Features | Retconning

III: Free Jazz and Free Improvisation

By Mark Abraham | 5 October 2006

So, Retconning is late this month, for which I apologize, but I was in Chicago doing research. And since Chicago has such a vibrant free jazz history, maybe delaying it until after the trip was a good thing—morning walks between Dom’s apartment and the Gerber/Hart GLBT historical archives near Granville station allowed me to listen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s work in the spindly concrete environment that inspired it, which got me thinking about what free jazz means. Because, like, every turn in Chicago has a dead end, which means there is no climax—only brilliant sights along the way. I got into one of my whole internal turn-it-inside-out-athons and ran back at five to tell Dom, but he wasn’t home yet. I tried to talk about it with Edgar, but he just slumped off in a huff. I tried to tell the dog, but my apparently puppy-hating heart scared it off. It was very anticlimactic; I had my own dead-end; that’s how this stuff gets you.

But you can’t really just understand what free jazz is purely in terms of how it sounds. It’s political, because even if the more powerful image of the New Left and countercultural zeitgeist in the ’60s and early ’70s is that of the youth of America and Europe coming together to rebel against oppression and inequality, we sometimes forget that older activists and fringe artists experienced that sea change too. For jazz, free jazz was the result, and the process is fascinating: attack political and social concepts of order by replacing the structure of the dominant order—which limited bodies by the imperatives of suburban geographies, workplace and wage, gendered expectations, and familial obligations—with traditional jazz concepts of ordered musical structure. In other words, every toot and squeal is a lecture on oppression, every swoop and swerve a demand for reform, and every nutso drum fill a cultural cluster of angst fueled by Vietnam, race riots, military response to student activism, Stalinism, and sheer anger.

But it’s schizophrenic too. For African Americans, each victory of Civil Rights post-Brown v. The Board of Education—the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Loving v. Virginia—was tempered by an obvious increase in urban racial segregation and economic disparity, the consequent race riots, and an increasing number of dead Civil Rights leaders. Early free jazz was as much about Black Power as it was about widespread liberal dissent, because it was about reclaiming the black musicians place in the world—bebop got popular with white audiences, who weren’t really helping with black problems, so fuck bebop. For Europeans, who would join the free jazz experiment in the late ‘60s, the music dealt with the decreased presence of the European community in a bipolar American/Soviet axis, and criticism of that axis, whether it be the mire of Vietnam and global capitalism or the constricted world behind Breznev’s Iron Curtain. Either route resulted in some of the wildest protest music ever, and by the time the genre moved towards free improvisation in the late ’60s, jazz in the post-Woodstock world was the most angry music you could find (yes—angrier than Iggy). And yet beauty always exists in that anger (perhaps unlike Iggy), because this music is all about hope, celebration, and resistance—in the long sixties, it was looking to a future where capitalism, communism, and racism might not exist, and even if all three still do, these albums stand as powerful reminders of the way art can be incredibly political.

Free jazz lost momentum with jazz in general as prog and other more rock-orientated concepts of fusion began to capture the minds of an audience interested in improv. But the ideas have stayed alive. The Boredoms began as a noise-art punk combo, but they’re playing off free improv concepts. John Zorn and many of the original free jazz musicians have had a solid grip on the radical music scene in New York since the eighties (although that hold has lessened). Bailey was releasing fabulous albums right up to his death (check Ballads from 2002, where he attacks and deconstructs standards beautifully). In Europe, labels like Rune Grammofon have been releasing wonderful free jazz experiments in the last few years (including moHa!‘s Raus Aus Stavanger and Humcrush’s Hornswoggle, both of which will be making my year-end list). So free jazz is alive and well.

But the real effect of free jazz on music in general is the way it allowed musics to see what happened when you opened up structure itself as an idea to toy with. Fundamentally important albums in the sixties that set new directions for rock (like the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! [1966]) adopted both the style and the concept of space that free jazz artists were so fascinated with. As folk rock erupted into full on psychedelia, the basic tenents of free jazz became part of rock culture. So, yeah, it’s important, but mostly I just love free jazz and free improv because nothing is more insanely and conflictedly beautiful than something at odds with itself. And that makes it incredibly real.

