Help me make sense of Free Jazz
March 13, 2012 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I've been listening to jazz for some time, but I haven't been able to get into free jazz. Whenever I try to listen to free jazz albums, they sound chaotic to me. It sounds like pure noise and my mind can't seem to digest it. I'd like to be able to understand and appreciate free jazz better. Are there any particularly accessible free jazz albums that you could suggest I try? Or any sort of approach for being able to "get" free jazz?
posted by Proginoskes to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
What a great question! I am a musical ignoramus, but I like older free jazz a lot. I have no language to describe whether they are chaotic or not, but I find Don Cherry's "Symphony for Improvisers" and John Coltrane's "Kula Se Mama" to be extremely enjoyable and accessible.

If I were making a constellation of 'things I like to listen to that are loosely related in my mind', it would include the art song end of prog rock (Art Bears, Henry Cow, etc); the squeaky experimental end of punk (Rip Rig & Panic, the Pop Group); and free jazz.

If you like punk music at all, I've found that the Dog Faced Hermans' albums "Hum of Life" and "Mental Blocks for All Ages" seem to relate to free jazz in my head. I don't think I would have liked free jazz if I had not first liked the Dog Faced Hermans, World Inferno Friendship Society and maybe some popular music along the lines of the Decembrists which incorporates horns.

I think I ended up listening to a lot of music that sounded squeaky (that's a technical term) but was shorter and incorporated pop elements or else was basically poetry set to music and that kind of edged me over into the free jazz thing.

Also, I find the work of Max Roach to be more orderly and warmer than some other stuff.
posted by Frowner at 8:37 AM on March 13, 2012

Leaping right into free jazz from something like Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker can be a nightmare – I know this from experience. You may want to start by listening to some of the fringe artists that live between structured and free jazz – Mingus was my "gateway jazz," and other posters may have even better ideas.

Years ago, I bought a Coltrane box set (The Classic Quartet set) that did a lot for my appreciation for free jazz, as it starts with fairly standard jazz work, but with each disc becomes more and more experimental.

When I started listening to Ornette Coleman (Free Jazz, natch), looking at the cover art was actually pretty helpful -- with Jackson Pollack, you're not asking "what is this a painting of," but (possibly) "how does this make me feel/how did the artist feel when painting this?"

I'm still not a huge free jazz fan! But I like it from time to time, especially when I'd like a kind of musical palette-refresher. When I'm really enjoying it, though, is when I'm listening to it for the shape of it rather than the sound of it. If that makes any sense.
posted by Shepherd at 8:39 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Free jazz" occupies a giant spectrum all the way from fairly conventional jazz that is just a bit further out than usual to totally improvised noise-fests. Some of it I like, some of it I don't like yet, and some of it I probably will never like.

I recommend starting out chronologically with late-50's / early-60's recordings that still have a connection to hard bop. My favorites are
- Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century
- Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch
All of these records have both great tunes and a pretty out approach.
posted by dfan at 8:42 AM on March 13, 2012

Sure, it's chaotic, but that chaos has a role. Among other things, it gives the performers experimental space they wouldn't have in more tightly locked in jazz formats. The trombonist for the Glenn Miller band isn't going to pour water into his trombone and blow it out like I once saw a trombonist with the Respect Sextet do. Their albums are not quite as crazy as that anecdote would suggest. (And they have a bunch of music online for free.) I'd recommend them as living in a somewhat choatic but still listenable space.

Something like Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun is just a very different sort of music than most music. It's an incarnated idea... or a cry of pain, or... and the enjoyment you get out of it is totally different than most other music. In that case, it's a matter of adjusting expectations.
posted by Jahaza at 8:46 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, if you look at some of the reactionary criticism of hard bop, you can see that it stands in relationship to earlier jazz in much the same way that free jazz does to hard bop, which helped me in getting a handle on how the music worked.
posted by Jahaza at 8:49 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is indeed a great question. I basically agree with dfan: start with the records where the performers were taking baby steps out from hard bop and they'll carry you with them. I myself had the same problem; I first fell in love with Jelly Roll Morton, then Louis and the Duke, made my way to hard bop, but couldn't cross the barrier to free for a while. Give it time, and you may have to experience something a number of times before it clicks (this happened to me with Cecil Taylor). As always with jazz questions, I highly recommend The Penguin Guide to Jazz; their taste is excellent and their description will give you a good idea of whether you might find something appealing. (Plus these days you can often listen to a thirty-second sample online, which is a great help.)

