If the spirit of sub-genre displays this than free or . is freedom and progress, perhaps no better
In this article we’ve shared some basics on this style and highlighted 10 legendary artists and the most influential albums they’ve made.
Perhaps out of all the styles and sub-genres within this – or as some of it is labeled – is hardest to pin down as it means different things to different artists.,
Whilst there are some subtle differences between these two terms (which we’ve covered at the end), for the purposes of simplicity, we’ll use them interchangeably here.
developed in America during the late 1950s and early ’60s, as a rejection of the restraints of and . In effect, it was an opposition to traditional harmony and chord changes, regular tempos and compositional forms.
Early American recordings tend to swing and refer heavily to the blues, whilst the European tradition often uses the term ‘improvised ‘, and may see itself as entirely separate from the lineage.
Some incorporate ethnic 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 .
From the father of , , to saxophonists like Peter Brötzmann & who continued the avant-garde tradition well into the 21st Century, we’ve picked 10 legendary artists and highlighted our pick of the best album from each of their discographies.
Regarded as one of the founders of , possessed a unique improvisational voice.
His quartet’s arrival in New York, with a much-discussed 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 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 is swinging, bluesy and very much informed by the history of .
Coleman would later experiment with other instruments, playing violin and in addition to the . He referred to his approach and philosophy as ‘harmolodics ‘, although the exact practical meaning of this is somewhat mysterious.
Recommended album: The Shape of to Come
Released in 1959 (an amazing year for ), this is Ornette Coleman’s most famous album and, in tunes like ‘Peace’ and ‘Lonely Woman’, contains some of his most enduring compositions.
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 double and , arguably Ornette’s most important collaborator, on cornet. To Come features his classic early quartet with Billy Higgins (who would later be replaced by Ed Blackwell) on , Charlie Haden on
Coleman’s 1961 album gave the movement its name.
A multi-instrumentalist, Dolphy is best known as an alto , and for being one of the first musicians to play the clarinet in a setting.
He also played flute and, less frequently, clarinet & piccolo.
Initially rooted in (there exists a private recording of him practising with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown) Dolphy became deeply interested in avant-garde classical ., his playing characterised by a somewhat wild tone and wide intervals that may have been influenced by contemporary
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 , and Oliver Nelson.
Recommended album: Out To Lunch
All of the musicians on this 1964 album had serious pedigree – especially trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who is perhaps thought of as more of a player – but this is one of the most forward-thinking records in the 1960s Blue Note catalogue.
The combination of Dolphy’s clarinet with Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone is a particularly distinctive sound.
Drummer Tony Williams (included in this list of best drummers in history) had just turned 18 and had recently begun his stint with the Second Great Quintet.
A who needs little introduction, Coltrane’s distinctive tenor sound was heard in a range of stylistic settings through the 1950s and ’60s, both as a bandleader and as a sideman.
The Quintet and his own of the First Great 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 with an increasingly spiritual dimension, which hinted at the freer direction that Coltrane’s would take for the last two years of his life.
From 1965 until his death from liver cancer in 1967 his was often entirely improvised, dispensing with chord sequences and organised tempos.
His last recordings see him collaborating with musicians including and harpist (whom he married in 1965), saxophonists and Pharoah Sanders, and drummer Rashied Ali, with whom he recorded the duo album Interstellar Space.
Recommended album: Ascension
Considered a watershed moment in Coltrane’s career, this signalled his move towards and away from his classic quartet format with McCoy Tyner, 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 in various straight-ahead and swinging settings, including with Lucky Thompson, Kenny Clarke and the vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ quartet.
After she met the pair’s lives and became more overtly spiritual, and she replaced McCoy Tyner as the in John’s band in 1966 as his embraced freer forms.
After her husband’s death she began to record as a leader.
Now heard on harp as well as & organ, and accompanied by lush string arrangements and large ensembles, these cosmic sounds have proved highly influential.
Recommended album: Universal Consciousness
This 1971 recording is ‘s fifth solo album, with the bandleader playing harp, organ and contributing string arrangements.
The mystical and highly spiritual combines elements of modal , 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 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 , was noted for his radical, percussive playing and, like , was playing highly experimental forms of 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 ‘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 , performing in major concert halls and winning various high profile awards and fellowships. He also wrote for dance and incorporated his own poetry into his musical performances.
