went back to his borrowed summer digs in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he's been working on a novel. (So far he has 37 pages in the can.) This is his freewheeling combo's sixth win in three categories, but this year Cooper was particularly excited about the band's showcase gig. "We always get nominated separately from [Free Radical] Harry Sheppard," he said. "So this year we asked for our gigs to be scooted together so he could play his set and then join us for ours." Cooper is also pleased that Houston audiences have taken to the band's new, all-but-horn-free lineup, which includes Sheppard, Aaron Hermes and Tom Sutherland. -- J.N.Lomax
Critic's pick: Free Radicals - Houston Press


Houston Press, August 14, 2003
As Harry Sheppard put it while accepting this award for the rest of the Radicals, who are in Brazil, it's about time. Houston isn't the greatest jazz town in the world, but the hidden talent here is top notch. These cats deserve some sort of recognition. Leading the funky, free, progressive wave is Nick Cooper and his Free Radicals. Ever evolving, always outspoken, and as genuinely radical as their name implies, this rotating group of musicians puts on some of the most interesting live sets in this city. Expect a wild mix of keys, horns, percussion, and vocals playing music from every continent. The Free Radicals seldom sound like the same band twice in a row. The relatively recent addition of turntablist Fast4ward only makes things crazier. -- M.S - Houston Press



Free Radicals regularly blasts Houston audiences with its fusion of funk, reggae, ska, jazz and hip-hop. The collective also adds some much-needed improvisation to the city's mainstream music scene.
Seven years after forming, the group is busy completing production on its third album, Aerial Bombardment.
"For the most part, songs on the new album were not written ahead of time," frontman and drummer Nick Cooper says. "We did a lot of improv on this album."
Free Radicals entrances with its seemingly effortless symbiosis of sounds. Influences among the 11 regular members run the gamut from Charles Mingus to the Skatalites, making for some of the most unusual -- and vibrant -- instrumentation around.
"One of our bass players, Theo (Bijarro), comes out of a jazz background," Coopyer says. "I listen to a lot of African music. Thomas Sutherland listens to a lot of experimental music and our percussionist lives in Brazil on and off, so he has a real strong Brazilian orientation."
The new album makes some intriguing statements of musicality. Songs like Eyebrows takes the kind of chances we've come to expect from a group that can't say no to any instrument. It's also the only song on the album with lyrics. Free Radicals brought in famed blues singer Gloria Edwards to lay down her syrupy vocals on the song. Other tracks use Indian music, dub, turntables and drum 'n' bass. Overall, this offering gives fans a look into the group's superb blend of genre-jumping rhythms and riffs.
"On this album, we just went onstage, did improv and recorded the whole thing," Cooper says. "We took our favorite parts from that and overdubbed as many crazy instruments as we could find and put them in. The end product is something that sounds like something between live organic music and straight-up electronic music. But overall, there was no plan at all, except to make the coolest track that we could."
Free Radicals feels confident about its sonic inimitability.
"We don't like to pigeonhole ourselves into one particular genre or one particular style," keyboardist Tom Sutherland says. "We want to be open to everything and every thought and that includes our own ideologies when we sit and play. A lot of our inspiration comes from that. We also try to look at all different views. We're all from Houston and this is supposedly a diverse city, so we're trying to get some of that diversity out. I think people should always be open to say what they feel and not just go with the flow. It's too easy to sit back and not make a stand for what you believe in. That's one of the main reasons I got into music, I wanted to try to open people's minds with music. That's why we put emotion into the things we play."
Emotion about war and racism and commercialism has given the group a strident political voice and has fueled its impassioned poetry.
"Music is inherently about something culturally," Cooper says. "The traditions that we play in have cultural meanings, we don't just play something without meaning. I mean, reggae has a meaning, funk has a meaning. All of these music traditions are about struggle."
Free Radicals ventures outside of the musical mainstream when it comes to money as well.
"What's truly different about this album is the licensing agreement that we have," Cooper says. "It's something that's unprecedented for us. We have a contract by which anybody that was a part of the CD -- whether it was the guy who wrote it or played an instrument or did the graphics -- can sell the CD themselves and not have to pay anyone else involved. They can even repackage the CD and sell it, so the names of songs could change. But this way, everyone will be in direct competition with each other and there won't be any griping about pay."
How's that for radical and free?
- MAURICE BOBB - Houston Chronicle


