(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")
Free Jazz: the apostles
TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
The free-jazz revolution started at the turn of the decade with
Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and John Coltrane's
My Favorite Things (1960).
Coleman was a novice, Coltrane had played with Miles Davis. The zeitgeist
had in fact been created by Davis, and the generation that debuted in that
zeitgeist was eager to break with the rules of jazz harmony.
It took two giants (and probably more giants of composition than of
improvisation) to kick off the revolution, but a
"free" way of improvising was in the air after the experiments of cool jazz
and modal jazz. George Russell and Miles Davis had shown that there were
other ways for improvisers to improvise (and, although neglected at the time,
for composers to compose). Several musicians were informally playing a
much less organized music than the one that they were recording.
Ornette Coleman was the first one who had the guts to record it and boast
about it. It is not a coincidence that he grew in complete
isolation from the main centers of jazz.
Once the pioneers had dismantled the structure of jazz music, all the pieces
came tumbling down. The most severe blow was received by the rhythm section.
The traditional role of chordal instruments such as piano and guitar became
The bass and the drums were no longer time-keeping pulse-generating instruments
but free to bedevil the harmony with melodic abstractions and polyrhythms.
The idea was widely considered anathema by the generation that had been raised
listening to Louis Armstrong.
It took a few years for free jazz to be accepted by the jazz establishment,
that initially saw it as little more than an ephemeral novelty.
In 1964 Bill Dixon organized the "October Revolution in Jazz",
the first major festival for free jazz, held at the Cellar Cafe in Manhattan.
That could be considered the year when free jazz became a major force in jazz.
However, it was in continental Europe that free jazz was first recognized as a peak (not a bottom) in the history of jazz music. Jazz clubs in the USA still catered to an audience that was mainly looking for entertainment. When the protagonists of free jazz landed in Europe, they found an audience that was used to the avantgarde concerts of modern classical composers and had no difficulty appreciating even the boldest forms of free jazz.
John Coltrane was booed in Britain in 1961,
but the tours of
Cecil Taylor (1962),
Archie Shepp (1963),
Don Cherry (1964),
Albert Ayler (1964) and finally Ornette Coleman (1965)
in continental Europe
did much more than inspire local scenes: they gave these USA musicians the confidence that they needed.
Free jazz erupted at about the same time that the civil-rights movement
was staging its biggest demonstrations. Hard boppers such as Sonny Rollins
had already introduced heavy doses of political awareness into jazz.
Free jazz musicians rediscovered the West African roots of jazz, not in their
sound (that was, ultimately, as European as possible) but in their
identification with the sorrow and the rebellion of their ancestors.
On another level the movement for political liberation transformed into
an unrelated movement for liberating music from its dogmas.
It was as if the frustrated energy of the political liberation movement
transferred into the unbound energy of the musical liberation movement.
In a way, free jazz was the equivalent of the Italian Renaissance for black
musicians of the USA.
Free jazz was about the Artist not the conventions. The Artist was entitled
to ignore the conventions of tempo, tonality and consonance.
The Artist was free to use multiple tempi, to have no tonal center and to
use "notes" that did not belong to the classical scale.
Each musician set up her or his own rules within anarchic framework, based
not on the prevailing artistic dogma but on the emotions that she or he
wanted to express.
Swing was a music of drums that kept the 4/4 tempo, melodies borrowed from catchy pop music, harmony that was tonal, improvisation that was restrained,
meant for partying
and performed by orchestras with the traditional division in three sections.
Bebop was a music of percussion that contributed to the timbral sound, melodies that were convoluted, harmony that bordered on the atonal,
meant for touching
and performed by small combos.
Free jazz was a music of polyrhythmic and improvising percussion, melodies that were warped and devastated, harmony that was frequently atonal,
meant for thinking
and performed by musicians pushing the limits of their instruments.
honed his skills with
Dizzy Gillespie (1949-51), with Miles Davis (1955-57) and briefly with
Thelonious Monk (1957),
refining a huge, vigorous, searing tone that competed with Sonny Rollins'.
A drug addict, his career was far from linear. He debuted as a leader with
Coltrane (1957), accompanied by trumpet, baritone saxophone, piano, bass, drums.
Blue Train (september 1957), accompanied by trumpet (Lee Morgan), trombone (Chris Fuller), piano (Kenny Drew), bass and drums (Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones), was a confused collection, ranging from romantic ballads to hard bop.
Four out of the five lengthy tracks were Coltrane originals:
Blue Train, Moment's Notice, Locomotion and Lazy Bird.
Equally uneven was Soultrane (february 1958), for a quartet with Chambers, Red Garland on piano and Art Taylor on drums, that had no Coltrane originals at all.
That was to change soon, perhaps under the influence of the album that Coltrane
was cutting with Miles Davis: Kind of Blue.
The original compositions of
Giant Steps (may 1959) stemmed from the same melodic gift, but their varying
intensity depicted the transition in progress:
Giant Steps (famous for its impossible chord changes), Syeeda's Song Flute, Mr P.C.,
Spiral and Cousin Mary featured a quartet with Chambers, Jones and pianist Tommy Flanagan,
while the last track, Naima (recorded in december),
featured pianist Wynton Kelly, Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb,
i.e. the line-up of Kind of Blue minus Davis.
And Coltrane's mission was in a sense a continuation of Davis' mission:
create an art made of poignant solos; except that Coltrane's were the antithesis
of Davis' solos, being a torrential, seismic, volcanic outpour of emotion ("sheets of sound").
Coltrane learned from Monk as much as from Davis, though. The subtlety of the
pianist permeated his acrobatic multiphonics and his breakneck variations.
Coltrane Jazz (october 1960) was mostly recorded by the same line-up of
Giant Steps, but included several covers and was vastly inferior.
John Coltrane also collaborated with trumpeter Don Cherry on The Avant-Garde (1960), the result of a session with white bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell. The title was prophetic, but the music was still acerbic, although
more faithful to Davis' modal dogma.
By further increasing the role of the solo, and alternating between
chord-based and mode-based improvisation,
My Favorite Things (october 1960), recorded with a quartet that featured pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, inaugurated his brand of
(a 13-minute "modal" version of Rodgers' My Favorite Things,
an eleven-minute version of Gershwin's Summertime,
a nine-minute version of Gershwin's But Not for Me).
Africa Brass (june 1961) was a detour of sorts: three lengthy jams, arranged
by Eric Dolphy, for a much larger ensemble
(Coltrane's 16-minute Africa, a 10-minute version of the traditional
Greensleeves, Coltrane's seven-minute Blues Minor).
