The Terminal Boredom Guide to Free Jazz, Part One
By Scott “Jazzmataz” Soriano

The author snapping some pics of some hot Jazz platters There comes a time in every weird punk’s life when the noise generated by drums and guitars is not enough. Sleep is interrupted by sweat-drenched panic, thoughts racing rapid fire. “I need noise. Something different. A new kind of intensity.” The youth will bring this concern into a record store and confide in the beardo behind the counter. When the beardo whispers the words “free jazz,” the young weird punk first wonders if a dinner invitation is to follow. Before weird punk dismisses the beardo with a rant about junior high jazz band, a copy of Ornette Coleman’s "Twins" is handed to him with the advise, “Check this out. You’ll be fine.” Perhaps this has happened to you. If not, consider me the kindly beardo turning you on to a whole new world of noise.

For many a young’un, the word “jazz” is pure punkicide. That is understandable. Most of us are introduced to jazz via school jazz bands, public radio, and PBS. We get jazz filtered through the ears of Ken Burns and shackled by the limitations and/or politics of the educational system. Most of us are lucky to get past Louie Armstrong to Charlie Parker. Some are blessed to be lead to Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, but no further. It takes the chance encounter with a very cool music teacher, an insightful record store clerk, or the way-out older sibling or parent (your's or a friend’s) to get turned on to free jazz.

Before I go further perhaps I should define free jazz and give you a little history. While the phrase “free jazz” first came to public notice with Ornette Coleman’s 1960 LP by that title, the music had been brewing for a few years. However, a quote from the album's liner notes is a good way to define this genre of music. In the notes, Martin Williams writes, “[Free Jazz] is a continuous free improvisation with only a few, brief pre-set sections. It was done in one “take” at a single recording session. No one knew how long it would last; two tape machines were simply kept going and when 'Free Jazz' was over it had taken over 38 minutes - the length of an LP. There was nothing more to play.”

Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz

Williams continues, “Not only is the improvisation almost total, It is frequently collective, involving all eight men [two saxes, two trumpets, two basses, & two drummers] inventing at once. And there were not preconceptions as to themes, chord patterns or chorus lengths. The guide for each soloist was a brief ensemble part which introduces him and which gave him an area of music pitch...Ornette Coleman put it, ‘We were expressing our minds and emotions as much as could be captured by electronics.’”

Free Jazz was not received kindly by the jazz establishment. It broke too many damn rules. No pre-set structure? Two drummers? What about a band leader? Critics were not comfortable with the notion that the content could define the form of the music. They also wrote all the sound being generated by these guys as a bunch of noise, refusing to admit that in order to pull of free improvisation the level of musicianship had to be high. Free Jazz was marginalized and written off as a fad.

Such a response was something Ornette was used to. Touring with King Curtis’s band in the 1950s, Coleman was routinely harassed for his odd soloing. Once he was taken behind a club and stomped by some of the audience and a few members of his own band. When he moved from Texas to California, he had trouble making the West Coast Jazz scene. When he would show up to LA jam sessions, musicians would walk off the stage in order to avoid playing with him. Undeterred by the close minded, Ornette sought out like minded musicians and trained them to play his music.

Ornette Coleman - Empty Foxhole

What made Ornette’s music different was that he asked his musicians to solo off what they felt rather than the conventions of Western music theory, scales, or what the jazz establishment felt was right. Add a bit of music theory to that notion and you have what Coleman calls Harmolodics. Coleman also threw out set song and solo lengths, standard instrumentation, even what type of instruments were considered serious or not (for instance, Ornette used a white, plastic sax, while his partner Don Cherry played a pocket trumpet). In later years, Ornette had his ten year old son play drums on his Blue Note LP, "The Empty Foxhole". Denardo plays with his pop to this day.

While Ornette Coleman was the first to use the phrase that would define free jazz, whether he is the
father of the genre is up for debate. Two other heavy weights also deserve consideration as the father of free jazz. Those two are Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. I will not elaborate here but instead refer you to John Litweiler’s The Freedom Principle (DaCapo, 1990).

Okay, so now it is time to give you a brief guide to some great free jazz records. Understand that there are hundreds of great records in this genre, so this list is not going to be exhaustive. Rather what is below are albums that are important, great listens, and/or good places to start for those unfamiliar with free jazz. Also note that what is chosen reflects my prejudices and tastes. Those into free jazz are as uppity and opinionated as the people who argue over punk bands. I am sure some people will have their own list of recommendations. Happy hunting!

Ornette Coleman: "The Shape of Jazz to Come"; "Twins"; "Free Jazz"; "Ornette"; "The Empty Foxhole"; "Science Fiction"; "Body Meta".

