I preface this post with a few statements. Genres don't matter all that much to me, and especially as an outsider trying to define other people's music, as everyone has a personal approach to how they label their music. For example Yusef Lateef does not like the term "jazz" whereas someone like John Hollenbeck simply refers to his music as "new music." This is my own opinion for starters, and even given that some things in so called "free music" are very much composed. Let's take these terms now for what they are:
Free Jazz is a music that usually comes out jazz musicians, jazz tradition, or inspired by the first generation of avant garde jazz musicians. There usually are (or can have) very jazz related elements to this music, like swing, blues, specific harmonies (or modes), form, jazz instrumentation, and others. Free Jazz, say in the sense of Ornette Coleman's music, usually involves still swinging (playing in time), walking bass lines (but sometimes with ostinatos), swing patterns in the drums (but freed up), playing a head, having multiple soloists, playing an outhead. There is a lot of form to his music, even if the improvisations are the thing in which the form gets stretched. Listen to "Peace" from "The Shape of Jazz to Come" and you'll hear they are playing that form, even though it's a pretty advanced form, especially for the late 1950s, early 1960s. Even Ornette's piece "Free Jazz" has composed interludes, solo order, swing feel (one drummer/bassist playing medium swing, walking bass lines, the other drummer/bassist playing doubletime). The recording of Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" is very free, but it also is still very much in the jazz tradition, and very much follows a form.
My goal with this post was not only to try and define the music, and give some examples, but also a list (off the top of my head today) of ten great recordings of both free jazz and of free improvisation, which I feel are very different worlds. So without further ado, my Free Jazz List:
1. Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz
As discussed already, this is one of the first albums of freely improvised jazz music, with improvised backgrounds, and open ended solo forms (Some solos are less than two minutes, and Ornette's solo is 9 minutes). An incredible record, as well as featuring a large ensemble vs. a combo setting. This is also rare because of the use of two drummers and two bassists.
2. Ornette Coleman - Shape of Jazz to Come
This album was made soon after Ornette's classic quartet with Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden and Don Cherry moved from California to New York. Everyone in the jazz world came out to hear this band play at the five spot, which was their first engagement in the city (those would have been some amazing concerts, wonder if any bootlegs of that exist). These tunes are on the freer side, breaking away from walking bass lines, chord changes, AABA tunes, but several tunes still have a very identifiable in-head, solos (over the form), out-head. It is a revolutionary album, while having a foot in tradition and a foot in the future.
3. Albert Ayler - Spiritual Unity
Albert Ayler said that John Coltrane was the father, Pharoah Sanders the son, and that he was the holy ghost. This is a great trinity of the free jazz tenor saxophone masters (add in Dewey Redman and Archie to this!) This album is probably his most well known, featuring Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock. Supposedly there is an unrecorded Paul Bley Quartet featuring all of these musicians, that did some tours back in the day (I can't imagine those sounds!). This record features more attention to timbre in the saxophone, and a more emotional approach, while playing very folk-like tunes, that are essentially diatonic. There is a lot of power in the music, and a freer approach to playing as a rhythm section. Gary Peacock plays very broken patterns, and Sunny Murray, from what I remember reading an interview in Signal to Noise, was doing a lot of work with studying acoustics of sound, and really exploring that world. The Music is incredible, and I feel like THIS is really what started leading people in totally free music (outside of jazz completely).
4. John Coltrane - Ascension
Sort of Coltrane's response to Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. It is similar to that instrumentation setup, except with only one drummer, add piano, and more horns. There seems to be more free playing in this than on "Free Jazz" and is built more on chords and modes (which apparently were given as a guidelines, not necessarily having to follow them). There are solos with the rhythm section accompaniment, that always build into large free group forays, but as far as I can tell, these is not a lot of composition involved, but definitely a form.
5. Alan Silva - Seasons
This is something I found (took a long time!) via a great article from Thurston Moore of the Sonic Youth on the avant garde. This is an incredible 3 LP set on the BYG Actuel Label, which I highly reccomend to anyone interested in avant garde jazz. It shows the late 60s early 70s scene in France, when lots of American musicians moved there. This recording features a large ensemble of most of the people involved in the scene, like Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dave Burrell, and many others. I haven't listened to it in awhile, but as a I recall, there is a whole lot of group interplay, individual solos, and it's just a swamp of great free music!
6. Jazz Composers' Orchestra of America - The Jazz Composers' Orchestra
This swamp of sound is also amazing. I downloaded the scores to all of the pieces, and eventually want to put together a concert of this music, but that's at least a year away. This group was founded by Bill Dixon, and led by Carla Bley and Michael Mantler. This double LP features Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Steve Swallow, Charlie Haden, just to name a few. The bass section alone is ridiculous. This reminds me less of a jazz group, and more of a chamber orchestra. A lot of the pieces on the record feature a soloist, like a mini-free concerto, and is very meticulously notated. There are some freedoms, as in specific melodic patterns to play freely, or lines that stay in a certain range was moving up and down by whole steps/minor thirds. Really ridiculous music!