Ornette Coleman :: The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)

Ornette Coleman may have given a name to free jazz with his 1960 album of that name, but it started here, with this little manifesto that caused a whole lotta strife. How could this cocky kid, who played a plastic alto saxophone, tell people what the new thing was? How could this be the shape of jazz to come? Miles Davis called Coleman “all screwed up inside” after hearing this, as if the music was somehow a natural extension of Coleman’s psyche; of course Davis, along with other giants like John Coltrane, would be rushing to catch up in the next decade, because being “screwed up inside” was starting to make sense — how could jazz remain complacent when the world it existed in was also screwed up? It’s funny, because the album sounds positively swing compared to free improvisation, but the impact it had at the end of the fifties cannot be overstated. People hated or loved this; people either thought Coleman was an insane genius or a sanctimonious hack — and both groups thought this was weird and strange music. With no piano, extra emphasis was forced onto Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden; the former’s heavy snare-based percussion forces the music forward while the latter spends his time dodging through the cracks Higgins leaves behind. The rhythmic emphasis wasn’t that large a change, since drummers had been playing freaked-out solos for decades, but extending that approach to encompass the regular time-keeping duties of a stickman threw people off. Coleman and Don Cherry (trumpet), for their part, wonk between straight-ahead solos and complete melodic disruptions. Their continued refusal to complete a phrase or solo in the traditional fashion (blow, snort, nod, next) was what got people the most; jazz itself was under attack by jazz, Coleman was doing things so far ahead of everybody else that the veterans couldn’t deal, and he and his band were a bunch of (relatively) novice players who hadn’t quite done the regular session service required to be taken as a legitimate artist. Implied key changes; a less restrictive emphasis on harmony or progression; an obsession with relative pitch — it’s all valid, because Coleman was right. Bebop died, and this was the first step towards fusion.

Eric Dolphy :: Out to Lunch (1964)

Zappa spent his career lobbing this, Edgar Varése’s “Ionization,” and Johnny “Guitar” Watson around as his influences, but Zappa was always way better at apeing the other two. Especially where his guitar solos from the late seventies and eighties were concerned, Zappa couldn’t seem to get a band that could break down the tempo into enough compartments where everything was improvising without losing the forward momentum. Dolphy and his group — Freddie Hubbard rocking the trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson playing the vibes like he’s Chick Corea or something, but most importantly bassist Richard Davis and young drummer Tony Williams (who, according to Dolphy, didn’t play time; just played) — are all over reconstructing the shit they’ve pulled part, and it’s always going somewhere. Watch how Williams and Davis play off one another at the three-and-a-half minute mark in “Out to Lunch.” If we could turn this into a game of Jenga, the two of them would be unbeatable, because they’re removing themselves and each other from the equation, probably blinking Morse code at one another to keep all the changes right. “Gazzeloni” shows more of that goodness, but also Dolphy and Hubbard both knocking shit down on flute and trumpet before Hutcherson plays the most teasing vibe solo possible. And of course there is the reedy “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” with it’s ironic title and bowed bass intro; this is music as thick description, capturing not just a mood, but every thought and tangent that also occurs while in that mood. Dolphy would get critiqued as a “slightly taller Ornette Coleman” — in other words, he was just as bad to jazz traditionalists, but this album is architecture. Nobody has moved the pieces around and still kept the swing like this since.

Albert Ayler :: Spiritual Unity (1965)

Albert Ayler probably wrecked his lips on ultra-thick reeds just to achieve that fantastic, guttural, deep-soul tone on his tenor; he pushed the work of Coleman and Dolphy further off the edge of harmony and rhythm, preferring instead to conceive of music as a set of timbres, and tones (hence the thick reeds) to be paramount to the process. This particular album shares the spastic grind of free improvisation alongside the less-scathing tones of free jazz; you get Ayler himself playing the saxophone like he’s repeatedly telling the rabbit-hole bowline knot story, leading his band in circles and darting excursions with sounds so fat you can still see their tracks on the ground (just like the Oregon trail). This is immigration music; it immigrates us to the next stage of the free jazz assault, where bassists don’t give a crap about rhythm (watch how Gary Peacock is playing chords half the time) and drummers are interested in the long term well-being of their arms (Sunny Murray — do you have…um…what’s 12th degree carpal tunnel?). Ayler’s music, as suggested by the title, is deeply spiritual, but it isn’t quite about speaking in tongues. When Murray starts lobbing wild snare assaults into the mix about two thirds of the way through “The Wizard,” or “Ghosts (Second Variation)” goes absolutely off its rocker in one of the most impressive free jazz riots ever recorded, it’s clear that for all of our religion (whatever that may be) we’re still pinned to the wall and we need to flail to get unstuck. The music here refuses to stay put, and the bombs and blooms flail around each other like an octopus beating the shit out of itself. Watch for debris, but keep focused on the end-game.