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come Might as well start with the man you now know a little bit about. "The Shape..." is Ornette’s third record but the first to really state that things from here on out will be quite different. The soloing is a big step away from what was going on in jazz at the time and the song "Lonely Woman" remains one of the best songs in any genre..."Twins" was recorded a year before "Free Jazz" (1960) but not released until 1972. It is the first recording of Ornette’s double quintet. In other words, the “noise” starts here..."Free Jazz" takes the ideas heard in "Twins" and go-go-goes with them. Notes fly by and sound piles on top of sound. A great ride..."Ornette" takes the intensity on "Free Jazz" and places it into a “traditional” jazz quartet. The songs here are even a bit more difficult than what has come before...Hard to say if "The Empty Foxhole" is Ornette’s most radical album but it does feature his 10 year old son on drums and himself of trumpet and violin, two instruments he had just started to fool around on. “Holding things down” is bassist Charlie Haden. These three come up with some great, if not challenging, tunes...For years, 1971’s "Science Fiction" was panned by even Ornette fans. Finally people have started to come around. This record has some of the group’s most intense stuff. Songs like "Civilization Day" are blistering...Too often overlooked is Ornette’s 1976 album "Body Meta". There are songs on this one that are so close to No Wave that it makes you wonder why this pup isn’t in every weird punk’s collection already. Guitarist James Blood Ulmer, who had a bit of a run in New York’s No Wave scene, shines here.

John Coltrane: "Giant Steps"; "Ascension"; "Kulu Se Mama"; "A Love Supreme"; "Sun Ship"; "Live at the Village Vanguard Again"; "Infinity"; "Interstellar Space".

Johns Coltrane - A Love Supreme

Lots of Coltrane on this list and that is because he made a lot of records. In 1965 alone he was to record enough to see 19 LPs released. "Giant Steps", released in 1960, isn’t a free jazz record; however it is the record in which Coltrane’s technique - called 'Sheets of Sound' due to the machine gun like pace of his solos, hundreds of notes falling over each other creating layers of sound, yet still sounding intelligible - is best heard and is the root of his free jazz explorations..."Ascension" is where many people peg the start of Coltrane’s free jazz (and for some the beginning of the genre). "Ascension" sees ’trane with a big group, and also like Coleman’s, one that has little direction other than what he hears other play and a few themes used to introduce soloists. The players on "Ascension" read like a who’s who of free jazz. Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown. John Tchicai all play on it. Like the title suggests, the piece builds and builds into a very dense and intense splash of sound. There are two versions of this and both are worth tracking down..."Kulu Se Mama" is built from two sessions (many Coltrane records are a hodge podge of recordings). One side is stripped down but has some wonderful free playing. The title cut is a but more filled out..."A Love Supreme" is perhaps Coltrane’s most famous work and a great example of both free and structured playing. It also signals ’trane’s dive into the spiritual. Books have been written about this record so I won’t insult you with a few lines. Just pick up this record. It is one of the most accessable jazz records made. If it doesn’t hook you, this might not be your thing...On "Sun Ship" Coltrane’s classic quartet just goes for it. "Sun Ship" is one of my favorite of Coltrane’s “noisy” records...His "Live at the Village Vanguard" released in 1961 is one of the great jazz records...Again was recorded four years latter and it is equal to the first. It shows Coltrane with a new band. Gone is the explosive Elvin Jones and in his place is Rashied Ali, a much more subtle and difficult player than Jones, but not lacking at all. Also sitting in are Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and, from his old quartet, Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane’s soling here is among his most emotional. At times it sounds like the sax is crying..."Infinity" is another of my favorites. Released after Coltrane died and cobbled together from a few sessions, it is one of the most spiritual of his records. Alice Coltrane’s harp figures prominently here...One of Coltrane’s last recordings was a series of duets with Rashied Ali released as "Interstellar Space". If you needed ’trane stripped down, here it is.

Cecil Taylor: "Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come"; "Unit Structures"; "Conquistador"; "The Great Concert"; "Silent Structures"; "For Olim".

Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures Cecil Taylor is the third person credited with inventing free jazz. After playing with Steve Lacy, Coltrane, and others, Taylor formed his own group and threw out structure all together. The first recording to capture his free jazz was made in 1962 and features Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, two free jazz giants themselves. "Nefertiti..." wasn’t released until the 1970s and is a flawed recording. However it has great moments and is fairly easy to track down...The most well known and often thought of as the best record Taylor made is "Unit Structures". Henry Grimes, Alan Silva, & Andrew Cyrille play on this one and make some of the greatest racket you will ever hear..."Conquistador" is more by the same band...If you want to earn your wings, track down "The Great Concert" (AKA "Nuits de la Fondation Maeght"). This 1967 triple album has Taylor, Lyons, Cyrille and Sam Rivers jamming for about two hours straight. Some of the piano work is so violent, you wonder if Taylor left the keys shattered...Recorded in 1974, "Silent Tongues" sees Taylor solo and Cecil by himself is as intense as with a group...Another great solo work is "For Olim". Released in 1986, it shows Taylor is just as challenging as he was in 1962. There are many more Taylor records to chose from and he still makes good ones. He also continues to play live and his concerts are full of energy and challenges.

Okay so what is there after the big three? Plenty. But you will have to wait ‘til the next update for those cats.

The following records have been out for sometime, are or have been available on CD, and many have been reissued ad nauseum. If you cannot find them at your local used record hut, finding them used via internet auctions, record dealer sites, or mail order is not difficult. If you are reading this I am sure you know what an internet auction site is.

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