Perhaps out of all the styles and sub-genres within this music, Free jazz – or Avant-garde as some of it is labeled – is hardest to pin down. It’s hard to classify exactly what constitutes this music, as it means different things to different artists.
Free jazz developed in America during the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as a rejection of the restraints of bebop and hard bop. An opposition to traditional jazz harmony and chord changes, regular tempos and compositional forms…
Early American free jazz recordings tend to swing and refer heavily to the blues, whilst the European tradition often uses the term ‘improvised music’, and may see itself as entirely separate from the jazz lineage.
Some incorporate ethnic music traditions, unusual instruments or extreme instrumental techniques.
Whatever terminology you use, we wanted to shine a light on some of the great musicians who were integral to the development of this music.
From the father of Free jazz, Ornette Coleman, to saxophonists like Peter Brötzmann & Archie Shepp who continued the tradition well into the 21st Century, we’ve picked 10 legends and highlighted our pick of the best free jazz album from each of their discographies.
Don’t forget to vote on yours at the end – or add some more suggestions in the comments section…
Regarded as one of the founders of free jazz, Coleman possessed a unique improvisational voice.
His quartet’s arrival in New York, with a much-discusseed residency at the Five Spot, was hugely controversial, and the band’s sound was unlike any that had come before it.
The quartet would play one of Ornette’s memorable themes as the ‘head in’ at the beginning, and the ‘head out’ at the end, just as a standard jazz band would. However, the improvised solos in between these melodies dispensed with chord changes and form, in a technique known as ‘time, no changes’.
Despite the radical nature of this way of playing, the music is swinging, bluesy and very much informed by the history of jazz.
Coleman would later experiment with other instruments, playing trumpet and violin in addition to the saxophone. He referred to his approach and philosophy as ‘harmolodics’, although the exact practical meaning of this is somewhat mysterious.
Recommended Ornette Coleman album: The Shape of Jazz to Come
Released in 1959, this is Coleman’s most famous album and, in tunes like ‘Peace’ and ‘Lonely Woman’, contains some of his most enduring compositions.
Reaction to the Coleman quartet was mixed, with some critics hailing a revolutionary new direction in jazz, while high profile detractors included Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
Ornette was self-taught and could not be considered a schooled virtuoso in the traditional sense, but his cry-like alto sound is profoundly expressive and the melodies he composed are undeniably strong.
The Shape of Jazz To Come features his classic early quartet with Billy Higgins (who would later be replaced by Ed Blackwell) on drums, Charlie Haden on double bass and Don Cherry, arguably Ornette’s most important collaborator, on cornet.
Coleman’s 1961 album Free Jazz gave the movement its name.
A multi-instrumentalist, Dolphy is best known as an alto saxophonist, and for being one of the first musicians to play the bass clarinet in a jazz setting.
He also played flute and, less frequently, clarinet & piccolo.
Initially rooted in bebop – there exists a private recording of him practising with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown – he became interested in the Avant-garde, his playing characterised by a somewhat wild tone and wide intervals that may have been influenced by contemporary classical music.
Sadly, he died at just 36 whilst on tour in Germany, having fallen into a coma as a result of undiagnosed diabetes.
As a sideman he played on important albums by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Oliver Nelson.
Recommended Eric Dolphy album: Out To Lunch
All of the musicians on this 1964 album had serious jazz pedigree – especially trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who is perhaps thought of as more of a hard bop player – but this is one of the most forward-thinking records in the 1960s Blue Note catalogue.
The combination of Dolphy’s bass clarinet with Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone is a particularly distinctive sound.
Drummer Tony Williams (included in this list of best drummers in jazz history) had just turned 18 and had recently begun his stint with the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet.
A musician who needs little introduction, Coltrane’s distinctive tenor saxophone sound was heard in a range of stylistic settings through the 1950s and ‘60s, both as a bandleader and as a sideman.
The hard bop of the First Great Miles Davis Quintet and his own Blue Train was followed by the new modal approach of Milestones and Kind of Blue and then the complex, fast moving harmony of compositions like Giant Steps and Countdown.
His classic quartet, which produced A Love Supreme, played intense modal jazz with an increasingly spiritual dimension, which hinted at the freer direction that Coltrane’s music would take for the last two years of his life.
