Wednesday, 27 December 2006

An Introduction to Free Jazz

Well, for my first post on this blog, something on a subject which intrigues, enthralls and irritates me in equal measure: the phenomenon of free jazz. There are days when I think this type of music is a superb vehicle for the expression of emotional and musical ideas that can't be fully expressed in any other form. There are others where it just sounds like a bunch of random loud noises, or "torrents of hate," as the cantankerous jazz critic Jack Masserik once memorably described a John Coltrane track on the BBC Radio 3 show Jazz Line Up.

However, on the whole, I think I'm more often rewarded than intrigued in my listening adventures. And I'd certainly rather listen to the densest, noisiest, most difficult free jazz than the smooth pap churned out by Bill Clinton's favourite Kenny G or his ilk. Why?

Here comes the explanation. Guitarist Sonny Sharrock may have once said “I go out on stage, and my intention is to make the first four rows bleed from their ears,” but there’s more than ear-bleeding involved when listening to free jazz. Let me elaborate. It often seems like facing some sort of chaotic void – the musical equivalent of a black hole. But listen closer, and you’ll hear structure and logic behind the apparently random mess; it’s spontaneous music built on group interaction, with the musicians often displaying quicksilver reflexes to respond to what each other is doing. Some argue that free jazz has more significance as a cultural/political/social stance (it was frequently associated with radical black and left-wing politics) rather than the music itself, but there’s plenty of free jazz out there which is musically compelling enough in its own right to make it worth hearing at least once.

As Thurston Moore writes: “No matter how you listen to it JAZZ is ostensibly about FREEDOM. FREEDOM and the MYSTERY surrounding it.” Before the invention of jazz, improvisation had been pretty much a gimmick – Beethoven may have improvised, but his legacy depends entirely on his written music. But with the advent of recording technology, improvisation could become a lasting thing which could be captured and listened to again, rather than an ephemeral, one-off event. And jazz was the music which has most fully exploited improvisation and the freedom it entails, throughout the century. Louis Armstrong may have been the first musician to freely improvise a solo (within a structural context), in the early 1920s, and ideas of improvisation, live and on recordings, became increasingly more sophisticated throughout the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. From Lester Youngs’ reedy tones to the modernist cool of be-bop pioneer Charlie Parker, and the hyper-fast flying notes of John Coltrane, jazz seemed to reflect the times, and with the social upheavals of the 60s, came a radical new style – free jazz. Thurston Moore (again!): “To play jazz totally FREE and ORGANIC was a gesture whose time had come in the 60's. It was SOCIAL and POLITICAL for reasons involving relationship, race, fury, rage, peace, war, love and FREEDOM.” Though the music produced by the various free jazz players varied widely, the common feature was a dissatisfaction with the expressive possibilities of existing jazz styles like bebop, hard bop and modal jazz; each in his own way, free jazz musicians attempted to break down or extend the conventions of jazz, often by discarding previously invariable features such as fixed chord changes or tempos.

Right, that's the introduction bit over. To give these ramblings a kind of structure, I came up with a list of the most important free jazz artists and some of their recordings. If you're into this kind of thing, this will probably all be familiar territory for you and you can tear my flimsy generalisations to pieces. If you're not, then you won't spot the innaccuracies and mistakes, and you might even be encouraged to check some of this stuff out (I hope).

1) First up is John Coltrane (drumroll please).
He was one of the first jazz artists I heard, and he remains a favourite: his combination of immense power, speed and stamina with a lovely lyrical touch is pretty much unparalleled, and the furious searching quality of his music, which can lead to what seems like noise and chaos, seems to me to be his attempt to express the inexpressible. His music is a quest for truth, testing the boundaries of accepted musical practice just as he was testing the boundaries of knowledge about spiritual and scientific issues through his vast range of reading. Thus, even when attempting to deal with some of the weightiest spiritual themes possible, his music always has a profoundly human emotion and drama at its centre which is by turns inspiring, frightening and intensely moving.