But we all have our limits. I don't expect ever to enjoy Machine Gun.
posted by languagehat at 8:56 AM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I find Pharaoh Sanders work a very engaging and laid-back style of free jazz.
posted by jade east at 9:16 AM on March 13, 2012

I'm agreeing with dfan and the 'hat (who's been a great jazz guide for me). The way to get used to the language of free jazz is to trace how it emerges from hard bop. Don't dive right in to Albert Ayler. Instead, look to the intermediate steps.

Eric Dolphy is an obvious place to go. But you know, I became a bit more open to freer playing after I spend some time with Jackie McLean's free-ish hard bop records from the early-mid 60s. Maybe start at "Let Freedom Ring," then move through "Vertigo" to "Destination Out" & "Action." This isn't free jazz; it's playing that's pushing the free ends of hard bop. But inhabit these records for a while, and maybe you'll be primed to take further steps?
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:21 AM on March 13, 2012

So, I'm a Jazz Musician, but I'm not YOUR Jazz Musician:

Free Jazz isn't structure\pattern free. You just have to work to find them. Maybe, acclimate yourself to them is a better way to put it.

Now, I think working your way chronologically makes a lot of sense. These players were creating in the context of what else was going on, and had happened in the music world at the time. Personally, I don't think there's a much better place to start than A Love Supreme. Oh and, the documentary Imagine the Sound is a great way to get an handle on some of the history and context that helped to form free jazz.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:39 AM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

That's funny, kobayashi, I was just gonna say that Albert Ayler was my gateway into this stuff. If you listen to something like Truth Is Marching In you can hear a clear link into traditional music — in fact, mostly into folk and pre-bebop jazz, which makes it an outlier in the free jazz world, but whatever. I found that that stylistic link let me hear a context for the wilder gestures and textures, and then that gave me a way of thinking about something like Ghosts which is in some sense pure gesture and texture.

Maybe Ayler worked for me because I don't actually really "get" hard bop either, so that door in wasn't open to me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:45 AM on March 13, 2012

I am a huge 60s/70s jazz fan, and I never cared much for free jazz. I'm okay with this, just my tastes.

This may not be applicable to you, but....I once listened to the very free Coltrane album Interstellar Space while tripping...and it made 1000% more sense than anytime I listened to it sober. I'm pretty sure Coltrane was high as a kite when it was recorded.

Now I'm not saying you need psychoactive substances to enjoy free jazz. But a couple drinks or smoking a joint might help to broaden your perceptions.
posted by gnutron at 9:48 AM on March 13, 2012

Personally, I don't think there's a much better place to start than A Love Supreme.

I'll second this - it's about as advanced as I can get in the Coltrane catalogue, although I have Interstellar Space, Ascension, and Meditations. I just can't get into those last three, but Love Supreme is still close enough to bop that I can wrap my head around it. And, as great as Coltrane is, McCoy Tyner fucking rules on that record. I'm a huge Mingus fanboy as well, but after Love Supreme is still where I hit a comprehension wall.

I think for a deeper appreciation, lessons in music theory may be helpful. Pre-free jazz tends to be more based on melodic or rhythmic improvisation, while the free stuff is, according to my jazz history class, more based in modes and scales and more underlying stuff that isn't quite apparent to the average listener. Maybe all that doesn't really matter, in the same way that, as Shepherd indicates, it's not completely necessary for you to know how Jackson Pollack did what he did to appreciate the end product, but it's probably informative at least.
posted by LionIndex at 9:58 AM on March 13, 2012

Nthing starting with Coleman, Dolphy, et al., before diving into Garzone and Frith.

There's a sort of medium place to, with artists like Tim Berne, Mike Formanek, Chris Speed, Andrew D'Angelo.