From 1965 until his death from liver cancer in 1967 his music was often entirely improvised, dispensing with chord sequences and organised tempos.
His last recordings see him collaborating with musicians including pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane (whom he married in 1965), saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, and drummer Rashied Ali, with whom he recorded the duo album Interstellar Space.
Recommended John Coltrane album: Ascension
Considered a watershed moment in Coltrane’s career, this signalled his move towards free jazz and away from his classic quartet format with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.
The 11-piece band alternates between more structured ensemble passages and solo sections that are essentially free, with soloists given skeletal harmonic information, plus the instruction to finish with a crescendo.
Coltrane’s work continued to build upon the roaring dissonance heard here, and his final few albums continue to divide opinion amongst fans and critics.
Born Alice McLeod in Detroit, Michigan, she worked as a jazz pianist in various straight-ahead and swinging settings, including with Lucky Thompson, Kenny Clarke and the vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ quartet.
After she met John Coltrane the pair’s lives and music became more overtly spiritual, and she replaced McCoy Tyner as the pianist in John’s band in 1966 as his music embraced freer forms.
After her husband’s death she began to record as a leader.
Now heard on harp as well as piano & organ, and accompanied by lush string arrangements and large ensembles, these cosmic sounds have proved highly influential.
Recommended Alice Coltrane album: Universal Consciousness
This 1971 recording is Alice Coltrane’s fifth solo album, with the bandleader playing harp, organ and contributing string arrangements.
The mystical and highly spiritual music combines elements of modal jazz, free improvisation and more structured composition. An essay on “100 Records That Set The World On Fire” in The Wire states that Universal Consciousness “clearly connects to other dyspeptic jazz traditions – the organ trio, the soloists with strings – yet volleys them into outer space, ancient Egypt, the Ganges, the great beyond.”
Another major pioneer of American free jazz, Cecil Taylor was noted for his radical, percussive piano playing and, like Ornette Coleman, was playing highly experimental forms of jazz as early as the late 1950s in New York.
Classically trained, he displayed the influence of modern European composers including Bela Bartók and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The 1959 album Coltrane Time (initially issued under Taylor’s name as Stereo Drive) is a strange listen, with the pianist’s atonal style contrasting extremely with a band that, having been put together by the record label, features more conservative players like the trumpeter Kenny Dorham on a programme of standards.
Later, as he led his own bands he was recognised as a highly important American musician, performing in major concert halls and winning various high profile awards and fellowships. He also wrote music for dance and incorporated his own poetry into his musical performances.
Recommended Cecil Taylor album: Unit Structures
This 1966 album was Taylor’s debut for Blue Note Records. One of the most intense early free jazz albums, it is big on atonal dissonance, heavy chord clusters and complex polyrhythms, played by a septet that includes two double bassists: certainly not an easy listen, but it is now considered one of the most important records of the decade.
An essay by Taylor, Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture, accompanies the album.
After initially playing R&B, Albert Ayler’s 1960s free jazz recordings prioritise pure, raw expression.
His tenor saxophone sound is like no one else’s: honking, otherworldly and primal. He was initially mentored by John Coltrane, making overtly spiritual music and turning to Coltrane for financial help when he was destitute, but the older saxophonist’s later recordings were in turn heavily influenced by Ayler.
Indeed, Ayler claimed that, “Trane was the father. Pharoah [Sanders] was the son. I was the holy ghost.”
He was sometimes accused of charlatanism during his lifetime and he enjoyed little commercial success. However, he has ultimately proved highly influential upon a multitude of musicians in the free jazz and improv worlds, and upon various experimental rock and ‘noise’ styles.
Recommended Albert Ayler album: Spiritual Unity
This 1964 album sees the tenor saxophonist in the company of Sunny Murray – a pioneer of free jazz drumming – and bassist Gary Peacock, who also played in more conventional jazz trio settings with Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett.
The trio rarely stick to a strict tempo and there is a high degree of group interaction at play. Ayler wails through his saxophone, utilising the extremities of the instrument and extended techniques including microtones.
The album features two renditions of the catchy, hymn-like Ghosts, an anthem of the ‘60s Avant-garde. For all of Ayler’s radicalism and chaos, his music also contains singable melodies and elements of church music and the blues.