Regarded by many as a genius, even a saint (there is an African Orthodox church of St John Coltrane in NY), Coltrane has also been dismissed as a noise merchant. Even those who appreciate the astounding technical virtuosity and spellbinding lyricism of early efforts such as ‘Giant Steps’ are often put off by the intense, lengthy, and challenging free jazz he produced towards the end of his life, as he emphasized a religious dimension and an experimental sound, with titles like ‘Ascension,’ ‘Meditations’, ‘Interstellar Space’, ‘Sun Ship,’ and ‘Om.’ (For more on this, check out Simon Weil’s excellent article ‘Circling Om: An Exploration of John Coltrane’s Later Works’, which you can find at

Late recordings like ‘Expression’ and ‘Stellar Regions’ are well worth checking out, but the ultimate examples are the mammoth “big-band” freakout ‘Ascension’ and ‘Meditations’, which also features ear-shredding saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and two drummers, and alternates between frenzied ferocity and passages of great lyrical beauty.

2) Albert Ayler is perhaps the second biggest free jazz figure after Coltrane, and, like Coltrane, he made much of the spiritual content of his music, with titles like ‘Spirits Rejoice’, ‘Holy Family’, ‘Angels’, and ‘Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.’ His music tends to proceed from simple, almost child-like themes to raw, screeching solos, but throughout all of this, what remains the same is his huge, vibrato-heavy and intensely expressive tone. ‘Spirits Rejoice’, a live album with his brother Donald, is perhaps as good a place to start as any, and features the haunting track ‘Angels’, where a harpsichord adds a really bizarre, otherworldy aspect. If you’re really keen, there’s an excellent 9 CD deluxe box set called ‘Holy Ghost’ – you can download it from emusic ( album/10921/10921136.html) if you don’t fancy shelling out £50 plus.

3) Pharoah Sanders was the third player in the so-called ‘holy trinity’ of free jazz saxophonists, along with Coltrane and Ayler. According to musicians’ legend, he can leave a saxophone shrieking for minutes after he’s finished playing it! And, though his early playing with Coltrane on ‘Meditations’, ‘Live in Japan’, and others, was often hard to listen to, he mellowed out quite a lot as the years have passed, delivering classics like ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’, which combined his trademark banshee cries with laidback, percussion-heavy grooves and lyrical melodies. A recently-released 2CD anthology, named after his track ‘You’ve Got to Have Freedom’, provides a broad selection, and is pretty much a perfect introduction, although some of the long tracks have had to be edited down (which could be a good thing)…

4) Archie Shepp (another Coltrane disciple) has always been something of a sheep in wolf’s clothing; though often lumped together with other noisemakers of the 1960s ‘New Thing’ such as Pharoah Sanders, in fact, there was a lot more lyricism and melodic invention than many would give him credit for. His breathy, gruff sound owed much to Ben Webster, perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of his work is the ideas informing it rather than the music itself. And this is by no means to imply that he is meek and mild – his playing is rough-honed, and, on, for example, ‘New Thing at Newport’, the album he shared with John Coltrane, very ferocious and intense. In the 1970s he released several albums which showed a far more mainstream approach, employing strings, brass and choir, and mixing soul with jazz. Opportunities for free playing in this context were somewhat limited, but these are maybe the best introduction to his work: ‘The Cry of My People’, though sometimes melodramatic, contains a couple of cracking tunes featuring the sonorous vocals of the underrated Joe Lee Wilson, and ‘Attica Blues’ is pretty hot too.

On the freer side, his debut album ‘Four for Trane’ is often described as his best, and I’d also recommend ‘Fire Music’ and ‘There’s a Trumpet in My Soul.’

Though his music may not always cohere or convince, his awareness of the cultural, social and historical contexts that informed the development of jazz and black music, both past and present, and his articulate thoughts about freedom and oppression lift him above a lot of other artists. And it is almost this more than the actual music that ensure he is a free jazz legend.