Peter Brötzmann Octet :: Machine Gun (1968)

Boring revisionist rock myth #1: all innovation with distorted tone began and ended with guitarists. I mean, Hendrix gets all the credit for “Machine Gun” — and well-deserved, of course — but Brötzmann and the other seven members of his octet did it first. Without distortion pedals. I mean, that opening salo is freaky given the technology at the time — is that contact microphones and tape splicing and Satan on the board? The octet takes the dictionary definition emblazoned on the cover (“automatic gun for fast, continuous firing”) as their only directive, and with two drummers, two bassists, a pianist, and three reed/brass players, the noise certainly sounds like the entirety of Vietnam lodged in the chamber of a nail gun. This is still early free improv though, so we get actual jazz breaks amidst the wails and mutilated bodies. Brötzmann, Evan Parker, and Willem Breuker basically define a European free jazz reed approach — any track of the bebop past is stripped from the caterwaul, and while most Europeans were still getting over jazz-in-the-firs-place after the mass visit of so many musicians in the early sixties, these three have already loved it, been dissapointed by it, and moved on. Fred Van Hove is wonderful, but with all the business he’s kind of left banging keys. Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall flip the bass in so many different directions — check the high and low bows midway through “Machine Gun (Second Take)” or the beautiful base/percussion solos on both versions of “Responsible” — while Sven-Ake Johansson and Han Bennink (my pick for greatest drummer ever) sound like they’re throwing their kits at one another (or, you know, firing machine guns at them). And it’s that dual-drummer assault that ultimately makes this album so claustrophobic — there are so many different ways the two try to sound like guns, and missiles, and bombs, and your body is the territory they’re laying waste to, so wear some protective padding before you enter this fray. Oh, except for the end of both takes of “Machine Gun” where they launch into a Beach Party-like musical bit, where you can do the twist and the only protection you’ll need is Zinc on your nose. This album will geek you out.

Evan Parker/Derek Bailey/Han Bennink :: Topography of the Lungs (1970)

Oh Evan Parker, what have you done? This gem was recently, finally reissued, but instead of being marketed as a trio (as it was on original issue), Parker has released it under his own name, and, more egregiously, done so only months after the death of Derek Bailey (although, the reissue is dedicated to the well-loved guitarist, but still…). The album, however, speaks for itself — this is three of the greatest European free jazz musicians just throwing off the reigns and making an album of noise (albeit, noise mitigated by the insanely over-the-map tightness of Han Bennink, free improv drummer to the stars). Bailey is doing what I can only call micro-solos throughout, picking off dampened strings and finger scrapes and throwing his pick all over the fret board; Parker, who flips between squeaky self-esteem issues and horrendous bellows that soar over the mix, has more breath control than an iron lung (like, to the point where you might think he’s going to die from circular breathing right there on the album); and Bennink is everything that he was on Machine Gun times 78,657. That this and Kaitaiteki Kokan (the next entry, and assuredly the other most contentious album here) were released close to one another but across the world speaks volumes to the chances jazz musicians were willing to take by this point. I mean, I know I said noise, but this is music; it builds and swarms like music, it’s got funk and soul in its crevices, and the three musicians are in total control of the noise. By which I mean that this isn’t random; it’s improvised yes, but what’s going on isn’t just random cacophony. Look at this album as a glimpse at three instruments involved in a highly contested debate. And not that lame “conversation” metaphor that Deadheads use either; these are the voices of people screaming, raging, and resisting, and all that kerfuffle is beautiful.

Masayuki Takayanagi/Kaoru Abe :: Kaitaiteki Kokan (1970)

This music, that Clay once described as “unlistenable,” will probably eat you…alive. There are two big differences between this and Topography of the Lungs. First, this is somehow more evil, more perverse, and more absolutely insane. Second, it somehow is all of those things while not having a drummer around to keep you strapped to the table. In a way, I think the lack of percussion actually works here; it may well be unlistenable if you try to think about it as an object, but if instead you imagine it as a series of objects smushed together (with no percussion giving you the periods and commas that tell you how to read the text) it’s far easier to consume. Takayanagi and Abe have such a good sense of one another on this record that the movements in the music play out like little stories: the guitar makes a statement, the saxophone makes fun, the guitar gets indignant, the saxophone gets snarky, the guitar gets defensive, the saxophone tries to apologize, then the guitar gets the upper hand — and so on, through the wildest, weirdest tracks that exist in the free improvisation catalogue. And did I mention the hilarious harmonica intro to part two? Before this was reissued, vinyl copies were being traded at 4-digit US prices around Tokyo, but, hey, if this is your dirty little secret, that’s awesome!

Art Ensemble of Chicago :: Les Stances a Sophie (1970)

