Albert Ayler: The Wizard

If ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was, The Wizard of Oz is one because . . .

Oh, sorry, wrong song! It's not that wizard on Albert Ayler's track "The Wizard." Can't look for jaunty Harold Arlen melodies on this one, folks. This is a darker wizard, more like Voldemort than Dumbledore, and one that has lots of weapons and spells at his disposal. Here are some of them: spell to make a saxophone sound like a dental drill (2:06 minutes into the track); spell to make a sax take on the sonic properties of a flame-thrower (3:58 into the track); spell to force a saxophone reed to create vibrations hitherto unknown on the planet Mungo (at the 4:43 mark), etc.

Not even Trane or Dolphy or Ornette went this far out. The raw power of this track is almost frightening in its intensity. If pushing the envelope was the essence of Free Jazz, Ayler earned his place in jazz history by pushing farther than anybody. Tain't no envelope left, my friends. To a certain extent, we have lived in a "post-Ayler" age ever since.

February 23, 2008 · 1 comment


Cecil Taylor: Tales (8 Whisps)

This closing track from Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures LP is the most fully realized piano performance he had recorded until that time. This is also most keyboard-oriented work on the album, and shows that Taylor did not need elaborate horn parts to realize his musical visions. Although "Tales (8 Whisps)" lacks the full-scale fireworks of his solo piano work of the next decade (check out Silent Tongues to get a dose of those), it nonetheless showed that this artist was not a cerebral composer working with abstract concepts, but an energy-jazz radical whose works needed to be felt viscerally as much as heard. Sweeping, orchestral, abrasive - this stands as a significant moment in American pianism from the 1960s.

February 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Lennie Tristano: Descent Into the Maelstrom

Years before Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman released their first LPs, Lennie Tristano offers up an intense example of Free Jazz, completely atonal and full of drama. The song title refers to a 19th-century story by Edgar Allan Poe, but that is the only aspect of this track that looks backwards. The music itself anticipates the future with great acuity. But this performance was not released for a quarter of a century, so it impacts the history of the music only as a retrospective monument to Tristano's boldness and creativity. One wonders what would have happened had Tristano dared to put this out at the time. I imagine that the controversy over his "Line Up" track would have been a mere tempest in a teapot compared to the maelstrom that this performance might have unleashed.

January 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Willem Breuker: Potsdamer Stomp

This mythical Dutch band (actually one of Europe’s first “free” orchestras) never forgot where it came from: the street parades and street theatre of carefree post-'68 Holland. That’s where the energy of the WBK originates, that’s where their horns took up their raunchy sounds, where their rhythm section built its funky honky-tonk beat. But listening to this powerful, basic, playful track, one may also easily guess that the way the WBK plays here is also the best compensation they’ve found for not being born in New Orleans a few decades earlier. And indeed, if you close your eyes, they might convince you they actually were.

January 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Frank Zappa: Ian Underwood Whips It Out

The song is called "Ian Underwood Whips It Out." Or, to use the full name, "Ian Underwood Whips It Out (Live on Stage in Copenhagen)." Unfortunately the title supplies almost all the specifics we know about this hot jazz performance. Most accounts will tell you that there are 11 musicians on this track, but I find that hard to believe. Of course, the drums and sax are so dominant and the recording quality so poor, that you might have the Royal Danish Orchestra lost in the mix for all I know. But all the action is coming from Ian Underwood's horn, which is smokin' on this heady dose of energy jazz. This is one of the best 'free jazz' tracks of the era -- and it is hidden away on a rock album? Go figure!

January 09, 2008 · 0 comments


The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Folkus

When the Art Ensemble of Chicago showed up at a studio in Ludwigsburg, Germany to record for ECM, it was as surprising (at least to jazz fans) as the Berlin Wall coming down. To many advocates of Free Jazz, ECM was the Evil Empire, dismissed as a reactionary attempt to infuse too strong a dose of European influences into the jazz vocabulary, thus watering down the music's inherent vitality. (Phew, that was a mouthful.) Such rhetoric may seem a little overheated today, but back in the 1970s the current pluralistic, open jazz environment had not yet been established, and those at the cutting (bleeding?) edge tended to believe that jazz presented a linear progression that allowed no turning back! But here we found the leading avant-garde band of the era showing up as "nice guys" and joining hands with their European brethren -- in a release appropriately named Nice Guys.

But the Art Ensemble didn't get too nice -- and things get very edgy if you try saying this song title after your second drink at the nightclub. The lengthy "Folkus" track includes all their usual stock-in-trade: lots of dissonance, minimalist interludes, criss-crossing horn lines, background-music-as-foreground-music, and enough percussion instruments to fill a museum of membranophones and idiophones. Not nice enough, perhaps, for many ECM fans, but a historic moment by any measure . . . and an event signaling both the end of ECM's early years and the arrival of the new postmodern jazz world of peace and brotherhood.

December 20, 2007 · 0 comments


Cecil Taylor: Silent Tongues

This music is not for the fainthearted. Taylor attacks the keyboard with such force that I'm surprised a few strings didn't break before he had finished all five movements of his extended work for solo piano. Taylor's "touch" at the instrument reminds me of nothing less than a jackhammer at work -- the notes and tone clusters explode from the sound board. Frankly, the technical challenges of this style of pianism are substantial, but don't underestimate the sheer stamina required to maintain this assault for the full duration of a concert. I often recommend Silent Tongues to fans of heavy metal and punk rock, since the intensity and theatricality involved here have much in common with those extreme forms of performance art. Could Cecil Taylor be the Sid Vicious of jazz? But even fans of hard bop and cool jazz might get swept away by the sheer passion of this music, which ranks among Cecil Taylor's most dramatic moments.

