A Casual Stroll Down The Free Jazz / Avant Garde Avenue
“ In Free Jazz perhaps the pioneering work to my mind came from John Coltrane whose slow but determined brick-by-brick removal of all intellectual barriers in Jazz seems now like a historical inevitability. ”
Since most of the readers of this column who write to me seem to be rather at home with the Swing and Be Bop or Hard Bop and Cool Jazz eras, I have been meaning to write a piece on Free Jazz and its slightly sterner-miened cousin Avant-Garde. There can be hardly a doubt that reactions will ensue rather like dormant seeds sprouting to sudden life with the first rains'
This piece was inspired by Chris Greco, a modern day jazz scholar and musician of rather exalted caliber and erudite leanings which is a rare combination indeed. I have had the pleasure of listening to, absorbing profusely and getting influenced rather deeply by his album Pleiadian Call.
I find Chris a fascinating phenomenon. Here's why : he holds a master's degree in Composition with what he describes rather adequately as a style rooted in the contemporary Western or European tradition and experience in multiple jazz idioms. He plays with amazing fluidity and ease several instruments 'again a hallmark of some of the great trailblazers in Jazz : clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, soprano sax and flute. To cap it all, he has put to use, his great knowledge of music theory, composition, music history and performance with practice 'an unusual and wholly satisfying result in the form of Pleiadian Call.
Free Jazz is not everyone's cup of tea, as a wide cross section of the baby boomers who grew up on traditional and straight-ahead varieties will emphatically say. Speaking from personal experience I would very candidly announce my own constraints in a holistic appreciation when it comes to taking a hard look at some of the more 'advanced' compositions in both Free Jazz and Avant-Garde styles. Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy would easily, with their rather over-intellectual and inaccessible deeply introverted styles, would exemplify this shortcoming : whether it is my failure to cross an imagined boundary or theirs, to become more accessible and easily digestible, is a debatable point I would leave here unelaborated.
In Free Jazz perhaps the pioneering work to my mind came from John Coltrane whose slow but determined brick-by-brick removal of all intellectual barriers in Jazz seems now like a historical inevitability. Though I have never studied art criticism nor music theory, I do feel that my four decades of intense listening and internalization of Jazz in its myriad manifestations qualifies me to make intelligent comments on such perceived-to-be difficult styles. Again, let me re-emphasize an important point. What one has heard during teenage or adolescence periods can sound insipidly insufficient now in one's middle-age, and what seemed like pure musical nonsense then, can now make copious sense too. I have experience both these phenomena with a crystalline clarity in Free Jazz and Avant-Garde.
For the fence-sitters, and I know like me there are thousands out there in the wilderness, waiting to drop their arsenal and join the ranks, my free and frank advice would be to give an honest listen to all those 'inaccessible' pieces by the Free Jazz exponents and experience this reawakening, this blossoming within of some unnameable, something almost implausible, something you can't put your finger upon. And yet the same ephemeral 'thing' seems to stick to the psyche like a calculated insult, like sudden act of charitable windfall-like goodness from an unlikely source.
I would not have ventured too deep into the alien territory when it comes to Free Jazz, were it not for the hugely gratifying act of guidance from my friend Scott Dylan, who not only very kindly sent me a lot pointers, advice, and even music to illustrate what could be the main features of attraction in Free Jazz. We both avoided references to Avant-Garde, I was acutely aware for that happens to be an esoteric club 'has always been. As I kept telling him, some of the seemingly unmusical activities of very intellectual players like Gil Evans, Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans : who introduced the atonal and rhythmically unshackled styles with a gay abandon during the late '60s, seemed inaccessible to me then as now.