Subsequent recordings continued the progression towards a more uncompromising
rejection of structure.
Ole (may 1961), recorded two days after Africa Brass by a subset of
that ensemble (Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on flute and alto,
McCoy Tyner on piano, Art Davis and Reggie Workman on bass,
Elvin Jones on drums), was a festival of creative solos, not just Coltrane's
but everybody's. The 18-minute Ole and the eleven-minute
Dahomey Dance were the tours de force, but Tyner's Aisha
acted as the emotional center of mass.
Live at the Village Vanguard (november 1961), in quintet with Dolphy, Tyner, Workman and Jones, was the crowning achievement of this period, particularly the two
colossal improvisations: the 16-minute Chasin' the Trane and the
That feat was repeated on the two centerpieces of Impressions (november 1961),
Impressions and India, performed by Coltrane, Dolphy, Tyner, Workman, second bassist Jimmy Garrison and Jones.
After a terrible collection of Ballads (1962), and a transitional
Live At Birdland (1963) with Tyner, Garrison and Jones (impeccable
interpretations but no revolution),
Coltrane's quartet (this time Tyner, Jones and Garrison)
delivered the goods on the five Coltrane compositions of Crescent (june 1964),
including Crescent, Wise One, Lonnie's Lament and
The Drum Thing.
It was the prelude to Coltrane's masterpiece, and perhaps the masterpiece
of the entire history of jazz music:
A Love Supreme (december 1964). Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison and Jones concocted
a multi-ethnic stew (African nationalism, Indian spirituality, western
rationality) cast in the format of a four-movement mass.
Coltrane continued to push the boundaries with
Ascension (june 1965), a free-form improvisation
(although not as "free" as Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz)
large ensemble that boasted three tenor saxophonists
(Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp besides Coltrane), two alto saxophonists
(Marion Brown, John Tchicai), two trumpeters (Freddie Hubbard, Dewey Johnson),
two bassists (Art Davis, Jimmy Garrison), McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums.
The horns improvise together in Albert Ayler's manner: an exaggerated, manic timbral orgy.
This continuous 40-minute stream of consciousness was a cathartic work,
a work of both freedom and subversion, affirming the artist's shamanic power
while carrying out the exorcism from his sociopolitical frustration.
Sun Ship (august 1965), the last album with the classic quartet,
emulated the religious ecstasy of Ascension with Amen, Attaining and Ascent.
Om (october 1965), was Ascension's little brother, a 28-minute excursus featuring flute and bass clarinet plus the usual cohorts (Sanders, Tyner, Garrison, Jones).
The experiment continued, albeit with less tumult, on Kulu Se Mama (october 1965), particularly the side-long jam Kulu Se Mama with Sanders, a vocalist, a bass clarinetist and an enhanced rhythm section.
Compared with the cacophony of Om and Kulu Se Mama, the five Meditations (november 1965) with Sanders, Tyner, Garrison, Jones and second drummer Rashied Ali were more disciplined and somewhat rational (particularly The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, Love and Consequences).
Several material of the time surfaced only years later:
Transition and the 21-minute Suite, off Transition (june 1965), released in 1970, with Tyner, Garrison and Jones;
Peace On Earth and Leo, off Infinity (february 1966), released in 1972, with Sanders, Rashied Ali on drums, Alice Coltrane on keyboards and posthumous string arrangements by Alice Coltrane;
Manifestation and Reverend King, off
Cosmic Music (february 1966), released in 1968, again with
Sanders, keyboardist Alice Coltrane, Ali and Garrison;
To Be, off Expression (march 1967), another mesmerizing dialogue between Coltrane and Sanders assisted by Alice Coltrane, Ali and Garrison.
Interstellar Space (february 1967), released in 1974, consists of four
"cosmic" duets between John Coltrane and Rashied Ali
(Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn).
To the last day, Coltrane's range of experiments was unbound. His career was
an impressive catalog of liberating techniques.
Coltrane introduced elements of Indian philosophy (if not music) into jazz,
as well as a much stronger and deeper spiritual dimension.
Coltrane died in 1967, at the age of 40.
Like Beethoven in classical music and Jimi Hendrix in rock music, he was so
influential that very few musicians tried to imitate him.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
Coltrane's intuition of a "free jazz" was further codified
by a more rational brain, Ornette Coleman.
Texas-born alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930) lived at least four lives.
In the first one he was a humble rhythm'n'blues saxophonist who eventually
relocated to Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, he had already developed a provocative jazz aesthetic and he
was able to demonstrate it on Something Else (march 1958), featuring
a quintet with trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne
and pianist Walter Norris.
While drenched in the blues (the seven-minute Jayne,
had no tonal center, sounding literally "out of tune" (Invisible)
or chaotic (The Sphinx).
Coleman was grafting a free style of improvising (not based on chord sequences
but on melodic fragments) onto the steady beat of bebop.
Coleman toyed with melodic snippets (some of them very cliched) to the extent of approaching the psychoanalytical process of free association or the surrealist praxis of reconstructing the collective subconscious.
They were further distorted by his chronic inability to follow the 12-bar or 16-bar standards of the jazz song.
The sharpest observers, such as cool-jazz pioneer John Lewis, realized that Coleman was coining a new kind of music, more similar to James Joyce's "stream of consciousness" than to
Louis Armstrong's entertainment via variations on a familiar melody.
After moving to the East Coast with Don Cherry,
Coleman took New York's burgeoning avantgarde scene by storm with a completely
revolutionary form of music, that might as well have been invented by a
classical or rock musician, so little it shared with jazz (other than the
general principle that improvisation matters).
Tomorrow Is The Question (march 1959), for a quartet with Don Cherry,
bassist Percy Heath and drummer Shelly Manne, contained pieces such as
Lorraine (the archetype of his slow ballads),
Endless, Rejoicing, Giggin' (with a celebrated Cherry solo) and the eight-minute Turnabout
that were emblematic of Coleman's wizardry at revolutionizing the traditional
roles of musical elements.
Coleman's compositions on
The Shape of Jazz to Come (may 1959), for a quartet with white double bassist Charlie Haden, Don Cherry (on pocket trumpet) and Higgins,
such as the funereal ballad Lonely Woman, Congeniality and the nine-minute Peace
were even more notable for the way they messed with structure without losing
an immediate appeal.
In fact they sounded as catchy as anything done by pop singers.
The idea was to make every member of the band a soloist equal to the others
and to free the improvisation from musical constraints: basically, each
individual was only bound to the mood of the other individuals, not to
the technical aspects of the music that they were playing.
Thus, for example, drums and bass hardly provided a true rhythm section.
