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.

Heavy Vanguard: The Peter Brötzmann Octet // Machine Gun

We’ve often extolled the stylings of free jazz pioneers like John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Ornette Coleman—they’ve brought such chaos and madness into jazz and have put out some incredible albums in their day. However, we often forget that there’s an entire scene in Europe as well practicing free jazz and free improvisation. Peter…

Soundtracks For The Blind: Ballister // Slag

Out of all the free improvisation I’ve listened to, there’s a distinct penchant towards tonal belligerence and chaos, which, while very enjoyable (seriously, I can’t get enough of dat saxophone skronk), can also sometimes be stale when you want something a little bit different. Which is why I wrote this article about Ballister, and their latest album, Slag.

Soundtracks for the Blind: The Necks // Unfold

One of the most unique and consistent contemporary avant-garde bands, The Necks are perhaps most notable for carving out and perfecting their own meditative niche. On the surface, the Australian group’s roster solicits expectations for a standard jazz trio – Chris Abrahams (piano, organ), Tony Buck (drums, percussion) and Lloyd Swanton (bass) seem to hearken back to the golden age of bare-bones bop and bandleaders like Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. But these Aussies differ in how far they stretch their jazz roots into the avant-garde, comparable to but far beyond albums like John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Pharaoh Sander’s Karma. Though there’s a distinctly transcendental, spiritual vibe to The Necks’ music, the trio’s approach to this style is heavily informed by the sparseness of artists like Evans and Monk, with a considerable focus on minimalism, improvisation and ambiance that stretches their musical atmosphere from a smoky, luxurious piano lounge into a general ether of organic landscapes.

Soundtracks for the Blind: Eli Keszler // Last Signs of Speed

Before jazz became a regular occurrence in my rotation, I thought bandleaders were exclusively pianists, trumpeters saxophonists given the prevalence of the instruments in the genre. This quickly changed as I ventured further into the genre, exploring the discographies of artists like bassist Charles Mingus and flutist/clarinetist Eric Dolphy (who, to be fair, also played alto sax). But it wasn’t until hearing Jack DeJohnette’s drum solo on “What I Say” – from Miles Davis’ Live-Evil – that I truly fell in love with jazz drumming, drawing me towards eminent jazz percussionists like Max Roach. To be clear, none of this is meant to frame Eli Keszler as a jazz drummer; his playing and composition on Last Signs of Speed doesn’t fit neatly in any particular style. Yet, as I listened to Keszler’s use of texture throughout the album, it reminded me of the songwriting sensibilities of drummers like Roach – musicians with a deep understanding of percussion’s mechanics and how any additional instrumentation should be placed in the surrounding space.

Hey! Listen to Burning Ghosts!

Burning Ghosts is the band I’ve been looking for all this time. Hailing from LA, and signed to the experimental independent label Orenda Records, Burning Ghosts brings everything in jazz I like—lots of passionate, full-bodied playing and tons of free improvisation—and mixes it with metal. The group is a quartet, featuring trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom (who is also the founder of Orenda Records), guitarist Jake Vossler, bassist Richard Giddens, and drummer Aaron McLendon. This lineup alone makes me pretty excited—it’s a something you don’t see a whole lot. Usually when there’s a band crossing these genres, a saxophone player is usually part of the personnel (VIRTA being an exception to the rule). Having a trumpet take that spot stirs the pot a little bit, so to speak—it offers sounds and techniques of jazz that you don’t hear a whole lot.

Hey! Listen to Kaoru Abe!

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…

Musical Chess: “Cobra” and John Zorn’s Game Pieces

While we will never come up with a universally accepted description of what separates art from the rest of reality, we can make some easy guesses about it—namely, that art, in one way or another, derives its meaning and beauty from structure. The quadrivium—one of the oldest examples of pedagogy in Western thought—includes music as one of its pillars because of art’s importance and reliance on these aforementioned elements; after all music is quite literally math in motion. Any sound, from the buzz of a crowd to the slap of a bass guitar to the clinks and clangs of machinery, can be said to have a certain pitch and be a certain length of time, and can therefore be considered to be privy to certain rules, even if we have made up said rules. But, as with any rule or law, it cannot exist without offenders to truly define it. A society without murder wouldn’t need (nor could even comprehend) a law barring its use. (If you want to get simpler, it’s yin and yang—one part cannot exist without the other.) This, however, is where improvisation comes into the conversation of music, as it completes the circle. The serpent is now metaphorically biting its own tail.