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Columns > Patrick Buzby

Published: 2002/11/23
by Patrick Buzby

A Bit About Free Jazz

One of my high school’s traditions was the junior
speech. For seven minutes or so, each student was
required to address the entire high school and
faculty on a subject of his (it was single-sex until
my last two years there) choice. One of the more
amusing ones from my time came with a classmate’s
disquisition on this topic: "Why I Like Death Metal."

I can’t say that I feel as much on the defensive
about free jazz as he may have about his chosen genre,
but it’s close. There is a great deal of common
ground between jamband music and jazz, but I
remember the rather hostile reception that folks on
rec.music.phish gave to Surrender To The Air (which,
granted, is a rather harsh record, and not my choice
for a great example of the genre) in ’96.
My musical path began with the Beatles (late) and
Pink Floyd (early). Both of these artists had a
number of straightforward songs which were generally
very strong, but the most interesting things from them left a great deal of unanswered questions. What
exactly is happening at the end of Bike? What does the
atonal orchestra crescendo have to do with the point
of the lyrics in A Day In The Life? There are no
answers, and this can be unsettling (especially with
the Floyd stuff), but it tends to bring you back. At
least if you had the slightly tweezed (as Zappa might have said) disposition that I did.
Somehow, with a few random book references and
library withdrawals, I made my way from there to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Ornette Coleman’s Free
Jazz. Like the White Album or Dark Side, these
records are complete statements from the cover art on
down – they create their own universes. Unlike the
Miles record, though, Ornette’s Free Jazz (1960) has
nothing to do with rock, and is most relevant to the
topic at hand.
Free Jazz (the record) is a 36-minute piece featuring
a "double quartet" (two woodwinds, trumpets, basses
and drumsets) playing a piece with short themes in
between segments of open improvisation, with each
player getting a chance to "lead" a segment. The
other horns enter at various points during each horn
player’s solo. Lester Bangs once wrote that one needs
to "learn" this record, and as a kid with few
distractions I was able to put many listens in.
In a sense, this record is like a long conversation – each instrumentalist has a certain mood and a unique
take on things. However, the challenge in this music
is that the talkers in the conversation overlap,
especially the lead player(s) and the basses, who have
the role of determining harmony (the key). Ornette
needed to shape players to both lead and accompany in
this style, and he found the ideal accompanist in
bassist Charlie Haden. Even though Haden lacks the
technical prowess of his partner on this recording,
Scott LaFaro (who unfortunately died less than a year
later), he brings a strong musical identity to this
practice of changing the question while the
interviewee is giving an answer. Both Haden and LaFaro
would do a good deal to influence Phil Lesh.
Some might claim that "it all sounds the same" when
musicians do away with fixed harmony or meter. To
demonstrate how untrue this can be, check John
Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), which follows a very
similar format to Ornette’s record. Coltrane’s music
was all about spiritual, sometimes political unrest,
and his fellow players tap into that spirit here to
produce 40 minutes of soul-baring catharsis. There is
nothing overtly political about Free Jazz. Ornette
himself may have the sweetest musical disposition of
the entire group, and there are moments of pure humor,
even silliness, on this record and many of his others. However, the mood can, and does, transform into the
darkest horror within seconds. No record does more for
this listener to evoke the feeling of waking up alone
in the middle of the night and sensing an intruder.
Ornette’s record inadvertently coined a name for an
entire genre, but not all records in this genre sound
much like it. However, all of them take on the same
challenge of creating meaning in a situation with few
restrictions. Not all of them succeed, and some of
them take a while reaching the goal. However, the
Dead usually took some time reaching the nexus of a
Dark Star. The best of the avant-jazz players take a
similar journey, perhaps in different directions, but
equally far from Earth.
To return to the Floyd and Beatles references,
though, there is something in the best avant music
that leaves the same sense of mystery, unanswered
questions, as those first records I heard of theirs.
Granted, like the best psychedelic groups, and the
best jambands, many of the avant folks are capable of
doing strong "inside," straightforward stuff.
However, it’s the sense of mystery, of new depths
accessible with each listen, that is the primary
attraction of what is now called "free jazz."

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