In the weeks leading up to the Houston Press Music Awards showcase on Sunday, August 4, Rocks Off will be profiling a handful of performers each day, mostly in their own words - part of the best top-to-bottum lineup the showcase has ever had, in our humble opinion. See the showcase schedule and ticket information at HPMusicAwards.com, and watch Twitter (@hprocksoff) every day until the showcase for your chance to win tickets.
HPMA Showcase Spotlight: Free Radicals, "Soundtrack For the Revolution"

To which member(s) are we speaking? Nick Cooper, Pete Sullivan, Al Bear.

What are you nominated for? Best Jazz.

Please list all of your regular band members and what instruments they play. Chris Howard, percussion; Theo Bijarro, bass; Jason Jackson, alto sax, Pete Sullivan, bari sax; Doug Falk, trumpet; Nick Cooper, drums; Harry Sheppard, vibes; Al Bear, guitar,

And frequent collaborators:

Marcos Melchor, sax; Subhendu Chakraborty, tablas; Nadja Burns, harp; Nelson Mills III, trumpet; Al Pagliuso, percussion; Nick Gonzales, tuba; Cory Wilson, sax; Dan Cooper, bass; Bob Chadwick, flute; Phindisela Mkhatshwa; percussion; Doyle Odom, guitar; Pelayo Parlade, piano; Jeremy Nuncio, keys; Henry Darragh, trombone.

Describe your band in four to seven words. Soundtrack for the revolution, quinceañeras, office parties.

Who is your single biggest musical influence and why? Our influences are many, so there isn't one we could name. Charles Mingus, Fela, Sun Ra, JB's, Skatalites, Hendrix, Coltrane, Miles, Ethiopiques, Steel Pulse, Harry Sheppard, Little Joe Washington, John Scofield, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

What recordings (if any) do you have readily available? The Rising Tide Sinks All, Our Lady of Eternal Sunny Delight, Aerial Bombardment, Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall (compilation), and The Freedom Fence.

Have you ever been HPMA-nominated before? When and what for? Best CD, Best Song, Best Jazz (2012); Best Jazz (2011); Best Jazz (2010); Best Jazz, Best Drummer (2009); Best Jazz (2008); Best CD by Local Musicians (2004); Best Jazz (2003); Best Jazz (2002); Best Jazz (2001); Best Jazz, Best Funk, Best Drummer (1999); Best Jazz, Best Unsigned Band (1998).

Where and how often do you perform (publicly) around Houston? About twice a week: AvantGarden (Mondays), Fitzgerald's, Continental, Super Happy Fun Land, Notsuoh, Dan Electro's, Mango's, Last Organic Outpost, Summer Fest, iFest,White Linen Nights, Cottonwood, Bohemeo's, various street protests, Last Organic Outpost, Mennonite Church, Peace Camp Houston, The Orange Show, Last Concert Café, Art Crawl, 420 Fest, Vinal Edge, Cactus Music, MECA, White Swan, Food Not Bombs, the Mink.

What is the next step for your band? We are currently recording Freedom of Movement, an all-breakdancing CD being executive-produced by Havikoro, the local breakdancing crew. Free Radicals and Havikoro have been working together for years. We played for breakdancing events and they have come to breakdance at our shows.

Now, we have decided to do a project together to put live music out for break-dancers around the world. We also are doing more and more with the two musical projects we launched, Bateria Terceira Costa (plays samba batucada music) and Free Rads 2nd Line (plays New Orleans brass-band music).

Finish this sentence: "Houston music is..." Responsible for six deaths and 23 serious injuries each year. - Houston Press


The album cover for “The Rising Tide Sinks All” depicted Shell oil canisters leaking in to the ocean. John Kitses' 12-year old drawing was like a premonition waiting to become true.

HOUSTON Deep in downtown, the teasing strum of a guitar, hypnotic beat of percussions, and the wooing echo of horns bounce off lime-green soundproof walls in a dimly-lit rented studio.

