Free jazz gets a bad rap. Starting in the late 50s, jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and many others from the bebop, hard bop and modal jazz scenes began ditching the conventions of structure and exploring improvisation. On paper, that might sound like something that’s totally unlistenable. But in reality, it’s an incredible listening experience.
Far from the stereotypically amorphous wall of atonality that the free-fearing envision, some of the essential records of the free jazz movement — especially its mid-to-late-60s heyday on the Impulse! label — are some of the most sophisticated and soulful expressions of the jazz genre. Not to mention mind-expanding — and frequently mind-blowing.
Here are four records to help you get over your fear of free jazz. Note that the record that helped coin the term — Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet (1961, Blue Note) — is probably a little too heavy for newbies and thus left off this list, but Ornette is a pioneer of the movement whose work should definitely be explored.
The same goes for John Coltrane, Ascension (1966, Impulse!): One of the most important figures in the history of jazz, ’Trane created an incredible body of work in a relatively short period of time — barely a decade. Though his take on familiar tunes like “My Favorite Things” means he may be a regular on present-day café playlists, in his twilight years ’Trane was firmly part of the far-out crowd. The “new thing” was the movement’s other name at the time, and Coltrane became a crucial part of the scene after signing to Impulse! Records.
Like Free Jazz, Ascension was a long-form, large-ensemble improvisation — Coltrane assembled an 11-piece band including three tenors, two altos, two trumpets, two basses, piano and drums. Beginning with a hypnotic, three-note riff, Ascension is a spellbinding work that builds in intensity over its 40 minutes, and reveals different facets on repeated listens. The playing is impassioned throughout, with entrancing rhythmic undertow by Elvin Jones. In some ways, Ascension’s sheer force gives it substantial crossover appeal — normally jazz-averse younger listeners often respond that they didn’t know jazz could rock so hard.
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964): Eric Dolphy was a Coltrane contemporary, who like his better-known sax-playing peer, didn’t make it out of the 60s alive. Considered one of the best albums in jazz history, Out to Lunch! offers some incredible free-form solos, but its appeal is rooted in the strength of Dolphy’s classically informed composition. Famous tracks like “Hat and Beard” (a tribute to Thelonious Monk) have a cinematic, spy-movie quality that’s immediately enticing.
Archie Shepp, Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1966): The artists who created the last two records on our list are not only both still alive and active to this day, but viewed music-making as an active, political force in the world. Not just a sax player and composer, Shepp has also been a playwright and educator, and in 1965 famously described himself as an “anti-fascist artist.” But on numbers like Mama Too Tight’s bluesy, funky title track, he showed that the new thing that could still have that swing.
Charlie Haden, Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969): The bassist in both Coleman’s and Shepp’s bands, Charlie Haden stepped out on his own with a Vietnam-era protest record that expansively incorporates Spanish folk and American gospel influences, with stirring and inspiring results.
Jian Ghomeshi interviews Ornette Coleman on "Q"
Listen to Ornette Coleman Free Jazz Part 1
on Feb 24, 2012