Today’s piece is specifically written for those who don’t fully embrace free jazz. I have a lot of friends who say they “just don’t get it” when I put on some far-out Sun Ra and even some who say Thelonious Monk sounds like a beginning piano student. I’ve compiled a brief list of recordings that hopefully can help ease these people into the world of free jazz, help them find their way out.
- “So What” from Kind of Blue by Miles Davis
If you own only one jazz record, it’s Kind of Blue. Kind of Blue is the record everyone gets to get into jazz, with good reason. Miles Davis was a driving force behind at least three major jazz movements (cool jazz, modal jazz, and fusion), and Kind of Blue is one of his most beautiful records. It has very little dissonance, which, unfortunately turns it into background dinner music all too often. Kind of Blue was the first widely appreciated modal jazz recording. The term “modal” comes from the archaic church modes, which were used in early chant, before harmony was developed in the west. Modal jazz refers to the fact that the musicians improvise over these established modes, the major and minor scales with slight variations, instead of improvising over chord changes.
This makes a lot more sense in the context of jazz history. Before the 1950s, the dominant trend in jazz was bebop (the punk rock of jazz). Bebop tunes are generally always based on frequent chord changes, over which the musicians would fly in their solos. For example, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps came out the same year as Kind of Blue (on which Coltrane also played, of course). Giant Steps’s legacy is now that it has some of the hardest chord changes to play over of any commonly played jazz standard. Coltrane, and Charlie Parker before him, made theirs names playing fast tunes with a lot of chords. Miles Davis, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in playing super fast technical passages in his bands. Kind of Blue successfully created a subgenre of jazz, free of restrictive chord changes, and almost free of harmony. Listen to “So What” to hear how, after a free, yet subdued, introduction, pianist Bill Evans and bassist Paul Chambers play the same chord for 16 bars in a row, one different chord for 8, and then return to the original chord for 8 more. As the form repeats, they effectively play the same chord for 24 bars in a row with a short interruption before doing so again. Even though the musicians all play within the modes, the abandonment of traditional harmony is one key element of free jazz.
- “Yearnin’” from Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson
Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth shares some characteristics with Kind of Blue. It is not a modal jazz LP, but each of its songs features one of the two simplest and most common chord progressions in jazz: blues form and George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.” The simplicity of the compositions makes these songs very easy to appreciate. What makes them crazy (and puts them on this list) is alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist Eric Dolphy. Dolphy spent his entire career straddling the line between the inside and the outside of jazz, using melodic shape borrowed from avant-garde classical music in bebop settings. Hearing Dolphy’s outside improvisational techniques over such simple and familiar chord structures can help the listener understand how the abstract (crazy-sounding) melodies so common in free jazz relate to simpler, inside jazz. Additionally, understanding the relation of Dolphy’s outside playing with the blues can illustrate that free jazz is not some elitist, cerebral thing, but rather an extension of the soulful blues tradition. This relationship is made especially clear when listening to trumpeter Freddie Hubbard follow Dolphy’s solo.
Dolphy is also a good example to understand what exactly free jazz reedmen are doing a lot of the time. Much of his playing involves squeaks, growls, and overblowing to distort the sound (much Coltrane was doing towards the end of his career, when he was making some of the most important free jazz ever recorded). While it may still be uncommon for reed players to do things like this, it is similar to the new synthesizer sounds and guitar effects that were emerging in the 1960s as well. Dolphy was just experimenting with his instrument in the same way many rock musicians did and still do.
“Yearnin’” is the only piece I have chosen that is not the first song on its respective album. In general, I like the idea of using the initial song to focus on the first sounds a listener heard when the needle hits the vinyl for the first time. However, the first song on Blues in the Abstract Truth features Dolphy on flute, and I really wanted to feature him on alto sax.
- “Luyah! The Glorious Step” from Looking Ahead! by Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor is one of the greatest, most innovative pianists alive and very well known for making some of the wildest free jazz out there. Looking Ahead!, released in 1958, however, is only his third record as band leader and before his music left traditional jazz behind. Drummer Denis Charles and bassist Buell Neidinger function as a fairly traditional rhythm section here, and the tunes follow the same kind of form as much of bebop, i.e. a composed melody that is played at the beginning and close of the piece and improvised over in between.
Vibraphonist Earl Griffith just does a spectacular job blending the angular content Taylor’s composed melodies with traditional jazz improvisation. Taylor, whose piano style is frequently likened to a percussionist playing 88 tuned drums, beautifully fits his unique piano playing into the context of a traditional jazz context on this record. His accompaniment during Griffith’s solo on this piece shows how tone clusters (one of the most common dissonant techniques in free jazz) work with “inside” jazz solos. Like Davis did with modal jazz, Taylor created a way to distance his music from traditional consonant chord changes of bebop, in this case by utilizing tone clusters, angular melodies, and dissonance, but keeping the rhythmic and formal elements of traditional jazz. Taylor’s own solos throughout the album show how the angular, fast runs of free jazz fit into this traditional context as well.
- “Hat and Beard” from Out to Lunch! by Eric Dolphy
Returning to Eric Dolphy (and Freddie Hubbard), we now can see what he did as a leader of a band. The most important thing to take away from Out to Lunch! is the importance of empty space. “Hat and Beard” opens with simple walking on Richard Davis’s bass, Tony Williams keeping time on drums, and sporadic trumpet and vibraphone hits from Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson, respectively. Dolphy soon joins, playing along with Davis’s bass line on his bass clarinet. There is a jarring amount of wide open space. As you listen to wilder and wilder free jazz, you learn to really value the empty spaces; they can be as powerful – if not more powerful – than the notes themselves. Dolphy’s solo again features the angular, melodic jumps that place it more outside than inside. Additionally, Tony Williams occasionally interjects during Dolphy’s and Hubbard’s solos to hint at the future of free jazz drumming (which hardly ever plays straight time). Davis anchors the piece in time, but even he knows when to leave time alone and the leave the soloist room by playing around the beat. Check out how he uses his bow, while Williams plays rolls and fills and Hutcherson jumps from the low register to the top of the vibraphone in his solo.
And, as in Taylor and Miles Davis’s work, we see here a new abandonment of traditional harmony. Dolphy does not even include a chordal instrument in his group (with the primary exception of Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and some cool jazz groups, traditional jazz combos generally feature piano or guitar to create harmony). Having no instrument that even plays chords (though vibes can, Hutcherson generally does very little on this record) forces Dolphy to compose in a melodic world without traditional harmony, making it much closer to the free jazz that is to come.
- “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come – Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come is sometimes considered the first free jazz recording. The first thing that will likely strike the listener is that Coleman has taken the lack of harmony to a whole new level. His group consists only of himself on alto sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums; excluding double stops on bass (two notes played at once) chords were an impossibility for this band. Coleman also purposely did not play in tune with Cherry, making all their unison playing have a slight, sharp dissonant quality. The tunes themselves have absolute no written chord changes as well. The players play completely free of harmony when they improvise; sometimes Haden will provide his own lines to improvise against, and sometimes he will simple play one note repeatedly (called a pedal tone). Later on, all four musicians improvise at once, creating a huge, polyphonic collective sound.
The important thing to get when listening to Coleman is the soulfulness. Do not be intimidated or turned off when it doesn’t sound pretty at first. Coleman is one of the most expressive and emotive players alive. Everything he does is pure feeling. Dig it. And, once you dig all of these tunes, get your hands on something from John Coltrane’s Meditations, or anything by Cecil Taylor’s Feel Trio, and see how free jazz can really abandon both harmony and rhythm.