But my biggest advice is to try to go seem some live. Watching them create the chaos makes the chaos much more approachable and 'understandable,' imo.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:35 AM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

While everyone that suggests going about things chronologically is probably right, I've gotten a couple post-rock fans into free-jazz via 12Twelve's "L'Univers". Mr Gesus is a good starting point. Natsumen also proved popular among the same folks.

These bands both approach free-jazz from the Loony-Tunes fun chaos side of the equation, rather than the existential skronk horror side (which is totally ok to find off-putting... Borbetomagus and Painkiller aren't everyone's cup of tea).
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 12:43 PM on March 13, 2012

The Vandermark 5's Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2 are fun.
posted by mattholomew at 1:34 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sun Ra.

Start with the arkestra which is like an ellignton big-band that is warping and melting at the edges. Wander into more moody abstractions, once you feel more comfortable with the cosmic vibe.

Note from wikipedia: "Sun Ra did not believe his work could be classified as 'free music': "I have to make sure that every note, every nuance, is correct. … If you want to call it that, spell it p-h-r-e, because ph is a definite article and re is the name of the sun. So I play phre music—music of the sun." So, that. But I think he might make a fantasic bridge for you.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 4:19 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thought of something else! We think of free jazz as noisy and skronky, but it doesn't have to be, and Jimmy Giuffre's trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow (1961-62) played a quiet, astoundingly free jazz that was far ahead of its time (unfortunately, in its time it was roundly ignored and made no money, and they soon broke up); it's been compared to chamber music, and I think it would make an excellent gateway. The records are Fusion and Thesis (Verve, 1961), reissued in a single set by ECM as 1961, and Free Fall (Columbia, 1962). Highly recommended.
posted by languagehat at 4:36 PM on March 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Charles Gayle
live if possible the closer your seat the better.
posted by hortense at 7:17 PM on March 13, 2012

We had a lot of Brubeck, Mancini and California smooth jazz around the house growing up, and I spent a lot of time with 20th century American (and American adopted) composers in high school and college band.

The ones that opened up my mind links for free jazz are Copeland (time signature changes/overlaid motifs/sonic dissonance), Stravinsky (crushed chords/split-voiced runs/brass conflict) and Bernstein.

This was American popular music trying to assimilate the same influences of hard bop and smooth it out so that the American public wouldn't run screaming up the aisles. They will help you follow rhythmic patterns in free jazz, and help you identify where the motif weaves in and out, even when it doesn't seem to be there at all. They were planting the seeds of deconstructed music in the minds of people who were familiar with classical and big band.

All three of these composers did the works you are most likely to be familiar with between 1942-1949. West Side Story's libretto wasn't completed until 1957, but the musical compositions were started long before that. This fed nicely into the evolution of the 1950's and 60's outlined above.

Familiar sample for Igor, Aaron, and Leonard. (All SLYT)
posted by halfbuckaroo at 7:54 PM on March 13, 2012

I was just listening to some early Art Ensemble of Chicago and thinking that would be a good thing to add to this thread. I particularly recommend the first few items in the discography at that link, Sound (Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, 1966), Old/Quartet (Roscoe Mitchell, 1967), Numbers 1 & 2 (Lester Bowie, 1967), and Congliptious (Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, 1968); the latter three are available, with a bunch of other early material, on the (pricy but not outrageous) five-disc set Art Ensemble: 1967/68. The music is strange, playful, inquisitive, raucous, often funny, as if made by the Martians from the Muppets.

(Woops, I withdraw the "not outrageous" part; I just checked Amazon and it's available "used from $149.99." Yikes! But maybe some of it is available on YouTube, etc.)
posted by languagehat at 11:41 AM on March 20, 2012

I find myself thinking of this question whenever I listen to free jazz now, so I'll probably be adding more recommendations until the thread closes. I'm listening now to Trio Playing, with Derek Bailey (guitar), John Butcher (sax), and Oren Marshall (tuba), and I think it would be another excellent introduction. The customer review at that Amazon link is right on the money:
This disc, an encounter between Butcher, Derek Bailey & the tuba player Oren Marshall, might indeed be called "insect music": the volume is usually quite low, the playing concentrating on texture & interplay rather than melody. The key player here is John Butcher, an utterly astonishing saxophonist who has obviously listened closely to Evan Parker but whose use of extended techniques is unlike anyone else's. On soprano he has a light, mobile sound that bobs above the ensemble's sound; on tenor, he often favours buzzing sustained notes that split & recombine polymorphously. He rarely plays very quickly: his playing is entirely averse to conventional soloing.