It is close to midnight on a weekday, and the Free Radicals are rehearsing a song inspired by a centuries-old Jewish music genre called Klezmer.

In its historic form, the purely instrumental compositions were structured to facilitate expressive celebrations and dancing at traditional Jewish weddings in Eastern Europe. But the Free Radicals are anything but traditional.

By day, the band members are activists, volunteers and teachers and by night, they gather in a rented studio to practice. They often play pro bono at protests and peace benefits.

“Outside the political sphere, we take radicalism in our approach to music,” says percussionist Chris Howard.

The Free Radicals have taken the high energy and exotic scale of Klezmer and turned it into something verging on punk rock. Since they formed in 1996, the band has experimented with diverse international instrumental styles and have collaborated with over 50 other musicians.

But in Klezmer, folk music inherited from some of their Jewish ancestors, the Free Radicals saw potential beyond bar mitzvahs and weddings.

The drummer and founder of the band, Nick Cooper thought it could be a powerful voice to gather support to “boycott Israel.” Coopers own band, the Free Radicals abides by the call from Palestinian academics “and refrains from performing at or recording on projects sponsored by Israeli institutions unless they are explicitly anti-occupation.”

“I actually got the idea from a Pakistani-punk rock band,” said Cooper referring to the Kominas, who were inspired by a fictional Muslim punk-rock band in Michael Mohammad Knight's book “Taqwacore.” (The work of fiction that struck a chord with young Muslims has been made into a recently released documentary. You can watch the trailer here.)

“I was outside a show with The Kominas in New York and my friends were talking about how Taqwacore started a movement that hadnt previously existed, so I wondered if I could create a scene that didnt exist of anti-occupation Klezmer music.”

So Cooper decided to invite over 400 Klezmer bands to his newly-found cause.

“Most of them ignored me,” said the activist-cum-musician.

Some bands responded angrily to his invitation. Some musicians said they would love to participate but couldn't because it would alienate their mostly Jewish audiences. And some said they liked his idea but asked him to tone down the album's message.

In the end, 14 bands from the US, Israel, Germany and the UK were ready to take the next step and do a compilation CD called “Klezmer Against the Wall” which is now available on iTunes. All profits from the digital downloads will go to music and arts programmes in Palestine.

The album's mission statement does not call for a boycott of Israel as Cooper had first envisioned but it does “oppose the Israeli apartheid and occupation through non-violent protest, targeted boycotts, civil disobedience and direct action.”

The album features modern Klezmer songs influenced by Jazz and punk rock. Songs like “The Occupation” and “Enemy Combatant Playground” and “You and the Night and the Music” by popular Israeli musician Gilad Atzmon's band, carry a heavy political message.

Some participating traditional bands like Shpil and Aufwind follow the kind of classical Klezmer composition that features at weddings; often accompanied by a human voice weeping and laughing, they spring from a slow melody that conveys the parental sadness of losing a daughter to an upbeat tune that entices everyone to get up and dance.

These songs have the power to appeal to more traditional audiences and carry the Hebrew prayer on the album cover that says “may the Merciful One create brotherhood between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael.”

Claire Bergen from Shpil, joined the project because she believes that music can be a powerful source of social and cultural change. "I hope that this project can contribute to a rich Jewish culture that upholds the dignity and human rights of all peoples and cultures, including those of Palestinians who today live under the occupation of the Israeli military," said the third-generation Klezmer musician.

And that message echoes in the horns - a classic Klezmer instrument - that is breaking down a wall on the albums cover.

Other artwork from the CD depicts a Klezmer troupe perched on a concrete wall, with their feet dangling above graffiti that says “Free Palestine” and shows a big red beating heart that is being protected by a Klezmer drummer. A young girl pulls at an Israeli soldier's uniform as he orders a bulldozer to knock the musician and the heart down.

According to Cooper, artwork is central to the album and his band, the Free Radicals.

“We play instrumental music, so we may be thinking about all kinds of things when we are playing, but it may not be as overt in terms of a message but our album covers are usually pretty heavy and political.”