Recommended album: Unit Structures
This 1966 album was Taylor’s debut for Blue Note Records. One of the most intense early 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, recordings prioritise pure, raw expression.‘s 1960s
His tenor sound is like no one else’s: honking, otherworldly and primal. He was initially mentored by , making overtly spiritual and turning to Coltrane for financial help when he was destitute, but the older ‘s later recordings were in turn heavily influenced by Ayler.
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 and improv worlds, and upon various experimental rock and ‘noise’ styles.
Recommended album: Spiritual Unity
This 1964 album sees the tenor drumming – and bassist Gary Peacock, who also played in more conventional trio settings with Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. and in the company of Sunny Murray – a pioneer of
The trio rarely stick to a strict tempo and there is a high degree of group interaction at play. Ayler wails through his , 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 also contains singable melodies and elements of church and the blues.
Sun Ra (1914-1993)
Sun Ra’s highly idiosyncratic , modal , and – to create a cosmic sound world that was enhanced by his highly theatrical live performances. draws on the whole history of – from ragtime, the sounds of ,
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, 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 (AACM), the Chicago-based advocacy & education group, would go on to win a ‘ Genius Grant ‘ from the MacArthur Foundation (1994) and be named a National Endowment for the Arts Master (2004).
His huge discography ranges from Avant-garde composition, writing for orchestra and opera, and left-field interpretations of standards and the of Charlie Parker and the Tristano School.
He also played in bands led by Chick Corea and Dave Holland, with whom he recorded the seminal Conference of the Birds, although he has distanced himself from the word ‘ ‘. greats including
German author Timo Hoyer (who we interviewed here) recently wrote an in-depth study of this great musician.
Recommended album: 3 Compositions of New
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 album.
Tenor burst onto the nascent Avant-garde scene in 1960s New York with appearances in high profile bands led by and .
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 , he has also played repertoire drawn from R&B, blues and spirituals, and has recorded tribute albums to Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet.
Recommended 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.
Peter Brötzmann (1941-)
The German and clarinettist Peter Brötzmann was one of the first European musicians to embrace the new 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 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 tenor respectively., on guitar and
A Pitchfork review by Scott Hreha likens the to “the sound of flesh being torn from a spindly set of bones.”
Whilst the labels of ‘‘ and ‘ ‘ are often used interchangeably, they are not exactly the same thing,
Whilst a lot of the repertoire does in fact fit in either ‘box’ it’s useful to notice where the two styles diverge.
Some has come to be defined as seeking to blur the lines between organised written and improvised material with strong connections to styles outside of .
In 1960s America in particular, it was sometimes associated with progressive politics and the civil rights movement.
One example of a group which came to define of Chicago, who extended this approach further than just the , coming on stage in costumes and introducing a visual element to the experience. was the
, in its earliest and purest form, is perhaps more obviously connected with the other styles of the day.
Despite the shock-value of artists like , the is infused with and blues references and maintains many of the rhythmic and harmonic characteristics of , albeit in a different way.
Characteristics of &
As we’ve seen, the terms ‘‘ or ‘ ‘ can cover a wide range of things. Broadly speaking, though, you should listen out for:
- Unusual instrumentation: many groups break away from the classic ‘ – – -soloist’ line-up of more traditional , and also introduce less common instruments.
- Extended technique: in the search for expression, you’ll often hear musicians using their instruments to create less common sounds and effects.
- Dissonance: a lot of often challenges this with atonal melodies and dissonant harmonies which can seem harsher or more jarring at first listen. is based on the diatonic harmony which our Western ears have become used to.
- Rhythmic experimentation: we’re used to most , on the other hand, has no problem in breaking this up in many ways. starting in one tempo (speed) and maintaining it throughout.
- Wide range of expression: as the name suggests, is all about maximum freed of expression, and musicians playing in this style often display a wider range of effects in the search of this.
If you’re looking for more listening tips, with varying degrees of ‘free’ influences, here are a few names to start with…
- Evan Parker
- John Zorn
- Dave Douglas
- Sam Rivers
- Andrew Hill
- Steve Lacy
- Henry Threadgill
- Steph Richards
So there you have it!
A quick dive into the style and our pick of 10 essential artists and albums to deepen your knowledge of it.
“if means anything, it is freedom of expression.”
Anyway, we hope you enjoyed (re)listening to these great pioneers and, if you’re looking for more in-depth profiles, check out our articles about , and Pharoah Sanders.
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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