There was no piano to provide a chordal foundation.
The music was more steeped in blues music than it appeared to be, but inevitably
the method led to convoluted dynamics and countless detours that made it sound
totally alien to the tradition of jazz (or any other form of music).
By the same token, there was more tonal and chordal discipline than advertised,
but Coleman's detours were so abrupt and profound that the detours
(the process of instant composition) seemed to be the norm of his
music. Even when they lasted only a few seconds, they could
encompass dramatic explorations of microtones and pitches.
Far from being mere theory, the whole irreverent apparatus of Coleman's
techniques was about pathos. His own playing resembled more the contemporary
style of theatrical recitation, with its sudden emotional outbursts, more than
the traditional "narrative" styles of blues and jazz music.
Coleman was a bold and extravagant (and prolific) composer but he actually composed for only one instrument, and in a rather instinctive way: inventing the polyphony was largely left to the other players.
Coleman, Cherry, Higgins and Haden continued their mission on
Change of the Century (october 1960), via the
relatively melodic Ramblin' and the
chaotic Free and Change of the Century,
on This Is Our Music (august 1960), with Ed Blackwell replacing Higgins
on drums, containing the pretty Kaleidoscope and Folk Tale, the
violent Blues Connotation and the eerie seven-minute Beauty Is a Rare Thing.
Coleman's revolution climaxed with
Free Jazz (december 1960), that contained a 37-minute collective improvisation (the longest jazz piece yet) for two reed/brass/bass/drums quartets:
Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Higgins; bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Scott LaFaro and Blackwell.
And the recording was no less important
than the scoring: it took full advantage of stereophony, placing each
quartet in one of the stereo channels.
Again, his music was less revolutionary than it appeared to be: after all,
Coleman's "free jazz" was largely composed, and the melodic elements (far
from being inexistent) drew on bebop.
It was, more appropriately, "compositional improvisation" (as Coleman himself defined it).
But it was true that the roles of harmony and melody were somewhat confused
by the loose organization of sound. That was going to remain a trademark of
Coleman's music, one of the few constants of his career.
Coleman's "free jazz" marked a return to the kind of collective improvisation
of New Orleans' marching bands that marked the very beginning of jazz music,
but now given a shot of dramatic tension. The improvisers were supposed to
scream their angst and frustration with their instruments, the interplay simply
magnifying the sense of tragedy, in a fashion similar to expressionist theater.
Ornette (january 1961), with LaFaro on bass, contained four jams, and three were colossal: W.R.U. (16:25), C. & D. (13:10), R.P.D.D. (9:39).
Ornette On Tenor (march 1961) found him playing the tenor,
with Jimmy Garrison on bass. However, despite two lengthy jams (Cross Breeding and Mapa), it was a bit more trivial, as if Coleman was retreating
to safer terrain.
So much so that Jazz Abstractions (december 1960) contained two structured pieces, including Gunther Schuller's Abstraction for alto saxophone, string quartet, two basses, guitar, percussion
(a premonition of Coleman's "third stream" period),
and Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (Criss Cross).
The second life of Coleman ended abruptly in 1962, as if he had exhausted
the possibilities of jazz music.
After a three-year hiatus, Coleman, who now also played the trumpet and the violin, returned with
Chappaqua Suite (june 1965) in four movements for large ensemble
and jazz quartet (Coleman, Pharoah Sanders on tenor, David Izenzon on bass,
Charles Moffett on drums),
with a sax-bass-drums trio (bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett),
best documented on Trio (november 1965) and on the soundtrack of the film Who's Crazy (november 1965),
and with a trio (with Haden and his own underage son Denardo Coleman)
that recorded The Empty Foxhole (september 1966) and
Ornette at 12 (july 1968), with Bells And Chimes.
By now, free jazz was only a memory.
But this third life of Coleman was mainly devoted to extended compositions for large ensemble, that included:
Dedicated to Poets and Writers (1962) for string quartet,
Forms and Sounds for woodwind quintet (1965),
Saints and Soldiers (1967) and Space Flight (1967) for symphony orchestra,
a phase that culminated in the suite Skies of America (may 1972), originally scored for jazz ensemble and orchestra but first recorded as a concerto for orchestra (and revised in 1983). This complex work finally found a way to link
free jazz and John Cage's aleatory music.
The Artist in America was emblematic of Coleman's "harmolodic" orchestration, "based on the four clefs bass, treble, tenor and alto... to modulate in range without changing keys" (violins in the treble, violas in the alto, cellos in the tenor, basses in the bass), but also pitting two percussionists against each other on the two stereo channels (an improvising tympanist against a time-keeping drummer) and leaving room for Coleman's soaring solo.
The transition to a new phase was signaled by recordings that did not quite
fit with anything Coleman had done before.
New York Is Now (1968) and Love Call (same session), with ex-Coltrane sidemen Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones as well as tenorist Dewey Redman,
sounded like a melodic divertissment, entertaining traditionalists with
the 14-minute The Garden of Souls (on New York Is Now)
and the ten-minute Airborne (on Love Call).
Science Fiction (september 1971) introduced an explosive sound
anchored to a volcanic rhythm section (Haden, Higgins and Blackwell) that
seemed sworn to maximizing the mayhem. Coleman toyed with several different
Street Woman and Civilization Day (for the classic quartet of Haden, Higgins and Don Cherry),
Law Years and The Jungle Is a Skyscraper (for a quintet with Haden, Blackwell, Redman and trumpeter Bobby Bradford),
Rock the Clock (for septet, with Redman on an Arabic reed instrument and Haden on wah-wah bass, both Blackwell and Higgins on drums, and plus Indian vocalist Asha Puthli),
and Science Fiction (with samples of crying baby and spoken-word recitation).
A brief reunion with Don Cherry yielded one of Coleman's most heartfelt
compositions, Broken Shadows (march 1969).
During this period (1973) he also jammed with tribal musicians of Morocco on traditional instruments (plus Robert Palmer on clarinet and flute), although only four minutes of it were released three years later, titled Midnight Sunrise.
Coleman reinvented himself a fourth time in 1975, when he formed Prime Time, a quintet of alto saxophone (sometimes also violin and trumpet), two electric guitars, an electric bassist and a drummer (and later a second drummer, to create a "double quartet" of two guitars, two bassists, two drummers and his alto) devoted to a dense and loud stylistic jungle that ran the gamut from blues, funk, jazz and rock to dissonant music. Basically he entered the disco with the same nonchalance with which he had entered the avantgarde clubs 15 years earlier, and with the same determination to wreak havoc.