5) Sax player Ornette Coleman is next; he's just released a brilliant live album called ‘Sound Grammar’, probably the best jazz CD of 2006 (IMHO). His playing is emotive and earthy (Thurston Moore describes it as “at once beautiful and harsh”), and almost always seems to retain a spellbinding joyousness about it which is hard to dislike. Obviously, as I’m recommending free jazz albums, I should put in a plug for his recording ‘Free Jazz’ (like a milder version of Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’) but some of his best stuff is actually found on ‘The Shape of Jazz To Come’, where it sounds like he’s in more traditional form, but is actually experimenting with harmony in a very advanced way (which is somewhat beyond me, I have to confess) – still, it sounds great, and his sublime, mournful ballad ‘Lonely Woman’ is unsurpassed.
6) Peter Brötzmann. No guide to free jazz would be complete without mentioning this maverick beardy German, whose music probably goes as "far out" as any ever created. ‘Machine Gun’ is the one everyone talks about; ‘Nipples’ and ‘F*ck de Boere’ (which includes a live version of ‘Machine Gun’) are also pretty mind-blowing. It’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, and my appreciation of it varies, but, if you’re in the right mood, this is some really hot stuff.

Plus, I’d better get in a mention for amazing multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, who played with Coltrane and Charles Mingus, and released some superb records of his own, including ‘Out to Lunch’, maybe the best free jazz record ever made. And I shouldn’t forget virtuoso pianist Cecil Taylor either…I could go on and on, but I won’t.

Oh, and finally…If you want to find out more about free jazz from some people who really know their stuff, check out Thurston’s Moore’s ‘Top 10 from the Free Jazz Underground’ ( and the MP3 blog ‘Destination…Out’ (, where they post a couple of tracks a week, along with a little commentary. You can come across some weird and wonderful (and really obscure) stuff, and the range of music they cover is huge – one moment some traditional-sounding, laid back jazz, the next furious free thunder.


Albert Ayler, Spirits Rejoice (ESP, 1965)
Peter Brötzmann, Machine Gun (1968, FMP Records)
Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959, Atlantic Records)
John Coltrane, Ascension (1965, Impulse Records)
John Coltrane, Meditations (1966, Impulse Records)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (1964, Blue Note Records)
Pharoah Sanders, Karma (1969, Impulse Records)
Archie Shepp, Four for Trane (1964, Impulse Records)
Cecil Taylor, Conquistador (1966, Blue Note Records)
Sun Ra, Space is the Place (1972, Impulse Records)

And a couple which could come under the heading ‘free rock’!

Larry Young, Love Cry Want (1972,
Last Exit, Last Exit (1986)

That's it, I'm gone. Until next time...


King Kennytone said...


welkom to blogworld, man

Anonymous said...

Before the invention of jazz, improvisation had been pretty much a gimmick – Beethoven may have improvised, but his legacy depends entirely on his written music.

You Can't - Be - Serious.

This is one of the most ridiculous things I've read in a while. The roots of all music lies in improvisation. Gimmick? WTF?

And jazz wasn't "invented", it grew out of a african-american tradition, which in turn grew out of African music, which is - of course - based on improvisation.

david_grundy said...

oops...good point. you're right - Derek Bailey writes that "man's first performance couldn't have been anything other than a free improvisation." my phrasing and historical understanding was a little dodgy there. forgive me - I wrote it a while ago.

I think what I meant was that - in the western classical tradition at least - improvisation was not privileged. Now of course there was space for improv in classical music, within certain restricted limits - the virtuoso cadenza in a concerto - but in general the composer was king. hopefully that clears things up a bit.

Anonymous said...

First of all, sorry about the rough tone in my previous post. But I still feel compelled to comment a little bit about what you said there...

I think what I meant was that - in the western classical tradition at least - improvisation was not privileged. Now of course there was space for improv in classical music, within certain restricted limits - the virtuoso cadenza in a concerto - but in general the composer was king.

