Starter Kit: Free Jazz

Regardless of one’s musical background, free jazz is one of those genres that can be extremely confusing and often border on nonsensical and sonically belligerent. There are even fans of jazz who still can’t get into the likes of the late works of John Coltrane or anything made by Pharaoh Sanders, preferring instead to listen to other, less insane iterations of the genre. While we believe that music’s value is something strictly decided by the listener, we’ve also found that, despite the difficulty of the genre, free jazz is incredibly rewarding. There’s something undeniably special about musicians that can improvise; if music is the expression of the soul, then free jazz is the direct output of an unrestrained musical voice. While it can sound like noise, it’s in fact a huge show of musicianship, as the artist in question must compress everything they know about music theory into one single point and, in a sense, abandon the strictures it causes for what they feel. In this way, we think free jazz can be one of the most magical and spiritually uplifting genres of music out there, and for those interested in exploring the genre further, the following albums are great introductions to the most liberated plane of jazz.

Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959, Atlantic)

Although Coltrane has his place as a pioneer of free jazz, the brunt of the genre ultimately comes down to Ornette Coleman, who was initially despised for his strange sound and approach to music. Improvisation wasn’t unwelcome in the world of jazz, as it was utilized in soloing and other live performances. But Coleman’s take on improvisation through a jazz lens was an upheaval of structure, with his music ignoring tempos, keys or any traditional music theory. Of course, he wasn’t really able to do this in its entirety—his career would’ve probably taken a huge hit if that was the case—and with that in mind, The Shape of Jazz To Come was created.

Although there are significant free jazz parts to Shape, the album is still supported by structure; every track has its own melody, with parts in between this central melody being moments of improvisation. To further loosen the ties to key and more traditional jazz structure, Coleman also quickly did away with instruments that mainly utilized chords, such as piano. These innovations allowed him to project his experimental ideas without completely alienating audiences, and essentially gave birth to free jazz as we know it today. (This album is so mind-bogglingly different from what had come before it that some of the biggest names in jazz at the time—including Miles Davis and Charles Mingus—were initially very critical of this album, though Davis eventually came around to it.) If you have any curiosity whatsoever for this genre of music, there is no better album to start with—the melodic themes of tracks like “Lonely Woman,” “Peace” and “Congeniality” are beautiful earworms, and the improvisations by Coleman’s quartet (featuring future free jazz heavyweight Don Cherry on trumpet), while not as insane as some of his later work (such as Free Jazz), still contain some immense power and are replete with some of the best musical chemistry ever recorded.

– Jimmy Mullett

John Coltrane – Meditations (1966, Impulse!)

Speaking personally, Meditations was the first free jazz album that I fell in love with. I’d heard other albums in the genre, like The Shape of Jazz To Come and Coltrane’s album Ascension (released earlier in 1966), I found them a bit too dissonant and noisy for me. I eventually came to love both of these albums, but Meditations was what set me down the path, for really no other reason than Coltrane’s presence on this album. Obviously, any Coltrane album will have his presence on it, but sometimes that varies in degrees, especially when it came to Ascension, where eleven musicians were listed as contributing (with four of those being members of the saxophone family). Trane’s tone on tenor is one of the most unmistakeable sounds in all of jazz music—it holds a serious power that, while capable of some insane virtuosic tendencies (just listen to the track “Countdown” off of Giant Steps if you don’t believe me) can still retain a sort of calm beauty, an aural gentle giant.

Don’t get me wrong about Meditations, though—Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders still go absolutely nuts all through this release, experimenting with woodwind extended techniques like overblowing and multiphonics (i.e. creating two different pitches at the same time out of an instrument normally only capable of one pitch at a time). This wildness cannot be denied; the opening track “The Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost” probably showcases this tendency towards extended techniques the most, though it appears in all the tracks. However, Coltrane couples his experimental tendencies with some immaculate work from his sidemen—such as McCoy Tyner‘s hauntingly beautiful piano work near the end of “Consequences”—and more melodic stylings with his signature tone, which seem to resonate the man’s spirit even now, fifty years after his passing. This might not be the quintessential free jazz album, but it’s certainly the most personal free jazz album to me, and maybe it can be that for you, too.