When the Free Radicals put out their first album, “The Rising Tide Sinks All” in 1998, the album cover depicted Shell oil canisters leaking in to the ocean and an offshore drilling site pointing its many guns at an innocent octopus. John Kitses - the artist - 12-year old drawing was like a premonition waiting to become true.

The artwork also included a powerful warning against American foreign policy “Wanting so badly for more stores to honor our coupons and warranties, that we impose martial law, wage war and warm our extremities in the war-time economies rubbing our hands in the warmth of the infernos of oil wells, exhaust fumes and off-shore refineries, waving our hankies to the underhand bankers.”

In 1998, those kinds of words would have been labeled as progressive mumbo-jumbo appealing exclusively to radical fringes. But things have changed since 2001.

And it was this change that really inspired bassist Theo Bijarro to be a part of the “Klezmer Against the Wall” project.

“After 9/11 a friend asked Cooper, 'don't you think you should be doing something more important with your life instead of just playing music and creating art?' His response was no. It is the opposite,” narrates Theo.

“They didn't bomb Juilliard (School of Music). They didn't run their planes into Juilliard. They ran them into the World Trade Center.”

Weeks after the Gaza Flotilla tragedy, it is with that kind of spirit that Claire Bergen from Shpil hopes Klezmer Against the Wall, “can start a discussion through something beautiful, joyful and fun to listen to.”


(Update The CD has already made an impression in the US. Florida's main Jewish radio station, Shalom South Florida, has responded to “Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall” by banning all American and European Klezmer bands featured on the CD from their airwaves.) - Dawn (Pakistan's Largest English Language Newspaper)


Discography

LPs

Freedom of Movement
The Freedom Fence
Aerial Bombardment
Our Lady of Eternal Sunny Delight
The Rising Tide Sinks All

Photos

Bio

Drummer Nick Cooper founded the group in 1996, with a goal of specializing in improvised music and collaborating with rappers. Cooper and bari sax player Pete Sullivan are the longest-remaining members, but Jason Jackson (alto sax) and Al Bear (guitar) have been in the band over a decade. In 2015, long time collaborator and Free Rads Street Band sousaphonist Nick Gonzalez bought a bass amp and took over low-end duties. New additions include Matt Serice (trumpet), and Tom VandenBoom (trombone). Frequent collaborators and guest musicians include Al Pagliuso (percussion), Harry Sheppard (vibes), Nelson Mills III (trumpet), and Subhendu Chakraborty (tablas).

In 2000, The New Yorker wrote "The horn-heavy, continually evolving collective Free Radicals produces a wildly eclectic fusion that has as many influences as there are items in the Houston, Texas, pawnshop in which they honed their sound during all-night jam sessions."

In 2010, Dawn, The widest circulated English language publication in Pakistan, wrote that the artwork and message about underwater oil-leaks, oil-wars, and bank-crashes on the band's first CD, The Rising Tide Sinks All (1998),  was like a "premonition waiting to become true."

On subsequent recordings — Our Lady of Eternal Sunny Delights (2000), Aerial Bombardment (2004), The Freedom Fence (2012), and Freedom of Movement (2015) — Free Radicals invited a group of 50 or more musicians and vocalists into the studio.

Free Radicals performs many concerts, marches and fund-raisers for anti-authoritarian and radical groups like food not bombs, peace festivals, and even a continuous 24-hour concert to raise money for charity. They have protested against Halliburton, and participated in marches for immigrants' rights, against the death penalty, against US and Israeli aggression, and for a Houston janitor's union.

Free Radicals has won the following 20 Houston Press awards:
    1998: Best Jazz, Best Unsigned Band
    1999: Best Jazz, Best Funk, Best Drummer
    2001: Best Jazz
    2002: Best Jazz
    2003: Best Jazz
    2004: Best CD by Local Musicians
    2008: Best Jazz
    2009: Best Jazz, Best Drummer
    2010: Best Jazz
    2011: Best Jazz
    2012: Best CD, Best Song, Best Jazz
    2013: Best Jazz
    2014: Best Jazz
    2015: Best Jazz


Band Members