Shfl Guide: 1990s Free Jazz

The loft jazz era lasted from the late ’70s to the early ’80s, but by 1983, avant-garde jazz was in dire straits in the US. Artists like Arthur Blythe, Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne and Henry Threadgill, all of whom had been signed to majors, were dropped; others, like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, released their work on European labels (as did Braxton, since no one imprint could keep up with his output). Were it not for the Italians and Germans, releasing the music on Black Saint, Soul Note, ECM and MPS, avant-garde jazz might have died out completely in the ’80s.

The situation began to improve slightly as the ’90s began. Taylor released In Florescence, a trio session with bassist William Parker and percussionist Gregg Bendian, on A&M; Threadgill put out Makin’ A Move and Where’s Your Cup? on Columbia; Coleman signed with Verve and put out the final Prime Time album, Tone Dialing, followed by a matched set, Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women, and Colors: Live In Leipzig after that. All four featured keyboards (Geri Allen played piano on the Sound Museum discs, and Colors was a duet with Joachim Kühn), something the saxophonist had abjured for nearly four decades at that point. Verve also reissued several of his 1970s discs, allowing them to reach a wider audience. 

The real action, though, was in New York’s East Village, where a new generation of players was creating their own scene. One key figure was saxophonist David S. Ware, a veteran of the loft scene who’d formed a new group with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and a string of drummers: Marc Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra, and finally Guillermo E. Brown. The quartet’s music was titanic, seemingly picking up where John Coltrane had left off in 1964 but journeying out into high-energy improvisatory realms that left even fierce players like David Murray and Pharoah Sanders sounding tame and placid. Ware recorded for multiple labels: DIW, Homestead (which explored free jazz briefly just before shutting its doors in 1996; its final manager, Steven Joerg, founded AUM Fidelity, and continues to release brilliant, adventurous music to this day), and Silkheart, before Branford Marsalis, of all people, brought him to Sony/Columbia. Shipp and Parker made albums on their own, sometimes working together and other times apart, and other players like saxophonist Charles Gayle, guitarist Joe Morris, trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr., and many others emerged as well. Outside New York, free jazz seemed to be having a moment as well; a strongly collaborative scene emerged in Chicago, where veterans like Fred Anderson encouraged and mentored younger players like Ken Vandermark and Matana Roberts. German tenor titan Peter Brötzmann was so enamored of the scene, he rounded up many of its best players for his Chicago Tentet, which toured the world until 2012, releasing more than a dozen albums along the way.

The most surprising part about the ’90s free jazz renaissance, which lasted well into the new century, wasn’t that the music was great; it was that the music press paid attention. Ware and Gayle landed a co-lead review in Rolling Stone and with well-timed endorsements from Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth (who hired the Ware quartet to open for them), members of Yo La Tengo, and others, free jazz drew the attention of indie rock fans and critics. Reissue programs brought long-forgotten albums back into stores, and veterans like Anderson, Brötzmann, Joe McPhee, Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and more began performing to rooms full of young, excited faces.

The Peach Orchard cover

Bassist William Parker, already a mainstay of the New York free jazz scene for two decades, finally took on a leadership role with this quartet featuring alto saxophonist Rob Brown, pianist Cooper-Moore, and drummer Susie Ibarra. Between 1995 and 1998 they recorded four albums for various labels; this double disc gathers live performances from four shows. The eight tracks are bluesy and abstract in a post-Mingus style, lasting between 12 and 25 minutes without ever feeling aimless or indulgent.

Vade Mecum cover

Trumpeter Bill Dixon took his instrument as far into the realm of pure sound as anyone ever has. Using electronics and reverb and his own formidable technique, he emitted hisses and squeals and low growls that ignored traditional melody but somehow wound up almost impossibly beautiful. This 1993 album and its sequel feature two bassists, William Parker and Barry Guy, and drummer Tony Oxley scraping, droning and rattling around and behind Dixon as he squiggles and hums, seemingly to himself. Completely unstructured, it displays a remarkable beauty and cohesion nonetheless.

Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993 cover

Braxton formed this quartet — with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser, and percussionist Gerry Hemingway — in the mid ’80s; a UK tour was documented in Graham Lock’s Forces In Motion, one of the best books about a jazz musician ever written. Close to a decade later, the four were still making incredible music together, combining his complex but evocative compositions into 30- to 40-minute collages/medleys that’ll spin your head around but good. There’s nothing dry or intellectual about this music; it’s raucous and exultant, and Hemingway’s drums boom like depth charges.

The Dark Tree cover

Pianist Tapscott was a crucial figure in West Coast avant-garde jazz for decades, leading the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra since the 1960s. This live double disc, recorded in 1989, showcases his playing in a different context: a quartet featuring clarinetist John Carter, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Andrew Cyrille, whose precision strikes throughout and marching rhythm on “Lino’s Pad” in particular give the music a fierce intensity. Tapscott’s music had a questing quality that strove for beauty and uplift, and this is the sound of his spirit in full flower.

Momentum Space cover

This thoroughly unexpected meeting of titans gives each man a track to himself, and there are Redman/Jones and Taylor/Jones duos, but the 32 minutes when all three are playing together is some of the most thrilling free jazz of the ’90s. The way Redman’s innate bluesiness rubs against Taylor’s percussive romanticism, as Jones splashes vivid colors on the canvas, creates something even greater than any member of this miraculous one-off trio could have achieved on their own. 

Go See The World cover

Saxophonist David S. Ware, a veteran of the loft jazz scene who finally broke through in the ’90s, had a sound that seemed like it could blow trees down. When he signed with Sony, he didn’t rein himself in a bit; instead, he released this monolithic album featuring pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and drummer Susie Ibarra. Compositions like “Lexicon,” “Estheticmetric,” and “Rapturelodic” begin with mantralike melodies, then explode; meanwhile, his version of “The Way We Were” (yes, the Barbra Streisand song) is a 15-minute firestorm.

A Cloud Of Black Birds cover

Guitarist Joe Morris carved out a niche for himself in the ’90s by playing extremely clean but knotty lines that cut right through whatever else was going on around him without any need for distortion or aggression. In this quartet, he was joined by microtonal viola player Mat Maneri, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Jerome Deupree to make music that zinged and soared, throbbed and bounced. They used brief but catchy unison melodies to launch collective flights that felt like free jazz combined with chamber music, like bebop and bluegrass swirled together like paint in a bucket or like flavors of ice cream melting together into something you’ve never tasted in your life.

Now! cover

This quartet of East Village elders — trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr., saxophonist Daniel Carter, bassist William Parker, and drummer Rashid Bakr — released a self-titled debut album in 1990, then remained a strictly live phenomenon for eight years. This, their second release, from 1998, is a triumphant, fully improvised testament to their collective language. The horns dance together in the manner of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, but the bass and drums surge like the ocean. The music is passionate without ever rising to a scream, and celebratory even during ballads.

The Multiplication Table cover

For several years, pianist Matthew Shipp’s trio changed drummers whenever saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet did. This incarnation featured Susie Ibarra behind the kit, and found the two (plus bassist William Parker) digging into two original compositions, three highly abstract collective improvisations, and three standards: “Autumn Leaves” and two Duke Ellington tunes, “The ‘C’ Jam Blues” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The cumulative result is a stormy, thrilling journey from the core of jazz all the way out to its fringes.

Touchin’ on Trane cover

Charles Gayle’s saxophone style took late Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and the Franks (Wright and Lowe) as jumping-off points and launched into a zone of pure energy, his long, crying lines traveling wherever the spirit — Gayle is deeply Christian — led him. If there’s an easy entry point anywhere in his vast discography, it’s this hour-long live session where he’s backed by bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Ali, who keep the energy level high. There are a few mellow moments, but for the most part everyone is burning white hot from beginning to end.

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