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If you’re new to free jazz, brace yourself for some of the most rule-breaking, bizarre, spontaneous and challenging sounds from the jazz tradition. Throw away all the preconceived ideas of what you knew about jazz and come along for an interesting ride!
The post-World War Two era in the United States was a period of economic boom. As the disruption of war ended, an era of overarching conservatism and materialism arose as social structures and norms were reestablished in America. Against this backdrop of conformity, important artists pushed against the limits of self-expression. Jack Kerouac—pioneer of the literary movement known as the Beat Generation—created a style of spontaneous prose, writing in a stream of consciousness without consideration to grammatical rules or narrative planning. At the same time, abstract artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline unveiled new ways of conveying pure emotion and energy with paint. Raw and dynamic, their action paintings shook the art world.
It was also a time where the shape of jazz was evolving from the frenetic energy of bebop music in the 1940s; to the smoother, more lyrical style of cool jazz, and the groove-based, blues-influenced sounds of hard bop.
However, some jazz musicians desired a freer way to express complex emotions and abstract ideas that came in response to the world around them. As much as improvisation was essential to existing forms of jazz, they still felt stifled by pre-determined structures and musical rules. Driven by an intense yearning to experiment, they came together to explore what lay beyond the boundaries of music as they knew it, abandoning Western harmony, featuring abrupt changes in tempo and mood, and even playing their instruments in unconventional ways. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman—one of the forerunners of this new music—later released an album in 1961 titled Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation; this later became the name of the movement itself. The recording is performed by two quartets simultaneously improvising and reacting to each other. The album cover actually featured a painting by Jackson Pollock, titled The White Light (1954).
Although free jazz can sound chaotic, the musicians have to be highly sensitive in order to react meaningfully with one another. A strong fluency on their instrument is required for them to express, with conviction, the abstract musical statements that come to come to mind in the heat of the moment. Most of them are grounded in a solid foundation of more traditional jazz, which provided rigorous training in creative improvisation, technical proficiency and dynamics of playing in an ensemble.
Listening to free jazz can be challenging, but when performed by skillful musicians it can also be a glimpse into a liberatingly creative world of sonic expression. The players perform at the knife’s edge of spontaneity—they can be playing different things at the same time, creating disharmonious sounds and clashing rhythms, and yet they somehow still feel connected. The expressive intention between members of a good free jazz ensemble can be almost telepathic.
Aside from Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor is commonly regarded as one of the fathers of free jazz, and was considered extreme even amongst his peers. Unrelentingly mercurial in his playing, this classically-trained jazz pianist would let loose torrents of dissonant notes that poured from his fingers, sometimes striking the keyboard with palms and elbows to make the piano sing in harsher, harder tones. Be warned: this would be considered challenging even for seasoned jazz listeners and it is best approached with open minds and ears as an aural experience of unadulterated expression.
Saxophonist John Coltrane gained mainstream popularity in 1961 by reinterpreting the showtune My Favourite Things from the musical The Sound of Music (1959). However, towards his later years Coltrane’s musical explorations went further out into the realm of free improvisation, using the music as a vehicle for his quest in spirituality. One of his final studio albums, titled Interstellar Space, featured a nakedly stark format of just drums and saxophone. Without being tied down to the dynamics of a larger ensemble, Coltrane’s saxophone wails in ecstatic tongues as he pushes himself unceasingly towards speaking a greater truth.
Devoid of accessible melodies and harmonies, the free jazz movement was never designed for mainstream appeal and was only embraced by a cult following. In spite of that, its influence on modern music was significant; Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane’s music is oft-cited by the pioneers of punk and art rock, with their music’s emotional intensity and rawness resonating with artists of a non-conformist streak.
The free approach to improvising is still practised by jazz musicians today. While some ensembles still engage in near-complete free play, it is more common to see musicians starting with varying amounts of pre-arranged music before breaking that apart and deviating into free improvisation.
Saxophonist Aaron Burnett’s ensemble, The Big Machine, starting out a piece with an angular composed melody before breaking out of the structure:
Pat Metheny, the composer of tuneful contemporary jazz standards such as Bright Size Life and James going into free improvisation:
The flavour of free jazz continues to evolve, changing with technology and influences from other genres like electronic music, Western art music and world music. Nonetheless, the core of it all remains an unapologetic spirit in pursuit of freedom in self-expression.
Catch saxophone wiz Aaron Burnett and his collective The Big Machine live at Jazz in July on 22 Jul 2022.
Tan XiangHui is a producer at Singapore's national performing arts centre, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. He plans music programmes and festivals for a living, and delights in exploring an eclectic range of genres from Ambient to Zambian Rock.
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