On one hand Coleman reacted to the increasing commercial turn that jazz-rock had taken, while on the other he was simply influenced by the ideas of a friend, guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer.
The highlight of Dancing in Your Head (december 1976) was a devastating
26-minute Theme From a Symphony, propelled by manic drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and ripped apart by the twin-guitar assault of Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix.
Body Meta (december 1976) contained five eight/nine-minute tracks that now relied on an even funkier rhythm section (Jackson and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma).
Coleman was reborn as a king of rocking and danceable music, although he
hardly indulged in the format, repeating it only on
Of Human Feelings (april 1979).
The great technical innovation of this period was a vaguely-defined "harmolodics", which basically stood for a hodgepodge of intricate polyrhythms, complex melodies and polytonal textures.
After a long hiatus, Coleman consolidated the "double quartet" line-up of Prime Time (two guitars, two basses, two drums plus Coleman on alto, trumpet and violin) for Opening the Caravan of Dreams (september 1983),
for one half of the double album In All Languages (1987), the other half being a reunion with Coleman's original quartet (Cherry, Haden, Higgins),
and for Virgin Beauty (1988).
However, Coleman remained more of a European composer than most jazz musicians
had been, as further documented by
Time Design (1983) for amplified string quartet and electric drum set,
The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin (1984) for chamber ensemble,
Notes Talking (1986) for solo mandolin,
Trinity (1986) for solo violin,
In Honor of NASA and Planetary Soloist (1986) for oboe, English horn, mukhavina and string quartet,
Coleman was also quite unique among jazz musicians of his generation because
he seldom performed as a side-man on other musicians' recordings.
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There had been experiments of "free jazz" before Coltrane and Coleman, notably
Lennie Tristano's Descent Into Maelstrom and Stan Kenton's City
Of Glass; and similar rebellions against traditional harmony were
ubiquitous among contemporary classical composers. However, Coltrane and
Coleman were black, not white. They injected into "free jazz" a different
spirit of rebellion, one that was inevitably grounded in the racial tensions
of those times. "Free" jazz happened at the same time that "freedom" was
becoming the slogan for an increasing bitter confrontation with the white
Establishment. Free jazz and the civil-rights movement grew in parallel.
Free jazz was a new kind of music, but it was also, to some extent, a
musical metaphor for the other kind of freedom, in the sociopolitical dimension.
Both white and black intellectuals got involved in the civil-rights movement,
but their musical correlates were of a wildly different nature. The musical
reaction of white intellectuals was the generation of folksingers such as
Bob Dylan, emerging mainly from the Greenwich Village of New York.
The musical reaction of black intellectuals was the generation of free-jazz
musicians who reinterpreted Coltrane's and Coleman's innovations in a
politicized context. They too were based in the Greenwich Village, and
their lofts were favorite hang-outs for white intellectuals too. Despite the
common cause and common geography, though, the two musical currents diverged
in spirit and form. White folksingers were preaching, focusing on words.
Black free-jazz musicians were not using words at all, just extreme instrumental
At the same time, free jazz represented a break with the past of black music.
While previous stylistic revolutions in jazz had been carried out by musicians
who had been raised in the previous style, free jazz was largely the outcome
of a brand new generation of musicians, with little or no ties to bebop or
cool jazz. They came out of nowhere, with a style that did not so much
attack the dogmas of the previous generation (as bebop had done) as ignore
them. The whole idea of the virtuoso player, of the improvisation on a pop
standard, of the entertainer were thrown out of the window.
In fact, free jazz was not accepted by the jazz establishment. Most jazz
musicians continued to refine their old style, ignoring and sometimes
lampooning free jazz.
The apostles of free jazz had to cope with a degree of negative feedback from
their own community that was unprecedented in black music.
Not all of them were "free" the same way, actually. "Free" jazz was a label
applied to musicians who downplayed the conventions of jazz improvisation,
i.e. the elements providing for stability during an improvisation
(the chord progressions or the tempo or the key). But little of their music
was atonal or chaotic. Many of them played ballads and blues dirges.
What they had in common was the belief that jazz music could and should explore
a broader range of sounds and of combinations of sounds. Often those premises
were a pretext for high-energy collective improvisations rather than for
a truly self-consistent aesthetic.
(Thus the decline of the piano, an instrument that was perceived to be unfit
for wild improvisation).
Despite its obvious contrast with the hard-bop, the bebop and the cool jazz
that preceded it, free-jazz actually continued the same trend away from
the melodic and rhythmic art of the progenitors and towards a more and more
"Free" jazz was, ultimately, more the name of an era, a movement and a mood
than the name of a specific technique.
Los Angeles-born flutist, alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist
equally influenced by bebop and by classical music, was trained at the
schools of Chico Hamilton (1959), Charles Mingus (1959),
Ornette Coleman (1960), John Coltrane (1961) and Gunther Schuller (1962-63).
His early recordings as a leader contained relatively simple bebop workouts,
often on material of his own composition, whose main purpose was to display
his style at the various instruments:
Outward Bound (april 1960), featuring trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Jaki Byard, bassist George Tucker and drummer Roy Haynes, and containing
Dolphy's own G.W.;
Here and There (april 1960), recorded on the same day but with only Byard, Tucker and Haynes, that contains Dolphy's April's Fool;
and Out There (august 1960), featuring
cellist Ron Carter, bassist George Duvivier and drummer Roy Haynes, and
highlighted by his Out There and Serene.
Far Cry (december 1960) upped the ante considerably:
trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Byard, Carter on bass and Haynes on drums
formed a cohesive unit that did more than just support the leader.
Byard's eight-minute Mrs Parker of K.C. and nine-minute Ode to Charlie Parker provided the ideal platform, and
Dolphy debuted his Far Cry and Miss Ann.
There were signs that Dolphy was not just playing around with his talent.
Several recordings of the era were futuristic:
Triple Mix (november 1960), a duet between bassist Carter and Dolphy on alto and flute,
eventually released on Naima;
the 11-minute Improvisations and Turkas (july 1960) for flute, tabla and tamboura,
the solo flute improvisations of Inner Flight 1 and 2 (july 1960),
the bass-saxophone duet of Dolphy'n (july 1960),
all three eventually released on Other Aspects.
Dolphy had been incorporating weird sounds, bordering on noise, into his
vocabulary, and emphasized odd time signatures and wide intervals.
What had been mere eccentricities were becoming a full-blown language.
Dolphy, who had been playing avantgarde music with Mingus, Coleman and Coltrane
while playing more conventional music on his own albums, was ready to fully
embrace the avantgarde, and did so on two albums recorded on the same day.