One of the pleasures of this kind of music, with all three players using nonstandard ("extended") techniques on their instruments, is that the familiar sound-qualities of their instruments can be subverted, so that it becomes hard to tell reeds apart from strings, or one imagines a ghost percussionist or bass player. There are some astonishing passages where the players despite their instrumental disparities work in near-unison, as in passages towards the end of "Out of the Deep". Another pleasure of this type of music is the feeling that a particular combination of sounds is exactly right...& that you're unlikely ever to hear it again.
posted by languagehat at 2:27 PM on March 21, 2012

Another recommendation: Paul Bley's Time Will Tell, with Evan Parker (sax) and Barre Philips (bass). Like the Giuffre/Bley/Swallow trio I touted above, it's quiet, intelligent free jazz that I can play while my wife is in the room (a rare feat, since she hates anything noisy/skronky). The same reviewer I quoted above says "This is a fine disc--one of the best of the 1990s, I think."
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on March 23, 2012

Title track on YouTube here, so you can get an idea.
posted by languagehat at 6:19 AM on March 23, 2012

Everyone - thank you all for the wonderful suggestions. I've updated my ipod and I'll keep checking back to see if there are any more suggestions.
posted by Proginoskes at 3:30 PM on March 24, 2012

I'm now listening to Concert Moves with John Butcher (sax), Phil Durrant (violin), and John Russell (guitar) (Random Acoustics, recorded 1991 and '92); as it says at that link, it's "a classic recording of 'European free improvisation'," and I think it would be great for your purposes.
posted by languagehat at 3:11 PM on April 11, 2012

Another recommendation: Moments, by the Canvas Trio (Joëlle Léandre, bass; Carlos Zingaro, violin; and Rüdiger Carl, clarinet and accordion). Art Lange (a patron saint of free jazz) writes in the liner notes: "All of the music... is spontaneously improvised; there are no predetermined themes or structures. This is not to say, however, that the music is not highly organized... [The Trio's] ability to draw upon traditional, folk-flavored resources—Gypsy czardas, French chansons, German lieder—and integrate these often fragmentary or evocative representational images with contrasting abstract material reminds me of the collages of Kurt Schwitters..." It sounds like nothing else and quickly becomes addictive, or so I find.
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on April 17, 2012

The classic 1972 album Conference of the Birds by the Dave Holland Quartet (Wikipedia, Amazon; Dave Holland – bass; Sam Rivers – reeds, flute; Anthony Braxton – reeds, flute; Barry Altschul – percussion, marimba) might actually be the ideal introduction. The first cut, "Four Winds," starts off with what Stuart Nicholson calls "a boppish 20-bar theme" that gets repeated at the end of each chorus, so it's a good way to ease the listener in; after that, everything is "'open form,' where the theme is stated at the beginning or near the beginning of the piece to set tempo, key and mood, and the improvisers are free to develop their improvisation in any direction they chose." Nicholson sums it up thus: "Conference of the Birds emerged as a definitive statement of swinging free expression. It was, in essence, a return to the rugged discipline of early 1960s free improvising by working off melodic foundations using the 'time, no changes' principle to achieve greater control over that elusive quarry, freedom." And the title track, with Braxton and Rivers twittering over Holland's bass line, is one of the most sheerly beautiful pieces of music I know.

