16 May 2009

Listening to Free Jazz

If one record can be said to be responsible for the Jazz Wars, then Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation) would surely have to be a candidate. Along with John Coltrane's Ascension, Free Jazz is one of the more radical points of departure in the avant-garde canon. Instead of one quartet, it features two. Instead of individual tunes, it features two takes of collective improvisation. It is definitely the most provocative jazz album ever released. It even featured a Jackson Pollack print on the album cover to up the ante. If The Shape of Jazz to come and Change of the Century were were warning shots, Free Jazz must have seemed like an atomic bomb when it was released in 1960.

But despite its notariety and reputation, I have never listened to the album. It is perhaps the most glaring hole in the jazz canon to which I have not been exposed. I have no good reason not to have heard it before. Since I first began to enjoy Ornette's music in college, I have listened to much of his catalogue, and liked much of it. Free Jazz always seemed like such a daunting listening task, though. It is not the kind of album you can throw on any day and check out. With all its baggage, Free Jazz carries with it a weight of responsibility; you cannot simply listen to it, you must take it in and contemplate it. For that reason, I had always put off listening to the album.

But no longer. I had sacrificed my own credibility too long, having not even sat through Coleman's first magnum opus. So the other night I sat down and listened to the entire album in one sitting. Below are my thoughts as I listened, condensed with some after-the-fact edits for clarity's sake.

This album belies the stereotype of free jazz as a caterwauling nonmusical free-for-all. Though the album is frenetic, there is also a lot of order. You could not make an album like this without some good listeners. Also, despite the reputations of Coleman, Dolphy, and Hubbard, there is a lot of space in these tracks from the winds. With steady rhythm underneath, each front-line player gives ample space to the rest of the front line most of the time.

The term "Collective Improvisation" is a misnomer; There is way more arranging on this album than you would expect.

When I listen to this, I think of jazz being broken down only partially, in big chunks, then rebuilt. Each instrument on the album sounds like jazz on its own, and collected together they build an entirely new structure out of the original parts; like deconstructing Huck Finn and rewriting it as On the Road. Free Jazz is still jazz, like On the Road is still a novel. But still, it feels like an entirely new style regardless.

The album was most definitely a worthy experiment, but not the most essential Ornette album on my list. One wonders what this album would have sounded like had Ornette only used his regular quartet at the time (with Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, and Don Cherry). Could four voices be as effective as eight? This is not to say that it is not a good album, just not an ideal introduction to Ornette Coleman for novices.

Other Resources
Jazz.com reviews First Take
Do the Math on early Ornette Coleman: "Free Jazz has some great moments but is too monochromatic. As I speculated before about the two Contemporary albums, I wonder if Free Jazz has harmed Ornette’s reputation, especially at the time it was released."

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