Conversations (july 1963) featured a cover of Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz with trumpeter Woody Shaw and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson,
a three-minute solo saxophone piece, and the 13-minute clarinet-bass duet on
the theme of Arthur Schwartz's Alone Together.
Iron Man (july 1963) was even better, highlighted by two lengthy Dolphy
originals featuring Shaw and Hutcherson:
Iron Man (nine minutes) and Burning Spear (twelve minutes).
The latter in particular (scored for trumpet, four woodwinds, vibraphone, two basses and drums) showed the difference between the pupil and the master: Dolphy's sense of ambience and balance versus Coleman's explosions of sound).
Dolphy had reached his maturity, and his satori was
Out to Lunch (february 1964), recorded with Hutcherson,
trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Tony Williams.
This masterpiece of dissonant free-jazz sounded remarkably organic and
structured, thanks in part to Dolphy's compositional skills on the five
Hat and Beard,
Something Sweet Something Tender,
the flute piece Gazzelloni,
the 12-minute Out To Lunch,
Straight Up and Down.
Those compositional skills were also on display in
the 15-minute Jim Crow (march 1964), off Other Aspects.
Dolphy created music by twisting every feature of sound, as if a random
process were at work, while in reality a deep logic connected all the pieces.
Few founding fathers of free-jazz were so blessed as composers, a fact
that was a contradiction in terms, but that it might have led to a further
revolution in jazz.
Unfortunately, Dolphy died a few months later at 36.
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In the midst of the blossoming of the free-jazz scene, pianist
probably represented better than anyone else the non-jazz aspect of the
Many of the innovations of the 1960s were pioneered by his records.
His fusion of exuberance and atonality was particularly influential.
A graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music (1951-1955), where he had studied contemporary classical music, Taylor developed a radical improvising
style at the piano that indulged in tone clusters, percussive attacks and
irregular polyrhythmic patterns, a very "physical" style that required a manic
energy during lengthy and frenzied performances,
a somewhat "cacophonous" style that relished both atonal and tonal passages.
The dynamic range of his improvisations was virtually infinite.
His maturation took place via Charge 'Em Blues, off Jazz Advance (december 1955), for his first quartet, featuring white soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles,
the convoluted, tonally ambiguous Tune 2 off At Newport (july 1956) for the same quartet,
Toll (the blueprint for many of his classics),
Of What and Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, off Looking Ahead (june 1958), with Lacy replaced by vibraphonist Earl Griffith,
Little Lees and Matie's Trophies, off Love for Sale (april 1959), with trumpeter Ted Curson, saxophonist Bill Barron and the usual rhythm section,
Air and E.B., off The World of Cecil Taylor (october 1960),
featuring Archie Shepp on tenor saxophone and the same rhythm section,
the abstract Cell Walk For Celeste, off New York City R&B (january 1961), also for the quartet of Taylor, Shepp, Charles and Neidlinger (to whom the album was credited),
Mixed, off Gil Evans' Into The Hot (october 1961), featuring the brand new line-up of altoist Jimmy Lyons, tenorist Archie Shepp, bassist Henry Grimes, drummer Sunny Murray, trumpeter Ted Curson and trombonist Roswell Rudd.
These albums were still anchored to the song format and wasted time on other people's material when Taylor's own compositions were so much superior; but
occasionally the pianist and his cohorts launched into strident, torrential
jamming that obliterated the history of jazz.
Taylor's group was much bolder in their live performances, when they indulged in lengthy improvisations in front of an audience that still thought of jazz as light entertainment.
Taylor's compositions at their best were wildly irregular and casually nonchalant at the same time. They were bold contradictions. Sometimes dramatic and sometimes sarcastic, they straddled the line between being and not being.
At the same time, pieces such as Tune 2, Toll, Air, Cell Walk For Celeste and Mixed displayed the formalist concern typical of classical music.
Taylor's first major statement came with the live trio performances of
Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come (november 1962), featuring
Jimmy Lyons on alto and Sunny Murray on drums (the Unit), two ideal complements for
Taylor's explosive style. These lengthy and complex jams,
Trance, Lena, Nefertiti The Beautiful One Has Come and the 21-minute colossus D Trad That's What,
were as uncompromising as Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (1960) and
John Coltrane's Impressions (1961).
In fact, they were so uncompromising that very few people listened to them.
It took three years for Taylor to release another album, and it presented
a larger ensemble and an even wilder sound, as violent as garage-rock,
bordering on hysteria: Unit Structures (may 1966) featured (mostly) a septet with Lyons, Eddie Gale Stevens on trumpet, Ken McIntyre on alto sax, oboe and bass clarinet, two bassists (Henry Grimes and Alan Silva) and Andrew Cyrille on drums.
These pieces (or, better, "structures") were conceived as sequences of polyphonic events rather than, say, series of variations on a theme.
Nonetheless, Unit Structure, Enter Evening and Steps were
highly structured compositions, and therein lied Taylor's uniqueness:
his "free jazz" was also "free" of the melodrama that permeated Coltrane's and
Coleman's music. Despite all the furor, Taylor's music always sounded firmly
under the control of a cold intelligence.
Cyrille's drumming was less abstract than Murray, more integrated with the other players, but Silva now played the "decorative" role that Murray used to play.
The sextet of Conquistador (october 1966), featuring Bill Dixon on trumpet, Lyons, and the same three-piece rhythm section, pushed the experiment to its limits in two shockingly abrasive and expressionistic side-long jams, Conquistador and With. Their sheer size challenged the balance between disintegration and integration, looseness and cohesiveness, that constituted the soul of the previous "structures". The flow of enigmatic sounds had become a puzzle to be reconstructed.
A quartet of Taylor, Lyons, Silva and Cyrille recorded Student Studies: (november 1966), containing the 27-minute Student Studies, the 20-minute Amplitude and the 12-minute Niggle Feuigle, that stepped back a bit from the edge, emphasizing the structure behind the chaos, the "jazz" soul hidden under the apparently dissolute dissonance.
However, Taylor's music was still under-appreciated and he had to spend the
next seven years virtually in exile.
During this period Taylor composed/improvised some of his most daring music:
the four-movement Praxis (july 1968) for solo piano, released in 1982,
the six-movement Second Act Of A (july 1969), for a quartet with Lyons, Cyrille and soprano saxophonist Sam Rivers,
the three-movement Indent (march 1973) for solo piano, released on Mysteries,
the 81-minute Bulu Akisakila Kutala (may 1973) for a trio with Lyons and Cyrille, released on Akisakila (1973).