7. Charles Mingus - Presents Charles Mingus
This is Charles Mingus' response album to Ornette's classic quartet. The music are all composed tunes, but the forms are stretched very wide open. This to me is one of Mingus' freest albums, and is incredible to hear Dolphy and him in such an intimate setting, with no piano.
8. Don Cherry - Symphony for Improvisors
Another large ensemble work of mastery. These large ensembles recordings are great, to hear the open collective improvisation, which free jazz uses more than traditional jazz, and it makes the open form/open solos sound more avant garde, than if were just one horn player playing free over a bass and drum backdrop. This record features Gato Barbieri, Pharoah Sanders, Henry Grimes, Karl Berger, JF Jenny Clark, and Ed Blackwell. I just heard a great recording of Dave Douglas with Royce Campbell doing a Don Cherry tribute, with a performance of this piece, featuring Henry Grimes!! This is another work eventually I would like to transcribe, to dig more into the form and structure of this "free music."
9. Anthony Braxton - For Alto
This is Braxton's famous solo saxophone recording. These solo pieces are some of the closest free jazz music to get into the world of free improv. Braxton worked out different ideas and graphic notation to be able to play ideas, while improvising these solo concerts. His music is more aligned with contemporary composers of the 20th century and with jazz musicians. He has a new website where you can exhaustively read about his concepts, and check out what's going on in his musical world, which has expanded to a pretty huge degree!
10. Art Ensemble of Chicago - A Jackson in your house
I personally really like this recording because it was when they were in Paris, and was captured on the BYG Actuel label. The Art Ensemble took ideas from Eric Dolphy, in say being total multi-instrumentalists, and ideas from theatre, and really ideas from everywhere. Like Anthony Braxton, they were really stretching outside of jazz, and combining so many elements to their concept and music. To read up more on the band, and musicians around them check out George Lewis' great book "A power stronger than itself." This band had an incredible pallet of sounds and worlds to draw ideas back and forth through, and really used a wide dynamic range, some very intense quiet and silent sections, some very verbose parts. With free jazz, it is easy to approach it as this high energy music, and want to play everything loud, dense, fast, and atonally, all at once, with no break, and this group really figured out different approaches.
11. Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures
A lot of his recordings early on featured standards, but played in his own style. His keyboard style seems to imitate both drumming and percussion, while at the same time utilizing 20th century compositional techniques, like listen to some of his solo piano works, and Morton Feldman's graphic piano pieces played by David Tudor. Both are "Unit Structures," and use compositional techniques that are outside of the jazz world. I have never looked at Cecil Taylor's written music but have been curious what it would look like. Ken Vandermark has a great quote in the DVD "Musician" where he talks about practicing along playing free to Cecil Taylor solo piano records, and how he would be done before a side of a record was finished, and it would be a 2lp live set of continuous music. The reason he brings it up, is to find a way to make music, practice, develop a system to be able to create music on that level.
12. Don Pullen/Milford Graves - Nommo
This is a rare recording, I think I saw it as a hard to find LP in a jazz magazine a year or so ago. Really great piano/percussion duets. I believe it's totally free playing, and pretty removed from jazz, so definetely on the fence between free jazz and free improv. Also, getting closer into the world of free improvisation, it features more timbrel based, with inside the piano work, and all of Milford Graves' percussion. He plays drums on several Ayler records, and has a great percussion record out there (many great ones at that). Worth a listen if you can find it.
13. Sun Ra - Space is the Place
This was one of my introductions to the world of avant garde jazz. I don't know how free this music is, but I had to include it on the list. Sun Ra and his band were intensely dedicated musicians, always working on their sound together, and working on new music, new ideas. I found a bio of his my first year of college, did a report on him for my communications class, and just really dug into his music early on. John Gilmore was one of the biggest influences of Coltrane (and I'm sure others) and really heralded in the free playing in the saxophone tradition. Anything by Sun Ra will be an incredible boost to your musical sights.
14. Dewey Redman - Ear of the Behearer
Dewey Redman, in his own world, his own concept. Around this time he was playing with Ornette and Keith Jarrett, but it's so great to hear his own incredible artistic vision on this beautiful album. Find it!!
This is my Free Jazz list, I'm getting tired as I'm typing this, so stay tuned for an article on Free Improv, and recordings in that genre in list form! I have a feeling this article will be edited as I think of more recordings to add and check out.
P.S. I was thinking about putting more of a post modern list of Free Jazz recordings, I don't know if I will or not, but the idea is to try and pick things out from post 1975 or so of freer music that is still in the jazz tradition, like Tim Berne, John Zorn, Ellery Eskelin, etc... Mayhaps more on that to come!