Sing it with me: “Your head is like a Yo Yo, baby! / Your neck is like a string.” And Malachi Favors’ funk bass underneath, and this is the loudest, hardest funk ever, and James Brown can go sit in the corner, and Fontella Bass is eating through her own words derisively as she sings them, because this is the angriest funk ever, and then somehow the funk disappears as Roscoe Mitchell and Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman take turns slapping you in the face, and you’re lost in a free jazz funk jungle where there is no rhythm and nothing seems to match up and you realize tha your head is the Yo Yo head and they just snapped your string. “Theme de Yoyo” might be the greatest album intro ever, in part because Don Moye’s ability to alternate the time signature while Favors is still playing the lick straight — check it especially under Bowie’s trumpet where they both go off on one another and the beat and refuse to let the funk reset itself — and this is just about the greatest thing ever. The rest of the album is more typical free jazz, which shouldn’t be seen as a backhanded compliment — the Art Ensemble was brilliant at playing at Ayler’s tricks without falling off the deep end while reclaiming some of the Dolphy swing while adding even more hard, spiritual, black politics into the mix. Hardcore enthusiasts might rate Bap-Tizum or Live at Mandel Hal (both 1972) as the group’s best albums, and if pushed, I might agree. But “Theme de Yoyo,” “Theme de Celine,” “Theme Amore Universal,” and “Theme Libre” all make pretty good arguments for why this is their most important album. Plus, I could listen to “Yoyo” 87 times a day for the rest my life and still love every off-kilter dusty corner of it, because “dig…dig…dig…DIG IT!”

Alice Coltrane :: Universal Consciousness (1972)

Swwamini Turiyasangitananda’s work started taking free jazz back from the brink of improvisation but never quite abandoned those spastic forms. Having played with John Coltrane for two years before his death during his own free jazz experiments, Coltrane expanded on her husband’s ideas on both this and her 1970 masterpiece Journey in Satchidananda — both exciting attempts to draw world music into the free jazz fold, in the same way Miles Davis had done for fusion. Like Jimmy Smith and Larry Young, Coltrane was also instrumental in making the organ a jazz instrument. Her rolling figures work perfectly with all three drummers on the album: Rashied Ali’s pattering hat-heavy style, Jack DeJonette’s weird acoustic experimentation (it’s like every hit he’s considering the sound and volume of the drum), or Clifford Jarvis’ light touch. Throughout, Jimmy Garrison’s base is more about punctuation than it is the spastic scale riding of other free jazz bassists. But the real gem here are the string arrangements, which show a more rigorous attempt to combine composed sections with free jazz pandemonium. My favorite thing about the album is its sense of space — you fall off the cliff into the heather and stone of airy, chiming keys and lush organ chords. She works though undulating scales; all the hallways and foyers in the geoography connect, and like Ayler, the point is a unified theory of spirituality, regardless of belief. Coltrane said this music was about the struggles required to reach absolute consciousness and, great, because it’s a pretty and brutal voyage.

Paul Bley :: Open, to Love (1973)

This isn’t quite the CanCon entry; Paul Bley spent most of his life in the States, where he played with Ornette Coleman before moving on to form the Jazz Composers Guild in New York — a hub of radical jazz activity. Open, To Love is a series of solo piano treatments of his own songs, songs by his wife Carla (responsible for the absolutely fabulous Escalator Over the Hill in 1970), and those of vocalist Annette Peacock. But what is most fascinating about this album is how oldschool Bley makes a new school sound sound. Stripped down to Bley’s two hands, free jazz begins to resemble serialism; Bley is a master of space, and his ability to evoke meaning out of the rests between his notes resembles the work of Stravinsky and Varése. You can follow these lines and staircases further than on most free jazz, since Bley has no other musicians fighting back against him, although his two hands do a pretty good job of working at one another like he’s playing thumb wars with himself. And maybe that’s why this album is so beautiful: stuck on his own, Bley is forced to constantly work against his own intuitive concepts of structure. It’s easy to do when you’re working against the rhythms and melodies your bandmates have constructed, but when you have to confront those socially-learned qualities in yourself? Bley shows just how wild and deliberate a process that can be.

New Dalta Ahkri :: Reflectativity (1975)

This has since been billed as a Wadada Leo Smith album, and it is his composition, but the other members of his trio (Anthony Davis on piano and Wes Brown on bass) are essential to the project (one so rare that I couldn’t even find a cover image, and had to work from the extremely small inset image in the Tzadik comp reissue of Smith’s work). Reflectativity is two tracks, both partially composed (Smith even created his own notation for free improv called “Ankhrasmation”). The title track showcases Smith’s brilliant feel for the trumpet, featuring long solo passages that squeak and squabble with themselves. Brown fluctuates between playing weird three or four note runs (check his solo towards he end, where it feels like he’s inverting every line previous until he cosmically wrecks the game of Telephone) and making strange noises on his fret boards and strings. And Davis works his classical influences to the group’s advantage. You can here it whenever he actually plays a chord, because they aren’t incidental slips to bounce beneath a solo — he’s announcing the piano every time they get intoned. “t wmukl – D” fills the other side; it’s even more spastic. In fact, the album sounds like Topography of the Lungs and Kaitaiteki Kokan slowed down to some ambient wash. But what I really like about it is that it proves that taking the speed and force away from free jazz doesn’t actually cause it to lose any of its grit, and that’s the direction free jazz would head in the latter part of the seventies. It’s easy to be angry when you’re screaming; it’s more powerful (but far more difficult) to stay deliberate and calm.