We at Heavy Blog love our jazz. Hell, we have an entire column dedicated to it. Most of that love, however, leans into more fusion and nu-jazz groups (see: BADBADNOTGOOD, GoGo Penguin, or Nick Cusworth’s newly-found romance with VIRTA). It isn’t to say that we don’t cover avant-garde or free jazz, what with our Heavy Vanguard podcast or a few articles by Scott or myself about such subjects—but there really isn’t much coverage on the whole. Nobody is to blame, of course; these styles of jazz are often incredibly difficult to fully digest, and are considered to be atonal and juvenile.
However, there are some musicians that can span these genres pretty well. I’ve felt that the later releases of John Coltrane’s discography (with the exception of his Meditations and Ascension albums) can bridge the gap between what we typically think of jazz and free/avant-garde jazz, as his playing doesn’t typically get too wild, often sticking to a melody that, while improvised, is nonetheless not as grating on the ear as, say, Ornette Coleman’s or Pharaoh Sanders’s overblowing honks or shrill squeals.
Kaoru Abe, I believe, is another one of these artists that provides a nice gateway to the avant-garde without completely alienating a listener. Born in 1949 in Kawasaki, Japan, Abe was a saxophonist that often performed solo improvisations (though he is known for his collaborations with free improvisation pioneers like Derek Bailey and Milford Graves). Although he died a premature, drug-related death at the age of 29, he remains an important jazz musician, though perhaps not the most remembered.
Abe’s sound has been his legacy. His tone has a certain abrasiveness to it that is almost as singular as Coltrane’s confident, powerful style of playing, or the controlled coolness of pre-Electric Era Miles Davis. It’s as if he was able to exhale noise into his saxophone instead of air. And while he uses extended techniques such as overblowing and multiphonics in his music, his playing can also have distinct melody. I cannot say that these melodies are particularly harmonious, especially when compared to Coltrane, or ECM-style jazz players like Keith Jarrett, but they are nonetheless present. They tug at your heartstrings not through the type of notes picked, but, via the way they’re played, similar to the grating beauty of Billy Holiday’s vocals.
Again, I must stress: this is a gateway to the avant-garde, but it’s nonetheless avant-garde and experimental. It can be difficult if you aren’t used to extended techniques, or find atonality and dissonance to be annoying and/or stupid. However, if you find the work of, say, John Zorn to be beyond you at this point in time, but you can nonetheless appreciate the abrasiveness and chaotic darkness of his sax playing, I urge you to listen to Kaoru Abe—you might find a decent aural foothold for a genre of music that is incredibly rewarding and interesting.