Free as They Want to Be

The term "Free Jazz" refers to a strain within the genre that isn't based on pre-set foundations such as chord progressions. While there were a few free-jazz performances recorded prior to Ornette Coleman's impact on the scene around 1960, the Ft. Worth native was essentially ground zero for the movement. Some of the early free jazzmen, e.g., pianist Paul Bley, were very knowledgeable musicians. Others had little harmonic knowledge and couldn't play bop or post-bop music very well, so it was understandable that they would be attracted to free jazz, which didn't require them to know much about chord changes.

Impulse! Records' recent free-jazz reissue series gathers together albums by some of the most prominent free players of the Sixties, though not all of the music on them is free. It should be kept in mind that because of their limited knowledge, the improvisation of some so-called free jazzmen wasn't free some of the time, but modal; they'd simply improvise on one chord or scale for long stretches, maybe not even knowing they were doing it.

Cecil Tayloris a very well-schooled pianist influenced by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, and Arnold Schoenberg. His first few albums, though experimental, weren't free, but he was nevertheless one of the first cats to get into it. He's on three tracks of Mixed, which he shares with trombonist Roswell Rudd. Taylor leads a quintet including altoist Jimmy Lyons and tenorman Archie Shepp, while Rudd and trumpeter Ted Curson augment the group on one cut, and these are among Taylor's finest recorded selections. The angular solos by him, Lyons, and Shepp crackle with energy, flashing across the aural landscape like streaks of lightning. Rudd's group includes altoman Robin Kenyatta and Giusseppi Logan on flute and bass clarinet, and features the trombonist using smears, blasts, and heavy vibrato to summon echoes of New Orleans tailgate stylists and Woody Herman star Bill Harris. There's a lot of impassioned yet controlled collective improvising here, with bassists Charlie Haden and Lewis Worrell and drummer Sonny Murray playing an active role.

The big-toned work of Archie Shepp is rooted in the playing of Ben Webster and Lockjaw Davis as well as Ornette Coleman. There are some good compositions on The Way Ahead, by sidemen pianist Walter Davis Jr. and trombonist Grachan Moncur, but unfortunately neither musician nor trumpeter Jimmy Owens gets a chance to stretch out, functioning mainly as ensemble players. Shepp, with the lion's share of the solo space, plays with searing intensity, but doesn't display much harmonic or rhythmic inventiveness.

Pharoah Sanders appears on soprano sax in a front line featuring alto sax player Gary Bartz and trumpeter Woody Shaw. The band includes three percussionists, with other members doubling on percussion. There are two selections on Summum Bukmun Umyun, both influenced by John Coltrane's concepts. The first features improv laced with an African quality, while the second is a "spiritual," contemplative piece. Neither gets off the ground and a lot of talent is wasted.

Albert Ayler took certain tendencies in free jazz about as far as they could go. There wasn't any point in trying to play higher or faster than Ayler, although it was possible to play cleaner. On Live in Greenwich, a 2-CD set cut from 1965-'67, we hear Ayler and his trumpet-playing brother Donald joined on various tracks by violinist Michel Sampson, cellist Joel Freedman, several bassists, Murray or Beaver Harris on drums, and pianist Call Cobbs. Ayler plays tenor sax, but switches to alto on "For John Coltrane." While he had a tendency to play repetitively, this is mitigated to an extent by his reacting to other band members; Ayler is thinking as well as blowing here, and when he did that, he was very creative. When he gets into the upper register with the string players he sounds like one himself. And as usual, he flat-out lays himself bare when improvising. Note, too, Albert's strange, seemingly archaic but really original compositions, which seem to combine military, religious, and country music. He could be viewed as a folk musician; certainly his music has a homemade quality.

Alto saxman Marion Brown is joined by pianists Dave Burrell and Stanley Cowell, bassist Sirone, and drummers Harris or Bobby Capp on Three for Shepp. Their music is relatively cerebral, with Brown turning in thin-toned, sometimes lyrical solos, and it's only a step or two behind tenorman Dewey Redman's The Ear of the Behearer. Replaced by Don Cherry in the quartet of his old high school mate Ornette Coleman, Redman did some distinguished work with Keith Jarrett. Here, he appears with trumpeter Ted Daniel and cellist Jane Robertson. There's a nice variety of moods and tempos on his CD, ranging from rousing to pensive. Redman, who's drawn his style mainly from Coleman and Coltrane, acquits himself quite well everywhere. He's a solid, creative player, and deserves far more recognition than his reactionary, if technically impressive, son Joshua.

Sam Rivers became known initially as a tenor saxophonist, but on Trio Live, he appears on soprano, flute, and piano as well, supported by bassist Cecil McBee or Arild Anderson, and drummer Barry Altschul. It's interesting to contrast the playing of Rivers, who graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music and played bop and post-bop brilliantly, with free jazzmen who were more limited in some respects. Both Shepp and Sanders, influenced by Coleman and Coltrane, broke with traditional jazz rhythmic ideas; they didn't try to swing sometimes, preferring instead to expand the timbral possibilities of the tenor sax using honks, shrieks, and multiphonics. Rivers honks and screams, too, but his work has more harmonic and melodic substance; he claims, incidentally, that he was playing free jazz about the time Coleman came to the fore in 1960, but it wasn't recorded. That's quite probable. Note here the active roles the bassists and drummer play, stepping into the front line with Rivers at times. They're no longer just accompanists.

A Monastic Trio finds pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane playing unaccompanied, with a trio, and with a quartet featuring Pharoah Sanders. Alice was an accomplished post-bop player, and here she displays the influence of her husband John, as well as his long-time pianist McCoy Tyner; there's a lot of spirituality in her work. She's an inspired, inventive soloist and a technically solid pianist, although she's not as innovative as the other leaders on these CDs.

Mixed (Impulse!)
5.0 stars

The Way Ahead (Impulse!)
3.0 stars

Summum Bukmun Umyun (Impulse!)
2.0 stars

Live in Greenwich (Impulse!)
5.0 stars

Three for Shepp (Impulse!)
3.0 stars

The Ear of the Behearer (Impulse!)
4.0 stars

Trio Live (Impulse!)
4.0 stars

A Monastic Trio (Impulse!)
3.0 stars

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