If you like that, you might follow it up with Paris Concert by Circle, recorded a year earlier, in 1971, with almost the same lineup, Braxton, Holland, and Altschul, but with pianist Chick Corea instead of Rivers (this was just before Corea got into Scientology). It's not as great, but it's well worth listening to (it's even got standards). And a few years later, Holland and Rivers made a duo album which... yikes, they want $89.99 for it?! (*hugs suddenly precious copy*)... anyway, if you can find it, it's wonderful music, just two long cuts with two masters exploring musical ideas. (And Holland of course has gone on to do amazing things with his later groups. He's one of the all-time great bassists.)
posted by languagehat at 11:02 AM on April 21, 2012

I've just been listening to the Collective 4tet; that homepage has enough review quotes and samples that you'll probably get an idea of what they're like, but I think they'd be a good acquisition if what you've heard so far has kept you intrigued. I've got their first three albums, from LeoLab: The Ropedancer, Orca, and Live at Crescent. I think the last is my favorite, but obviously I liked them enough to get all three! (And this review makes me want to get Transition.)
posted by languagehat at 4:26 PM on May 7, 2012

Just listened to Five Frozen Eggs by the Scott Fields Ensemble (Fields on guitar, with Marilyn Crispell piano, Hamid Drake percussion, Hans Sturm bass; Music and Arts 1997); there are a number of reviews quoted at the linked album site, and here's Scott Yanow's at AllMusic:
The music on this set is almost free, but tied to guitarist Scott Fields' themes and the mood of each piece. The interplay between the musicians is impressive, the music often rumbles menacingly, and it is consistently if disconcertingly unpredictable. Fields is usually the lead voice, but Marilyn Crispell is alert in her "backing" of him and the rhythm team of bassist Hans Sturm and drummer Hamid Drake keeps the music from ever being too comfortable. Although not for everyone, this set grows in interest with each listen.
I think that's a good summary, and I agree that every time I listen I like it more. (And Crispell is one of my favorite jazz pianists—listen to the Anthony Braxton Quartet recordings she played on in the '80s—not free, but mind-blowing!). And really, how can you resist titles like "Nada Que Ver, Juàrez," "The Archaeopteryx And The Manatees," and "When It Comes Time To Hang The Capitalists, They Shall Be Found Bidding on the Rope"?
posted by languagehat at 12:30 PM on May 25, 2012

Listening now to Premonitions, by the Free Jazz Quartet (Paul Rutherford, trombone; Harrison Smith, reeds and woodwinds; Tony Moore, cello; Eddie Prévost, drums). It's an exhilarating record from start to finish; there's a good description at Allmusic, and the Penguin Guide says "The music is tense and often powerfully dramatic, strung along highly attenuated motivic threads. Prévost's drumming is as good as he has ever been on record and Rutherford is, as always, good enough to listen to on his own." You can hear a cut here.
posted by languagehat at 8:08 AM on June 3, 2012

Another recommendation: Touchin' On Trane, by Charles Gayle (with William Parker, b; Rashied Ali, d). It's about as far as I go in the direction of shrieky, out-there free jazz (and much of Gayle's other stuff is over the line), but I find this intense, powerful, moving, and well worth listening to repeatedly. Good reviews here and here, and you can hear part of it on YouTube.
posted by languagehat at 11:55 AM on June 21, 2012

I've been stacking CDs up on my desk as I listen to them, and I'd better list them here before the thread closes and/or they get buried beneath the clutter and I can never find them again. I recommend all of them for your purposes; Google will give you more info:

Evan Parker, 50th Birthday Concert (Leo, 1994)
Roscoe Mitchell, Sound (Delmark, 1966/1996)
Misha Mengelberg, The Root of the Problem (hatOLOGY, 1997)
Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio, Pakistani Pomade (FMP, 1972)
Matthew Shipp, By the Law of Music (hatART, 1997)
The Ganelin Trio, Non Troppo (hatART, 1980/1990)

This will probably be my last contribution to the thread; enjoy, and you might post an update sometime letting us know what you particularly liked!
posted by languagehat at 8:54 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Listening to Cecil Taylor's The Hearth (1988, with Tristan Honsinger on cello and Evan Parker on tenor sax) and it's blowing me away—in fact, after it ended I put it on again. It starts with Honsinger and Parker twittering at each other; after almost ten minutes Parker enters, and they play off each other, often two at a time, for the rest of the hour. Amazing music. (I'd like to get more from the series of concerts Taylor did in Berlin that summer; they're supposed to be among the peaks of his career.)
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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