What if we came around to thinking about free-form jazz the way we think about a poem? Poems are not puzzles or codes; they are a human voice speaking through intelligence into language. Likewise, jazz, paraphrasing Duke Ellington, is about choosing to be joyful in spite of conditions.
Although it’s often presented as a mental exercise or a specific repertoire, much of jazz is visual and physical. Also, one similarity with poetry and jazz may be the ways they book find meaning through silence or blank space.
What follows are my attempts to offer a guide of what in and how to appreciate of avant-garde or experimental jazz. Many jazz musicians eschew the term jazz for its long history as a derogatory term, and prefer “black classical music,” “modern music,” or “free improvised music.”
Abbey Lincoln, “Left Alone” from Straight Ahead (Candid, 1961)
Abbey Lincoln (1930-2010) was known for her Civil Rights activism. The record Straight Ahead is one of the peaks of her long career, and includes her then-husband, drummer Max Roach. “Left Alone” was written by Billie Holiday and pianist Mal Waldron, though Holiday never recorded it. Lincoln presents it with contradictions: she sings with such gentle power; conviction and vulnerability; force and pathos. Then Coleman Hawkins, a tenor saxophone specialist from the Swing Era, starts his solo around 3:00 and it’s the instrumental equivalent of her voice; he expresses what it means to be left alone, by love, by society, by whatever.
The Bad Plus, “Iron Man” from Give (Columbia / Sony, 2004)
The Bad Plus are a piano trio, though the pianist here, Ethan Iverson, was recently replaced with Orrin Evans. They’re known for their jazz versions not of Tin Pan Alley or Broadway tunes, but of things like this, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The drumming is not jazz drumming, but rock drumming. You can tell by the way it was recorded that the drums are way up front and the drummer is thrashing. The whole band is hollering, and you can almost picture Ozzy Osbourne. However, in the final moments, around 5:02, the song changes completely into something more like Debussy or Chopin, and offers a kind of plaintive hope amid destruction.
Charles Mingus, “Myself When I Am Real” from Mingus Plays Piano (Impulse, 1963)
Charles Mingus (1922-1979) was a bassist and composer, known as a volatile innovator and virtuoso on his instrument. Here, however, he’s shows he probably could have become a famous pianist had he not become a bass player. This spontaneous composition with its poem-like title shows Mingus’s poetic sensibility. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, otherwise known as Charles Mingus Disease (it also killed a famous baseball player in the 1940s).
David S. Ware Quartet, “Aquarian Sound” from Flight of i (DIW, 1992)
David S. Ware Quartet was my favorite band when it existed. David S. Ware (1949-2012) was primarily a tenor saxophonist, though he played other reed instruments as well. Hearing him live, which I did many times, was a sort of life-altering moment because he showed that you could start with just this incredible, intense energy and demand that the audience follow through with you. He also showed devotion to keeping one’s mind disciplined and peaceful. Besides the obvious power of his horn, the pianist, Matthew Shipp, is in high form here.
Henry Threadgill, “Little Pocket Size Demons” from Too Much Sugar For a Dime (Axiom, 1993)
Henry Threadgill (b. 1944) is a composer, saxohonist, and flautist. This composition is striking for its use of non-standard instrumentation such as tuba instead of bass as a rhythmic instrument and electric guitar instead of piano as its harmonic instrument. At once chaotic, yet beautiful, the piece is from the world, but also from nowhere. It’s not like anything else in all of music, let alone jazz. It uses texture and color most interestingly, the way the layers of different kinds of instruments come together and apart.
Julius Hemphill, “Dogon A.D.” from Dogon A.D. (Freedom, 1972)
Julius Hemphill (1938-1995) was mainly an alto saxophonist. His Dogon A.D. must be his masterpiece. He originally released it on his own label, and has become an important moment in the history of free music. An unusual trio of alto saxophone trumpet, cello, and drums, it sounds like nothing else and really must be heard rather than described. The Dogon people of Mali are known for their astronomical achievements, particularly with the constellation Sirius. Perhaps this piece of music has something to say about that.