December 09, 2007 · 0 comments


Ornette Coleman: Lonely Woman

We still haven't come to grips with the turbulence unleashed by Free Jazz during the period that started with the Age of Ornette and roughly ended with the Arrival of Wynton. Critics will continue to debate the importance of this body of work. Nonetheless the day is past when anyone could release a recording called The Shape of Jazz to Come -- unless it was meant as a wry post-modern joke. No, this was not the shape of jazz to come, and what promised to be the final destination of the jazz idiom proved to be one more passing phase. But the best examples of the Free Jazz aesthetic continue to exert their power, and few are more potent than this early example of the Ornette Coleman quartet in full flight. Coleman's melody is haunting and his counterpoint with Don Cherry unforgettable. Haden's throbbing bass also contributes to the overall effect. Listening to this piece in 1959 must have been an unnerving experience, but after a half century of changing jazz fads and fashions it still will stir you up.

December 09, 2007 · 1 comment


Last Exit: Taking a Beating

Energy music. To some, the term means nothing more than “noise.” True enough, it can be noisy, but in the hands of Last Exit, those barely contained sounds have purpose. Here, Brotzmann's horn seems to have been possessed by some unknown fire spirit attempting to do harm to the rest of the group. As the sax tears a hole in the air, Sharrock, Jackson, and Laswell hurl a mountain of energy in an attempt to encircle the beast. Somehow, blistering, almost frightening funk is the result.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments


Witches & Devils: Angels

Albert Ayler's brand of jazz, while bursting with torrents of energy and emotion, was not without its tender and spiritual side. Witches and Devils gets inside this Ayler composition and takes advantage of both its passion and quiet, underlying spirit. Vandermark and Williams begin with rising joy, delivering an intense, almost prayer-meeting feel that morphs in a blast furnace of energy. Midsong, the heat is dialed back to allow an extended cello and bass duet. The intertwined lines, while slowly allowing the quiet to take over, are no less effective in channeling the spirit of Ayler. Inspiring stuff!

November 19, 2007 · 0 comments


Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Karyobin, Part 1

Collective improvisation takes many forms, from the brazen “energy music” of a Peter Brotzmann to Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz double quartet. On the quieter side of things lies England's groundbreaking Spontaneous Music Ensemble. On “Karyobin,” the focus is on the musician's ear, resulting in an extremely high level of interplay. Phrases are offered up in quick succession, each a response to the last. A ride-cymbal pattern evokes a chromatic response from the trumpet, which is then extended by the sax...and the guitar. The breathtaking changes of direction give shape to what initially appear as abstractions. Brilliant stuff.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments


Eric Dolphy: Gazzelloni

Eric Dolphy, artwork by Michael Symonds

Summer 1963. Manhattan. Avant-garde composer John Cage is performing his Variations III, in which individually amplified Slinkies suspended above the stage go BOING-BOING. Great stuff. Anyhow, during intermission, whom do we meet in the audience but Eric Dolphy! Introducing ourselves, we tell him how much we admire his work and ask whether Cage's sonic experiments might apply to jazz. "I don't know," Eric replied. "But I like what I'm hearing." The next year, his atonal tribute to Italian avant-garde flutist Severino Gazzelloni reinforced our wonder at the borderless map of Eric Dolphy's imagination— adventurous, uncompromising and, for listeners, relentlessly rewarding.

November 07, 2007 · 0 comments


John Coltrane: The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost

  John Coltrane, photo by Herb Snitzer

Coltrane was definitely listening to Albert Ayler – the evidence is not only in the title but in the folk-like theme that opens and closes “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” which was recorded the year after Ayler made his big splash. No matter who did what first, this is a glorious, original piece of art. Coltrane added a second tenor and a second drummer to his quartet for this overtly religious work. Meditations is hardly descriptive of this outing – “Bombasts” would be more like it. Yet, like A Love Supreme and Ascension before it, this is not caterwauling for caterwauling’s sake. A search and a conversation unfold before us, and it is perhaps no stretch to suggest that the tune is a metaphor for the manner in which Coltrane thinks we ought to live – with reverence for a higher power that can guide us and help us find our path through the chaos of the everyday.

November 06, 2007 · 0 comments


John Coltrane: Ascension - Edition II

It’s difficult (and maybe pointless) to choose between the two 40-minute versions of “Ascension” that are included on the CD release, so let’s go with the Edition II, which for some reason appears first. In any case, we recommend you listen to only one version per sitting, because this is difficult, trying music. Some would call it chaotic. “Ascension” can go into the same category as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun. Yes, there is structure beneath all this, but it is impossible to ascertain exactly how much direction Coltrane gave the cast of musicians he assembled here. The seven saxophonists and trumpeters seem to blare away without much regard for what they’re hearing, if they’re even listening. So why the 89 rating? Because these moments of zaniness are mere bridges that link the high points of this performance – namely, the intensely focused improvisation that occurs when most of the ensemble sits back to let the individuals solo with the rhythm section.

November 06, 2007 · 0 comments


John Coltrane: Mars

        John Coltrane
    Photo by Herb Snitzer

Coltrane stripped his musical ideas to the bone with his final great album, Interstellar Space. A series of duets with the free drummer Rashied Ali, the record would become the sacred text for all other sax-drums pairings. Nothing resembling melody or rhythm exists here – just pure sound and thoughts, free of structure and constraints. Pure emotion, pure energy, pure reactions. For the open-minded, a song – song? – like “Mars” can be an enlightening experience. When he’s not honking away, Coltrane blows circular, repetitive phrases while Ali strikes skins and cymbals with little regard for their intended uses – a ride cymbal becomes a snare drum, a snare becomes a hi-hat. What was going through Coltrane’s mind when he came up with this? We’ll never know.

November 06, 2007 · 1 comment


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