1960s Free Jazz

Free jazz is an umbrella term for an artistic movement that covers a broad range of sounds and approaches. It encompasses the speedy, high-energy compositions of Ornette Coleman, which let the players wander wherever the intricate melodies took them; the gospelized wails and shrieks of Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders; the thunderous piano avalanches of Cecil Taylor; and much more.

The movement began in the late 1950s, when Coleman and Taylor exploded onto a scene still in thrall to bebop. The music was initially scorned as atonal, or a scam perpetrated by musicians who couldn’t really play, but before long a select audience of critics and fellow artists was swept along. By the early 1960s, more and more musicians were adopting “free” methods of playing, and a scene was beginning to coalesce. Four drummers — Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves, and Sunny Murray — began to explore new approaches to rhythm that were untethered from 4/4 time or even timekeeping as a function; their so-called “pulse” rhythms allowed for a more organic interaction between all the instruments in an ensemble, letting the music ebb and flow. Horn players, meanwhile, incorporated techniques like overblowing and multiphonics (playing more than one note at once), shrieking and roaring through their instruments, and Taylor’s piano was somehow percussive and Romantic at once.

Small labels like ESP-Disk’ and artist-run imprints sprang up to document the new music, and efforts to circumvent the traditional music industry were undertaken. Artists formed short-lived guilds and collectives to get better treatment from club owners and the record industry. When John Coltrane, one of jazz’s biggest stars, began to take younger players like Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders under his wing, the mainstream was forced to take notice. He got all three men signed to Impulse! Records, and used the latter two on his own sessions; Sanders joined his live band from 1965 until Coltrane’s death two years later.

Though centered in New York at first, free jazz (also known as “the New Thing”) was everywhere by the mid-1960s. In 1965, Chicago-based pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and friends formed the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the organization that gave the world Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and many other crucial figures. In Los Angeles, pianist Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra embarked on its own path, creating “spiritual jazz” before anyone was using that term.

At the end of the decade, dozens of free jazz players including Shepp, Braxton, the Art Ensemble, Frank Wright, Sonny Sharrock and Don Cherry traveled to Paris for the Pan-African Festival, recording crucial albums for the BYG-Actuel label while they were in town. The Art Ensemble stayed in France for several years, releasing more than a dozen LPs between 1969 and 1971 and becoming stars in the process. By the time they returned, the scene had changed; the explosiveness of the 1960s free jazz scene was giving way to the more introspective, intellectual music of the so-called “loft jazz” era.

A Jackson In Your House / Message To Our Folks cover

These two albums were part of a massive outpouring of material from the Art Ensemble when they landed in Paris in summer 1969. All their sonic touchstones are present: squalling free jazz, theatrical performances (“Get In Line” and “Rock Out” parody military life and contemporary rock, respectively) and a taste for odd, even pranksterish use of non-traditional instruments like bicycle horns, gongs, sirens, and literal bells and whistles. But behind the wild-man outbursts and clattering percussion, there’s always a sharp, focused intelligence at work.

Change of the Century cover

Recorded in October 1959 and released in May 1960, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s second Atlantic release is one of his most immediately accessible albums. The opening “Ramblin’” is an uptempo country blues seemingly designed to bounce listeners out of their seats, and every other track save the aptly titled “Free” has a head-spinning but instantly memorable melody, essayed and then abandoned by Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry, and rides a hard-swinging rhythm courtesy of bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins.

Blasé And Yasmina, Revisited cover

This compilation of tracks from two of the three albums saxophonist Archie Shepp recorded in August 1969 for the BYG-Actuel label — Blasé and Yasmina, A Black Woman — offers some of his best work and a portrait-in-microcosm of the Parisian free jazz explosion of that summer. A horde of artists entered the studio together, working on each other’s albums, so 3/4 of the Art Ensemble of Chicago are heard here, along with vocalist Jeanne Lee, pianist Dave Burrell, and legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones, all chanting and pounding and howling along in a soulful collective eruption.

Unit Structures cover

On Taylor’s first of two 1966 recordings for Blue Note, he and his regular partners, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille, were joined by two bassists (Henry Grimes and Alan Silva), trumpeter Eddie Gale and multi-reedist Ken McIntyre. These four medium-length pieces, powerfully recorded, are a showcase for Taylor’s dense but comprehensible compositional voice as much as his playing. There are melodies here; the expressionistic solos are natural outgrowths, not mere eruptions; and Cyrille’s furious but precise drumming locks it all in place.

The Black Ark cover

After two albums for the ESP-Disk’ label, alto saxophonist Noah Howard painted his masterpiece. This 1969 recording features four compositions that range from soulful grooves to an Asian-inspired piece to a mournful ballad, all played with commitment, even fervor, especially tenor saxophonist Arthur Doyle, who makes his debut and comes out of the gate screaming in a post-Pharoah Sanders style that will enthrall some and send others running.

Karma cover

Sanders was John Coltrane’s front-line partner in the older man’s last years; Karma was his first release as a leader after Coltrane’s death. He had moved beyond the apocalyptic eruptions of 1965-67 to a more meditative spirituality; the 32-minute “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is a modal vamp featuring flute, French horn, percussion and of course Leon Thomas’s passionate, soulfully yodeling (yes, that’s a thing) vocals. Sanders does deliver the paint-peeling solos he was famous for, but they’re integrated into the ensemble sound.

Our Man In Jazz cover

In 1962, Sonny Rollins, then a titan of mainstream bop, formed a group with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Billy Higgins. The music they played was melodically and harmonically free; the horns danced around and sometimes past each other, while the rhythm section kept things swinging fast and hard. The album is dominated by long, abstract versions of two Rollins compositions, “Oleo” and “Doxy”; he and Cherry revisit the melodies occasionally, but as springboards rather than anchors.

New York Art Quartet cover

This short-lived ensemble had free jazz star power: saxophonist John Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd up front, drummer Milford Graves and various bassists (Reggie Workman, Lewis Worrell, Eddie Gomez) in the back. Their sole 1960s album features compositions that chart a middle ground somewhere between Ornette Coleman’s expressionist blues and Albert Ayler’s roared sermons — the music is superficially loose, but has great dramatic tension courtesy of Graves, and when Amiri Baraka pops up to read his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus,” the energy level goes through the roof.

Ascension cover

Two trumpeters, five saxophonists, a pianist, two bassists and a drummer gather, and for 40 minutes, they leave it all on the field. Fervid solos are bracketed by wailing, polyphonic ensemble passages; Elvin Jones drives the music hard, but still seems like he’s sprinting to catch up with the horn players, who are riding rocket sleds. Explosive and unremitting, but the more you listen, the more beautiful it gets.

Spiritual Unity cover

Ayler’s tenor sax sounds big enough to stand up in the bell, and he plays like he’s chewing on the notes, using simple melodic figures as springboards to launch himself into space. Neither bassist Gary Peacock nor drummer Sunny Murray are interested in generating a beat; they’re off on their own journeys, occasionally looking up and nodding to each other, or the “leader.” A titanic statement, all the more powerful for being recorded in mono.