Solo (May 1973), his first collection of solo-piano pieces, presented Taylor's "layering" technique in its most sophisticated version. The organized improvisations of Choral of Voice, Lono, Asapk in Ame and especially Indent were emblematic of the process of cooperation and competition of events operating at different levels.
Spring of Two Blue J's (november 1973) contained two versions of the piece, one solo and one for a quartet with Lyons, Cyrille and bassist Sirone. The solo version delivered his most emotional outpour yet.
This period culminated in the five loud and noisy movements of the live solo-piano suite Silent Tongues (july 1974): Abyss, Petals & Filaments (combined into one 18-minute track), Jitney (18 minutes), Crossing (18 minutes divided into two tracks) and After all (ten minutes).
This album was a compendium of Taylor's aesthetic, secreting an unlikely synthesis of the irrational and the rational that had been the contradicting pillars of his music. Its range of moods defied the laws of psychoanalysis.
The sound was emblematic of his brilliant exuberance but was soon surpassed
in intensity by at least two (clearly much more improvised) performances:
the 62-minute Streams and Chorus of Seed (june 1976), released on Dark To Themselves, for a quintet with Lyons, trumpeter Raphe Malik, drummer Marc Edwards and tenor saxophonist David Ware,
and the 76-minute solo-piano Air Above Mountains (august 1976).
Here the music was meant to exhaust the performer, to last until it had drained every gram of psychological and physical energy out of the performer.
But these live juggernauts also marked the end of the "underground" period
and the beginning of a three-year artistic bonanza.
A sextet of Taylor, Lyons, trumpeter Raphe Malik, violinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Norris "Sirone" Jones and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson delivered the
more structured and variegated jams of Cecil Taylor Unit (april 1978): the 14-minute Idut, the 14-minute Serdab, the 30-minute Holiday En Masque,
and the 57-minute 3 Phasis (april 1978).
A similar sextet with Lyons, Ameen, Alan Silva on bass and cello and both Jerome Cooper and Sunny Murray on drums, recorded the 69-minute Is it the Brewing Luminous (february 1980).
Despite the monumental proportions, this music was less magniloquent and
less mysterious than the music of the 1960s.
Starting with the quartet effort Calling it the 8th (november 1981), featuring
Lyons, bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr (all of them doubling on voice),
and the solo Garden (november 1981), Taylor increased the production values to emphasize the nuances of his playing, adopted a jazzier style and added his poetry to the music (not a welcomed addition).
A new prolific phase of his career yielded recordings for ensemble, such as
Winged Serpent (october 1984) and
the 48-minute Legba Crossing (july 1988);
for solo piano, such as For Olim (april 1986), containing the 18-minute title-track, the 71-minute title-track of Erzulie Maketh Scent (july 1988) and the 72-minute The Tree of Life (march 1991), perhaps the most austere of his life;
and for small groups, such as Olu Iwa (april 1986), containing the 48-minute B Ee Ba Nganga Ban'a Eee for piano, trombone, tenor sax and rhythm section, and the 27-minute Olu Iwa for piano and rhythm section, the precursor of his many piano and drums duets, as well as
the 61-minute The Hearth (june 1988), for a trio with saxophonist Evan Parker and cellist Tristan Honsinger, and
Looking (november 1989) and Celebrated Blazons (june 1990) for the trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley.
The best fusion of his visceral and romantic sides was perhaps achieved on Always A Pleasure (april 1993), a live workshop (Longineu Parsons on trumpet, Harri Sjoestroem on soprano sax, Charles Gayle on tenor sax, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Sirone on bass, Rashid Bakr on drums).
Taylor represented everything that Coleman stood against: he had studied
composition (Coleman was illiterate) and he was inspired by atonal music
(Coleman harked back to older black music). Coleman approached dance music
from the viewpoint of the disco. Taylor's music was frequently compared (by
himself) to classical ballet. Even the mood was opposite: Taylor's music was
an atomic bomb compared to Coleman's passion.
Of all the protagonists of free jazz, Ohio-born tenor saxophonist
Albert Ayler had the shortest career (he first recorded in 1962 and committed
suicide in 1970 at 34),
but he nonetheless managed to articulate one of the most radical aesthetics,
second only to Cecil Taylor's. He often sounded like someone who wanted to
create a virtuoso art out of anti-virtuoso playing.
Ayler started out playing rhythm'n'blues. By the time he landed in New York,
he had developed his idiosyncratic style
(notably via an unrecorded European experience with Cecil Taylor in 1962).
A quartet with
trumpeter Norman Howard, drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Henry Grimes
recorded Spirits/ Witches and Devils (february 1964),
that contains four lengthy pieces: Spirits, the twelve-minute Witches and Devils, the eleven-minute Holy Holy and Saints.
Each of them sounded like it was coming from a distant past, from a remembered
childhood, as it incorporated simple, naive, catchy melodies.
The performance was ferocious, though, as if Ayler wanted to contrast innocence
and experience, or European order and African disorder.
The live Prophecy (june 1964) introduced his trio with
double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, and added
Ghosts (his most famous theme), Wizard and Prophecy to his esoteric canon.
That trio was responsible for one of the most revolutionary recordings of the
era, Spiritual Unity (july 1964), the (brief) album that made it
Ayler was not interested in creating music out of notes but out of timbres,
how his music was not a harmonic construction but a "soundscape".
These new versions of Ghosts, Spirits and Wizard
were delivered according to an apparently demented logic that mixed melodies
inspired by folk tunes and nursery rhymes with emotional bursts of saxophone
noises simulating the human voice.
Murray's percussions (more cymbals than drums) had little to do with keeping
the time: they produced a flow of disorienting noises that intersected and
amplified Ayler's saxophone noises.
By now, Ayler had refined his melodramatic vibrato.
The "free" approach permeated the two side-long improvisations of
New York Eye And Ear Control (july 1964),
AY and ITT,
with the trio augmented with trumpeter Don Cherry on cornet,
Roswell Rudd on trombone and John Tchicai on alto, although the result was
far less tight than on Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (1960), proving
that Ayler was a different spirit from the free-jazz crowd.
The trio and Don Cherry returned to a humbler format with
Vibrations/ Ghosts (september 1964), that
added Children (actually just a fast variant of Holy Holy),
the moving ballad Holy Spirit (with a spectacular Cherry solo),
Vibrations and Mothers to the canon,
and The Hilversum Session (november 1964), that introduced
Angels in a tense mid-tempo version.