– Jimmy Mullett

Cecil Taylor – Unit Structures (1966, Blue Note)

Blue Note remains one of the most crucial record labels in jazz history, releasing some of the genre’s most important album. While the label is more commonly associated with hard bop—Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else, Art Blakey & The Jazz MessengersMoanin’, John Coltrane’s Blue TrainHerbie Hancock‘s Maiden Voyage and Wayne Shorter‘s Speak No Evil, to name a select few—they also released a fair amount of early avant-garde jazz albums that helped pave the way for further experimentation. Highlights from the label’s experimental period include Out to Lunch, the seminal swan song from the late multi-instrumentalist and composer Eric Dolphy; the off-kilter bop of pianist/composer Andrew Hill‘s Point of Departure; and perhaps most notable of all, pianist/composer Cecil Taylor‘s landmark album Unit Structures. Ornette Coleman used Jackson Pollock painting White Light on Free Jazz to help symbolize his new creative direction, and in the same way, Unit Structures‘ emulation of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen printing helps symbolize Taylor’s status as a free jazz innovator.

Due to the work of Coleman, Coltrane, Sanders and others, saxophone is commonly seen as a defining element of free jazz. The same can’t be said for piano, especially since most of the genre’s essential records either omit keys from their lineup or don’t allow them much time in the spotlight. Though there’s no harm in calling a spade a spade when it comes to giving piano-less free jazz classics their due, bandleaders like Taylor deserve an enormous amount of credit for his work as a player and a composer, with both roles leading to some truly invaluable installments in the genre’s catalog. Unit Structures is a perfect example of this, as the album is comparable to Coleman’s Free Jazz with the addition of keys and a more adventurous, avant-garde nature. With the thunder of two bassists (Henry Grimes and Alan Silva) and appearances from alto sax, flute, oboe and trumpet, Taylor’s compositions mold the free-wheeling performances of his septet into a loose structure that channels a free jazz core through an avant-garde filter. Taylor himself brings a unique sensation to the tracks with his deranged piano improvisations, mostly playing on the fringes of the proceedings but always adding a chaotic, inventive edge. Though not a traditional jazz album by any means, Unit Structures presents free jazz within a lightly defined mold, making for a challenging but rewarding choice for a free jazz virgin’s first listen.

– Scott Murphy

Pharaoh Sanders – Black Unity (1971, Impulse!)

Since the early days of my exploration into avant-garde jazz, it’s become clear there’s a “six degrees of Pharaoh Sanders” connection that applies to nearly all the genres’ key players. The list of seminal albums he was involved with is extensive—Don Cherry’s Symphony for ImprovisersAlice Coltrane‘s Journey in SatchidanandaSonny Sharrock‘s Ask the Ages; and most notably, John Coltrane’s Ascension, Kulu Sé Mama, Meditations and Om. In terms of the evolution of free jazz sax, this close-knit musical bond between Coltrane and Sanders helped push both players further and develop some of the most prominent techniques in the style’s playbook, including multiphonics and overblowing. Sanders’ “sheets of sound” became particularly synonymous with free jazz playing, with his spiritual compositions’ themes of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam providing an expansive backdrop to the unhinged power of his sax’s bleating, honking and rapidfire arpeggios. Reverberations of Sanders’ pioneering style can still be felt today, such as with the playing of modern visionaries like Kamasi Washington and his excellent debut The Epic.

Admittedly, most jazz fans will place Karma above Black Unity when ranking Sanders’ output as a bandleader and composer. But though Karma is an inarguable avant-garde jazz classic, its strong leaning toward his spiritual jazz tendencies makes it a much more tonal listen than Black Unity, which contains stronger roots in the realm of free jazz. Over the singular title track’s nearly 40-minute run time, Black Unity builds a kinetic tribal base with two drummers (Norman Connors and Billy Hart) and a percussionist (Lawrence Killian) before launching into an ensemble of flute, trumpet, alto and tenor sax led by Sanders. His distinct tone and technique bring the composition to another level and capitalizes on the the size of the ensemble and the scope of his composition. With a strong, underlying melody and incredible playing from Sanders and his bandmates, Black Unity is an accessible yet potent entry point into free jazz as well as one of the greatest installments in the genre’s history.

– Scott Murphy

Further Listening

  • Ornette Coleman – Free Jazz
  • John Coltrane – Ascension, Interstellar Space
  • Albert Ayler – Spiritual Unity
  • Don Cherry – Symphony for Improvisers
  • Pharaoh Sanders – Karma
  • Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman – Song X
  • John Coltrane/Pharaoh Sanders – Om
  • Anthony Braxton – Saxophone Improvisations Series F
  • Andrew Hill – Compulsion, Point of Departure
  • Archie Shepp – The Way Ahead