Louis Armstrong / Earl Hines, “Weather Bird” (1928)
This is a trumpet-piano duet between Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and Earl Hines (1903-1983). Their interaction is just pure joy. It’s fascinating to hear, also, what may be the first “free jazz” moment in jazz. Around 2:12 Earl Hines plays a single note that’s way out.
Sonny Sharrock, “As We Used to Sing” from Ask the Ages (Universal, 1991)
Sonny Sharrock (1940-1994) was a guitarist characterized by heavy chords, amplified attack, and furious approach. This record also features Pharoah Sanders on saxophone, Elvin Jones on drums, and Charnett Moffett on bass. Sharrock happened to be from my home town, Ossining, New York. He is also known for composing the music for the cartoon Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
Dewey Redman, “Boody” from Ear of the Behearer (Impulse! 1973)
Dewey Redman (1931-2006) went to I.M. Terrell High School in Ft. Worth, an incredible institution which also graduated Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Charles Moffett, among others. “Boody” is one of those things that’s bluesy, funky, free, and exuberant.
Lennie Tristano, “C Minor Complex” from The New Tristano (Atlantic, 1961)
Tristano (1919-1978) was a key figure in the formation of bebop as well as a Svengali-like teacher of others, including Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Born with weak eyesight, and completely blind by about age 9, Tristano is known for his experiments into totally free improvisation, of which “C Minor Complex” is the most astounding. The ostinato, or repeating left-hand bass line and the insanely complex right hand just jostles the imagination. It’s indispensable.
Roy Brooks, “The Free Slave” from The Free Slave (Muse, 1970)
Roy Brooks (1938-2005) was an a phenomenal drummer, but one with a troubled life (see “Music, madness & Marquette Prison”). This record, The Free Slave, is just late-period hard bop played at a very high level. Focussing on the drumming, however, reveals his special gifts. Never has funkiness and intelligence been so well combined. The horns, George Coleman and Woody Shaw, were at the peak of their abilities on this recording.
Jayne Cortez & the Firespitters, “No Simple Explanations” from Maintain Control (1986)
Jayne Cortez (1934-2012) was a poet and for a time was married to Ornette Coleman; their son, Denardo Coleman, is a jazz drummer. This piece, though rarely heard or known, I think was one of her best poems. Paired with Ornette’s saxophone, it shows the power of so-called jazz poetry.
Andrew Hill, “Pumpkin” from Black Fire (Blue Note, 1964)
Andrew Hill (1931-2007) was thought of as part of a continuum of totally individualistic pianists like Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols (also perhaps Phineas Newborn) who combined various elements of bop orthodoxy with their own idiosyncratic virtuosity. This piece, “Pumpkin,” certainly exhibits what made Hill’s pianism special. The record also features Roy Haynes on drums, one of the last living bebop pioneers.
Ornette Coleman, “Law Years” from The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (Sony, 1972)
Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), if there was a Cooperstown for jazz, would be at the top. He’s most known for his earlier stuff recorded with a pianoless quartet in 1959 that upset many people at the time for his deliberately ignoring chord changes in favor of the free expression of the individual musician, regardless of his or her style. My favorite period of his, however, was this record Science Fiction. It shows his past, but was looking forward at the same time. Though made in the early 1970s, it could have been made this morning.
Grant Green, “Talkin’ About J.C.” from Talkin’ About (Blue Note, 1964)
This was a free jazz organ trio with free jazz organist Larry Young (1940-1978); guitarist Grant Green (1935-1979); and drummer Elvin Jones (1927-2004), and the J.C. refers to John Coltrane, the patron saint of jazz. Organ trios were generally very different from Young’s approach, which was indebted to Coltrane’s innovations, especially here.
Kris Davis, “Prairie Eyes” from Duopoly (Pyroclastic Records, 2016).
Kris Davis (b. 1980) is an experimental pianist. Her record, Duopoly, consists of duets with various important jazz figures, and Bill Frisell, the guitarist here, is one of the most important. I think after a few listens, it becomes clear that this music is smart, soulful, and fulfilling like nothing else that came out this year.