Donald Ayler replaced Don Cherry for
the one-sided LP Bells (may 1965), containing just one 20-minute track
(fundamentally a madcap medley of marches and nursery rhymes)
also featuring altoist Charles Tyler and bassist Lewis Worrell besides Sunny
Spirits Rejoice (september 1965), particularly its title-track
(performed by Donald Ayler, Sunny Murray, altoist Charles Tyler, bassists Henry Grimes and Gary Peacock), marked a transition towards a more religious mood and a regression towards the collective improvisation of New Orleans' brass bands.
Spirits Rejoice basically revisited the format of Bells in a
more organic and structured way, picking up along the way an impressive amount
of debris of musical stereotypes.
Holy Ghost (july 1967) documents a live performance with Don Ayler on trumpet, Michel Sampson on violin, Bill Folwell on bass and Milford Graves on drums (particularly Truth Is Marching In/Omega and Our Prayer).
Ayler considerably toned down his music on In Greenwich Village (december 1966) and Love Cry (august 1967), and eventually returned to his rhythm'n'blues roots.
After some kind of hippie-like spiritual crisis,
Ayler turned to jazz-rock, soul and funk music, adding lyrics by a vocal singer,
notably on Music Is The Healing Force of the Universe (august 1969).
By employing a virtually unlimited repertory of tricks and a rich vibrato,
Ayler expanded the vocabulary of the saxophone, but, most importantly, he did
so while staging a multi-dimensional regression to a simpler age of music
(whether the catchy folkish melodies or the military tempos or the
collective improvisation of the marching bands).
Ayler seemed to fuse the musical background of the pre-industrial society
with an impulse towards the expressionistic cacophony of the industrial society.
At the same time, his saxophone often seemed to intone shamanic invocations
except to derail into frenzied explosions of vitality.
Underlying all these contradictions was Ayler's exploration of sound for
the sake of sound, that accounted for a completely new idea of music,
away from the pillars of harmony, melody and rhythm. That was, ultimately,
an exploration of the human psyche. Thus, at several levels of introspection
and metaphor, Ayler's art was a mirror of society.
Ayler's was the music of the collective unconscious.
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One of the towering figures of 20th century's music, Alabama-born pianist
and organist Herman "Sun Ra" Blount became the
cosmic musician par excellence.
Despite dressing in extraterrestrial costumes (but inspired by the pharaohs of
ancient Egypt) and despite living inside a self-crafted
sci-fi mythology (he always maintained that he was from Saturn, and no
biographer conclusively proved his birth date)
and despite littering his music with lyrics inspired to a self-penned spiritual philosophy (he never engaged in sexual relationships apparently because he considered himself an angel), Sun Ra
created one of the most original styles of music thanks to a chronic
disrespect for both established dogmas and trendy movements.
A pianist and arranger for Fletcher Henderson's band when he moved to Chicago
in 1946, Sun Ra started his own big band in the old-fashioned swing style in
The influence of Duke Ellington (that would remain throughout
his career) and Thelonious Monk
were the only discernible links to the rest of the human race.
The Arkestra, as it came to be known, relied on its three colorful saxophonists:
tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (from 1953),
alto saxophonist Marshall Allen (1954),
and baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick (1954). The rest was filled by a rotating
case of musicians, whose main role was to bring as much "color" as possible
to the music, particularly any number of percussionists with prominent tympani (but the other players too usually took shifts at playing one or more percussion instruments besides their own).
Their albums were eccentric tonal excursions:
Supersonic Jazz/ Supersonic Sounds (october 1956), with India, the two-part Sunology, Kingdom of Not and the first version of Blues at Midnight,
Sun Song/ Jazz (july 1956), with two trumpeters and trombonist Julian Priester, and containing Call For All Demons and their theme song New Horizons,
Sound Of Joy (november 1957), not released until 1968, with Ankh, Reflections in Blue and Saturn,
Jazz in Silhouette (1958), with the first extended pieces, notably Ancient Aethiopia and Blues at Midnight, besides Velvet,
Lady with the Golden Stockings/ The Nubians of Plutonia (1959), not released until 1966, with the extended percussive orgies Lady With the Golden Stockings and Nubia,
Rocket Number Nine/ Interstellar Low Ways (1960), not released until 1965, with the extended Interstellar Low Ways and Rocket Number Nine Take off for the Planet Venus,
Fate In a Pleasant Mood (june 1960), released in 1965, with the mature percussion-driven sound of Space Mates and Kingdom of Thunder.
But most of the pieces were still short bop divertissments.
A chromatic fixation led Sun Ra to employ all sorts of instruments (including early electronic keyboards), a fact that made him, de facto, one of the most
creative arrangers in the history of jazz music.
The Arkestra, reduced in size, relocated to New York in 1961 and Sun Ra came to be associated with the free-jazz scene, although Sun Ra had already pioneered free jazz in Chicago.
The first New York albums marked a step backwards. Very few pieces continued the trend towards a percussion-dominated harmony:
Beginning on Futuristic Sounds/ We Are The Future (october 1961),
Exotic Two on Bad and Beautiful (december 1961), released in 1972,
Kosmos in Blue and Infinity of the Universe on Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (1962), released in 1965,
Love in Outer Space on Secrets of the Sun (1962), released in 1965, that also included the proto-psychedelic Solar Differentials and Solar Symbols.
Having created his own record company, Sun Ra was now free to record
anything that happened to please him. And he did not hesitate to take up
Ornette Coleman's challenge with:
Calling Planet Earth on When Sun Comes Out (1963),
the ten-minute Ecstasy of Being and the 18-minute Next Stop Mars on When Angels Speak of Love (1963), released in 1966,
Adventure-Equation and Voice Of Space on Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (1963), released in 1967,
an album that exuded a psychedelic feeling, three years before the psychedelic explosion.
His albums became more irrational and experimental.
Other Planes of There (1964) contained the 22-minute Other Planes of There, highlighted by the interplay among John Gilmore's tenor sax, Marshall Allen's oboe and Danny Davis' alto sax.
Strange Strings (1966) contained two side-long jams, the bacchanal
Strange Strings and the reverb-heavy Worlds Approaching (another parade of creative solos by the wind instruments and the electric piano).
That was still accessible compared with Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold (june 1964), released in 1976, whose The Voice of Pan and Dawn Over Israel were childish orgies of random sounds.
Heliocentric Worlds Vol 1 (april 1965) was a minor work, that contained the hypnotic timpani-obsessed Outer Nothingness and The Cosmos.
But the unrelated Heliocentric Worlds Vol 2/ Sun Myth (november 1965) was a colossal undertaking of space jazz, via the 17-minute abstract soundscape of The Sun Myth, the 14-minute satanic crescendo of Cosmic Chaos, and A House of Beauty, that belonged more to chamber music than to free jazz.