AFAIK this isn't quite accurate. What you describe fits really only to classical music from the romantic period onwards when the composers started to fill in all the details. Composers were started to be regarded as semi-gods and standardized performance practice began to emerge.

However, before this there was always plenty of room to improvise in almost all pieces (the smaller the ensemble, the more room of course). For example in the baroque period the basso continuo was only cursorily notated and the players filled in the rest.

Many of the legendary classical composers were primarily regarded in their time not as king composers but fantastic players and improvisers. In the history of classical music there are many famous improvisation battles between composers, for example the one between Handel and Scarlatti in 1708/9...

So it kinda all went wrong in the 19th century, but the good thing is, that it feels like the tide is changing and improvisation is coming back to classical music...

david_grundy said...

Re. your last point: yes, indeed, and in perhaps more extreme ways than before. I imagine that the Baroque improvisations you mention were still within certain restraints - well, all improvisation has certain inherent restraints, granted (performance conditions, personality/mood/playing style of performer, and so on) - but with the development of non-idiomatic free improvisation as an accepted form of music-making in the 60s (I don't think that's too much of a historical generalisation?), a new freedom really does seem to have opened up that even the earlier classical composers/musicians might have been shocked/fascinated/surprised by. Of course, the improvising tradition is very strong in French organ music, which really began to flourish in the nineteenth-century, as far as I understand it (not my greatest area of expertise, I have to say). But the use of improvisation in modern classical really is a fascinating area, and it's going to be interesting to see where it goes from here - particularly the parallels between free improv and classical in the work of say, fORCH/fURT, or Barry Guy.

kemenesfalvi said...

I like your post, but I don't get the ranking. (I'm not into ranking stuff anyway but if it must be) I would surely put Ornette first, and eighter Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler second. Trane was great, I love his music too, but he was influenced by these guy first then started his adventures in the free field. By the way I'm not sure that Eric Dolphy would consider himself a free player.

david_grundy said...

hi kemenesfalvi,

I don't suppose there was much point to the ranking - I wasn't trying to grade anyone in order of preference.

Re. Trane: the young players he fostered (Frank Wright, Frank Lowe, Carlos Ward, etc) may have influenced him even as he undoubtedly influenced them. There's that famous comment about John Gilmore - "He's got it! Gilmore's got the concept!" - and the fact Trane took lessons from him. Things is that most people hear Trane before they hear any of these other people, and the continuum from his early stuff to free jazz(from work with Miles to Blue Train to Ole Coltrane to the Village Vanguard then up to '65 when the free jazz influence really started to become prominent) may be a good way of 'easing people in'.

Re. Dolphy: even if not entirely a 'free' player himself (more treading the inside/outside line like Jackie McLean), he did lay a crucial lineage in his use of unconventional sounds, turning them from 'novelty effects' (as in the music of clarinettist Wilton Crawley in the 20s) into the legitimate basis for a musical vocabulary. You can hear that line in the 'extended techniques' of European improvisers like Mats Gustaffson, Evan Parker or John Butcher, and, perhaps most crucially, in the work of Anthony Braxton, who seems to have been the most active in adopting Dolphy's register-leaps. These speculations are always pointless, but I do wonder what might have happened if Dolphy hadn't died so young; would he have evolved into freer areas, as Trane did, away from lick-based 'pattern playing'? For me, 'Out to Lunch' comes tantalisingly close to this, particularly given the harmonic space Bobby Hutcherson's vibes open up. And then there's the earlier, more free-form improvisations with Mingus - the 'talking' section of 'What Love', for instance.

kemenesfalvi said...

Yeah I know what you mean, I also got in connection with the music of people like Albert Ayler, John Gilmore becouse I liked Trane. I've heared that Dolphy was planning to join Ayler's group before he died, that could have been fun, it's awful that he's carrier was cut so short, I'm sure out to lunch was only the beginning (That album is great but i think i prefer his live cuts with Mingus in 1964 that was an awsome band)