Sun Ra’s highly idiosyncratic music draws on the whole history of jazz – from ragtime, the sounds of New Orleans, bebop, modal jazz, fusion and free jazz – to create a cosmic sound world that was enhanced by his highly theatrical live performances.
Born Herman Poole Blount, he adopted the name Le Sony’r Ra, which was later shortened to Sun Ra.
Considered a pioneer of the Afrofuturism aesthetic, he claimed to be an alien on a mission from Saturn. He is best known for leading The Arkestra, in which he was an early adopter of electric keyboards and synthesisers.
Sun Ra died in 1993, but the band, which has always had a rotating cast of players, continues to tour under the leadership of his long-time disciple, saxophonist Marshall Allen. They are noted for wearing elaborate costumes inspired by Ancient Egypt and the Space Age.
Recommended Sun Ra album: Space is the Place
Sun Ra left behind an enormous discography, although many of his earlier recordings were self produced efforts that were only printed in small batches; many didn’t even list the track names or featured musicians!
Not to be confused with the soundtrack album to the 1974 feature film of the same name, the large ensemble on this 1972 recording includes long-time Arkestra members Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and Pat Patrick.
The hypnotic, chant-like title track is one of the band’s biggest hits.
One of many notable musicians to emerge from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago-based advocacy & education group, saxophonist Anthony Braxton would go on to win a ‘Genius Grant’ from the MacArthur Foundation (1994) and be named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (2004).
His huge discography ranges from Avant-garde composition, writing for orchestra and opera, and left-field interpretations of jazz standards and the music of Charlie Parker and the Tristano School.
He also played in bands led by jazz greats including Chick Corea and Dave Holland, with whom he recorded the seminal Conference of the Birds, although he has distanced himself from the word ‘jazz’.
Recommended Anthony Braxton album: 3 Compositions of New Jazz
Braxton’s 1968 debut features him alongside three other incredibly important figures in the American Avant-garde, all of whom also hail from Chicago and have links to the AACM: violinist Leroy Jenkins, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Muhal Richard Abrahams, although all four of them are heard on an array of instruments here. T
Two of the three experimental tracks are titled with diagrams, which is something Braxton is known for. His following record For Alto (1969) is the first entirely solo saxophone album.
Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp burst onto the nascent Avant-garde jazz scene in 1960s New York with appearances in high profile bands led by Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane.
Along with fellow tenor player Pharoah Sanders, he was at the forefront of a movement that took influence from various African cultures and traditions.
He has been involved in the Civil Rights Struggle, and has also written and performed poetry and spoken word.
Whilst he is primarily associated with an Afrocentric brand of free jazz, he has also played repertoire drawn from R&B, blues and spirituals, and has recorded tribute albums to Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet.
Recommended Archie Shepp album: The Magic of Ju-Ju
This was Shepp’s tenth album as a bandleader was his eighth for Impulse!, the record label which produced many of the most important records of the 1960s American Avant-garde.
The epic opening track of this 1967 session sees his impassioned tenor growling on top of pulsating African drumming, in an ensemble that includes five percussionists.
The German saxophonist and clarinettist Peter Brötzmann was one of the first European musicians to embrace the new free jazz sounds of the mid-1960s, as American pioneers of the form found that they received a warmer response when touring in Europe than in the United States.
Brötzmann’s brutal tenor sound is primarily inspired by Albert Ayler and, having appeared on over 100 albums, he continues to tour and record. He initially trained as a visual artist and has designed the covers to most of his albums.
Recommended Peter Brötzmann album: Nipples
This 1968 album features Brötzmann in a powerful sextet of European Avant-garde giants, including Dutch drummer Han Bennink and Englishmen Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, on guitar and tenor saxophone respectively.
A Pitchfork review by Scott Hreha likens the music to “the sound of flesh being torn from a spindly set of bones.”
ℹ️ Free jazz vs Avant garde
It’s hard to talk about Free music without also using the term Avant-garde jazz. Whilst the labels seem to be used interchangeably, some would define avant-garde as a separate style which seeks to blur the lines between organised written and improvised material. In 1960s America in particular, it was sometimes associated with progressive politics and the civil rights movement.