The crowning achievement of this period was The Magic City (september 1965), particularly the 27-minute suite The Magic City for a large ensemble of keyboards, trumpet, trombone, alto, tenor, baritone, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass and percussions, but also the shorter maelstrom of The Shadow World.
The end of the Sixties found Sun Ra in a more eccentric mode than ever,
as documented by the live albums Nothing Is/ Dancing Shadows (may 1966) and Pictures Of Infinity (1968),
by the solo-piano collection Monorails and Satellites (1966)
and the solo-keyboard collection The Solar Myth Approach Vol 2 (1971),
by the electronic and dissonant experiments of The Solar Myth Approach Vol 1 (1970).
Years of toying with new instruments and combinations of instruments led to
the new masterpieces:
the epic 22-minute Atlantis on Atlantis (1967),
the four tracks of Outer Spaceways Incorporated (1968), released in 1974,
Continuation To on Continuation (1968),
the electronic The Code of Interdependence on My Brother the Wind (1970)
the synthesizer solo Space Probe (1970).
The Arkestra moved to Philadelphia in 1970, but the lengthy, madcap jams simply became more insane:
Nidhamu (december 1971),
the 18-minute Cosmo Fire (may 1972),
the 21-minute chant Space Is The Place (october 1972),
the 24-minute chant Discipline 27-II (october 1972),
Pathways to Unknown Worlds (1973),
the free-form Cosmo-Earth Fantasy (september 1974),
The Soul Vibrations of Man (november 1977),
Disco 3000 (january 1978).
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Trumpeter Bill Dixon was more influential as an organizer (he conceived the first free-jazz festival, "October Revolution in Jazz", in 1964) than as a musician, but was actually one of the greatest musicians of free jazz, albeit a voluntary exile from the music industry.
His first association was with the young saxophonist Archie Shepp.
They formed a quartet that recorded the Coleman-inspired
Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet (october 1962), half of which was
taken up by free improvisations titled Trio and Quartet and
credited to Dixon.
The album by Archie Shepp's New York Contemporary Five, known as
Consequences (november 1963), was actually a split with Dixon's septet
(february 1964) that performed two Dixon compositions, The 12th December and
Winter Song 1964, of a rather different kind, mellow and restrained.
His next association was with Cecil Taylor, playing on his
Conquistador (october 1966).
Dixon's first album, Intents And Purposes (1967), released when he was already 42, included two lengthy workouts, the five-movement Metamorphoses 1962-1966 (october 1966) for a tentet (trumpet, trombone, alto, clarinet, English horn, cello, two basses, drums and percussion) and Voices (january 1967) for a quintet (trumpet, clarinet, cello, bass and drums).
Both works displayed Dixon's pensive, lyrical style that sounded like pure poetry among all the intensity of free jazz. Instead of using the music as a weapon, Dixon (who was also a painter) used it to create vast canvasses of organized sounds, using space and silence in a way that predated Chicago's "creative" school, and often caressing the atmosphere with haunting bass lines.
A truly underground musician, most of his recordings of the 1970s appeared only in the 1980s. For example, Considerations (1980) included four extended compositions: Orchestra Piece (january 1972), Sequences (january 1972) for a quintet (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, bass and drums), Pages
for a trumpet-saxophone-drums trio
(part of a longer work titled Pages As in Pages in a Book),
Places And Things (september 1976) for a trio of trumpet, saxophone and bass
(part of a much longer work titled Autumn Sequences from a Paris Diary).
Collection (1985) contained the three-part I See Your Fancy Foot Work (january 1973).
1982 contained two sets of solo pieces (from 1970 and 1973).
Opium (august 1976) contained the side-long For Franz performed
by a quintet with two trumpets, tenor saxophone, bass and percussion.
In Italy (june 1980) presented four of his more austere pieces
performed by a sextet with three trumpets and tenor saxophone:
For Cecil Taylor,
A quartet with two trumpets recorded another set of intense jams for
November 1981 (november 1981):
Thoughts (may 1985) for septet, with Thoughts and the four-part
suite For Nelson and Winnie, and
Son Of Sysiphus (june 1988) for quartet were transitional works, but
the double-CD Vade Mecum (august 1993) was again a mesmerizing collection,
a quartet with bassists Barry Guy and William Parker and British drummer Tony Oxley
crafting majestic existential moods through lengthy meditations such as
Viale Nino Bixio 20,
Twice Upon A Time,
Dixon planned the narrative plot of each piece and set the constraints
that the players had to obey. His own trumpet was a magical device, that
attained great emotional intensity with a trickle of notes. Melodies were
hinted at, rhythms disappeared in rhythmic vacuums, harmonies disintegrated
as they were created. The low-key sounds made everything sound oneiric
Another two-CD set, Vade Mecum II (august 1993), delivered the rest of those sessions,
Both were monumental works, worthy of Cecil Taylor's and Charles Mingus'
most highbrow experiments.
The live The Enchanted Messenger (november 1994) featured the Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra and Dixon in an extended improvisation of nineteen "sections".
The two volumes of Papyrus (june 1998) contained duets with Oxley, with
many among his most poignant motifs:
Indirizzo Via Cimarose Sei,
The trumpet was more subliminal than a voice, and sometimes felt like a
supernatural force sending cryptic and ambiguous, but celestial, messages
to the human mind.
Dixon also played piano, notably in Cinnamon, and overdubbed a second
trumpet, notably in Four-VI-1998.
Dixon and Oxley were joined by two double bassists on
Berlin Abbozzi (november 1999), that contained three colossal
jams: the 21-minute Currents, the 40-minute Open Quiet / The Orange Bell, and Acrolithes. Far from being merely an exercise in verbose
improvisation, each piece was a manic, painstaking and highly emotional
operation of soundsculpting. The music was dark, ghostly and ominous, like
a whisper from a creature trapped in another dimension.
Odyssey (2001) delivered Jerusalem (march 1990) and Elegantissimo (december 1992), a duet with keyboardist Leslie Winston.
No other free-jazz musician managed to remain so current as Bill Dixon in his 70s.
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One of the key legacies of free jazz was to dispose of the cliches of how
a jazz band should work. Previous changes had been incremental, but the
free-jazz generation introduced revolutionary changes.
Ornette Coleman got rid of the piano.
Cecil Taylor played with no bass.
The drums were still pervasive, but they were no longer mere time-keeping devices.
And the first Art Ensemble of Chicago had no drummer at all.
Soon there were ensembles with more strings than horns, or with no horns at all.
Free jazz was more than a Copernican revolution: it was the musical equivalent
of the French revolution.
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