I've already collected a lot of different groups, but am adding more things together to make this work. It seems since I started this project of looking at free improvisation, free jazz, etc... I've come to a little bit of a conclusion. To me, or my definition so to speak, I tend to view Free Improv as a musical art that comes more out of 20th century compositional techniques, and Free Jazz coming simply out of jazz. Both worlds though are attempts at shattering barriers, and going to the extreme of what can be done. So without further ado, a partial list of some great free improv albums:
1) AMM - AMMusic 1966
You can hear a clip of the album here. This group has existed since the 1960s, and as far as I know continues to exist via the duo of pianist John Tilbury and percussionist Eddie Prevost. This specific album though is before Tilbury was a member, and includes, Prevost on percussion, Lou Gare on saxophone/violin, Cornelius Cardew on piano/cello/electronics, Keith Rowe on guitar, radio and electronics, and Lawrence Sheaff on cello/clarinet/accordian/radio. This group to me is the quintessential band, they would get together once a week, not talk about the music at all, get their instruments out, and just start playing. The sounds became more quieter and involved more silences as part of the music, the later the band got. There are many different incarnations of the group, but if you want to find more out about them check out the spiral cage blog.
2) AMM/Musica Elettronica Viva - Apogee
There was an early record on Earle Brown's label that featured both groups, each on a different side of the record. Much later in history the band's actually recorded together in 2004. MEV seemed to go more in the electronics direction than AMM, and also incredible at having a huge sound/timbral world to aurally dive into. The AMM musicians on the album are Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe and John Tilbury, while the MEV musicians are Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, and Frederic Rzewski. Both groups had more members than that throughout their career, but these are very much some of the core players from each ensemble. Really incredible wild and free music!
3) Cornelius Cardew - Treatise (2 different albums)
I am keeping a thread going so far with AMM and Cardew to start off with. Part of my free improv album list will involve playing written music, as much of an oxymoron as that sounds. Cardew composed a mammoth 193 page graphic score (with no instructions on what to do with it) in the late 1960s and there are two great recordings, to my knowledge, of the piece in its entirety. I have heard rumor of eventually a Boston musician release of Treatise heading by Stephen Drury, but do not know the update on that. The two versions of Treatise are first the QUaX Ensemble, which is a group that Cardew worked with, directed by Petr Kotik, and is the first version ever performed (as far as I know) in 1967. This is a 2 hour version, and is very raw and intense. The other version of Treatise is much later, conducted by Art Lange, featuring Jim O'Rourke, Jim Baker, Guillermo Gregorio, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Carrie Biolo, who are mostly all Chicago musicians. The version of the piece is also about 2 hours long, and features more space and silences, and more electronics. This is a more mystical sounding recording to my ears, like polished, free, and slightly mechanical (not in a bad way).
4) Sonic Youth - Goodbye 20th Century
This is another oxymoron album, that is the band with special guests, Christian Wolff, William Winant, Jim O'Rourke, Christian Marclay, Wharton Tiers, Takehisa Kosugi performing works of the 20th century like Wolff's "Edges," and "Burdocks," Reich's "Pendulum music," and works by John Cage, Yoko Ono, Pauline Oliveros, Cornelius Cardew, James Tenney and more. This album seems to exploit the more improvisatorial pieces from the 20th century and puts it through the Sonic Youth's filter. It's a really wild and free record, that due to the nature of the some of the pieces, calls for a large variety of improvisational settings. This is an incredible record, and I am very glad that you have a mix of rock musicians, composers, and experimental musicians all working together for this large project.
5) Earle Brown - Folio and Four Systems
This is a tzadik release of Earle Brown's music. Earle Brown is another great composer, that did come out of jazz, and wrote different modular pieces, and pieces that put the performer's into new spaces. This collection of some of his freer work involved a plethora of musicians who are paying homage to this incredible composer. A lot of very free and varied versions of his music, featuring Stephen Drury, Mark Feldman, Merzbow, Christian Wolff, Wadada Leo Smith, Joan La Barbara, Larry Polansky, Morton Subotnik, and many others.
6) Joelle Leandre/Steve Lacy - One More Time
Now to get back to the totally free improvisational stuff, this duo record is one of the first truly free albums I ever picked up. The communication between the two musicians is really something beautiful to behold. Leandre is one of my favorite bass players, and i was fortunate to hear her duo with Matthew Shipp in Montreal in 2007. Any record that she is on, is a record blessed to my ears.
7) Peter Kowald/William Parker - The Victoriaville tape
These are two other of my favorite free players, and to me this is kind of on the line between free improv and free jazz, not to be picky. Both played with legends of Free Jazz, both all over the world, but to hear them together as two bassist approaching music in such a wild sonic field, with such a wide range of emotions, the thought of jazz never crossed my mind. This is a recent find, as I have very much been on a search for Peter Kowald albums. As a bassist myself I really dig that in some of Kowald's own solo performances, he would throat sing into the F hole of his bass! Check him out here!
8) Peter Evans/Nate Wooley - High Society
I have actually not heard this album yet, but have heard several live bootlegs of this duo, and their own solo projects, and their bands. These two are younger trumpet players on the scene, and are so much in the sound world of what a trumpet can do. It really is completely mind-blowing what both these individuals, and as a unit can do. Between the two of them they could completely re-write extended technique for the trumpet, so check this duo out, and any bands featuring either of these musicians!
I am running short of time right now, and just want to get this long awaited blog post done and out. I have focused a little too much on the 20th century compositional side, and there are tons of free improv musicians to check out in the world today, who specialize in doing mostly that. I wanted to have a partial list of some free improv/new music groups, and leave it to you readers to go from there!
Foss improvisational ensemble
La Monte Young's theatre of eternal music
Ongaku Kosugi's group
New music ensemble of Davis
Sonic Arts group of New York
Gruppo 70 in Florence
Evan Parker's various ensembles
the list goes on.... but check out as many of these people as you can find, attack it voraciously!
Be on the lookout for some CD review blog posts coming up, and a Zorn interview transcription of his "theatre of musical optics."