Avant-Garde Jazz

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Avant Garde jazz is rooted in the so called 'free jazz' of the late 50s and 60s. In 1958 Ornette Coleman shocked the jazz world when he released 'Something Else!'. Although rooted in be-bop, Ornette's music eschewed standard harmonic changes and gave soloists freedom to pursue chromatic melodic excursions based on intuition and improvised interaction with the other musicians. Meanwhile John Coltrane began to leave off the standard bop chord changes in his music and began to pursue lengthy improvisations based on modal drones that gave soloists much more freedom. As the years passed and Coltrane's band changed membership, the background provided by his rhythm section became more and more free and cacophonous as well.

Although Coleman and Coltrane introduced more freedom to jazz, essentially their music remained rooted in swing and bop in that their melodic phrases, no matter how atonal, still 'swung' in the traditional sense of the word. Soon a new generation of jazz virtuosos such as Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Albert Alyer and Pharoh Sanders would take jazz into even further abstractions and noise levels creating music that was all about emotive expressionism, not entertainment.

Although it never totally disappeared, free jazz faded to the background when fusion came along with its amplified guitars and Fender Rhodes pianos. Ironically enough, Miles Davis, who was always critical of the free players, seemed to adopt much of their expressionism when his brand of fusion became increasingly abstract and aggressive culminating in the beautifully harsh and intense 'Live at Fillmore'.

One avant-garde jazz musician who always charted his own course outside of the free movement and ahead of Ornette Coleman's innovations was Sun Ra. Possibly one of the most creative jazz musician ever, Ra condemned the free players saying there was no freedom in his band, only the 'Ra jail'. After the demise of the free movement, Sun Ra's vision of avant-garde jazz, in which composition played a large role along side improvisation, became an inspiration to a new wave of avant-garde jazz musicians.

The avant-garde genre at JMA is dedicated to avant-garde jazz musicians only, and not to the larger world of avant-garde rock and composition. Although the differences may be subtle, avant jazz often differs from other forms of avant-garde music in the use of jazz's characteristic syncopated rhythms and the make-up of the instrumental ensembles which often reflect jazz's past traditions.

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ALICE COLTRANE Ptah, the El Daoud Album Cover Ptah, the El Daoud
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avant-garde jazz Music Reviews

WADADA LEO SMITH Wadada Leo Smith / George Lewis / John Zorn : Sonic Rivers

Album · 2014 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
John Zorn's prolific Tzadik label started a new SPECTRUM series with an excellent collaboration between three modern creative jazz giants culminating in the album, "Sonic Rivers". Three horn players - trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, trombonist George Lewis and Zorn himself on saxes, play a restrained session full of bursts and free jazz beauty.

I was expecting this album's concept to recall one of the legendary works between George Lewis and John Zorn in collaboration with guitar genius Derek Bailey resulting in the album "Yankees",released on the Celluloid label in 1982. Even if more than three decades separate these two releases, besides the line-up, they have some more things in common. Both "Yankees" and "Sonic Rivers" radiate that adventurous and creative jazz spirit which becomes more and more rare in the current jazz scene.

Wadada Leo Smith and George Lewis are two key artists of Chicago's AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) movement, which began in the mid 60's. Both are not only musicians, but composers as well, known for their experimental works. John Zorn is probably the most influential figure on the NY downtown avant-garde scene for the last few decades, known for his explosive dissonant playing and his many compositions as well.

Here, on "Sonic Rivers", one can find a very successful balance between the non-jazz avant-garde and the non-traditional compositions of the Chicago school, plus the New York eclectic explosive mix of all styles in one. Surprisingly enough, no-one of these three musicians dominates on these recordings. Even Zorn, adding his dissonant sax soloing, leaves a lot of space for the others. In all, this music sounds very aerial, almost minimal in moments, but still full of content - the characteristic by which one can usually separate the best free jazz albums from all the others. Lewis uses some electronic devices on a few compositions, but generally it's three horn players building multicolored acoustic pictures.

Critically thinking, there is nothing revolutionary different or just really new here. Mainly this music's value is that it reinvents that creative spirit which made so many 60s and 70s jazz releases great listening, even till now, and in a big part, almost forgotten in these modern days of music. The modern jazz scene really needs more of this inspiration today.

JAN GARBAREK Til Vigdis

Live album · 1967 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
I believe you have never heard saxophonist Jan Garbarek sounding like this! Nothing strange there, most jazz fans have no idea this album exists!

The twenty-year old future Norwegian saxophone superstar is playing in a student club on "Til Vigdis". The album consists of three very free compositions with enough kicking and swinging to be recognized as post-65 Coltrane music influenced. The rhythm section (bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen) are both future Nordic jazz leading figures as well.

Not particularly memorable or musically exciting, this album is unique as probably one of the earlier European free jazz albums, and it also shows Garbarek's early influences as well. He will show much higher class on his next release, "African Pepperbird", but for those who only know Garbarek as a new-agey contemporary Nordic jazz star, this album could open their eyes (and may be ears). This original limited edition is really an expensive rarity though, with i-net prices up to 1500 euro.

MASABUMI KIKUCHI Poesy : The Man Who Keeps Washing His Hands

Album · 1971 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi is one among this country's best known abroad jazzmen. He studied in Berklee in late 60s and on return to Japan played with many American musicians,touring the country.

I've reed in Masabumi's interview with Ethan Iverson (2013)he never liked his Berklee studies (except for Herb Pomeroy)and in his early years was influenced by advanced artists of the time as McCoy Tyner.He met Paul Bley when he played in Japan with Sonny Rollins,and Paul became his next hero.

Later, Masabumi started playing with bassist Gary Peacock (who palyed with Bley and lived in Japan for some years in late 60s-early 70s). Here 0n "Poesy",Peacock plays excellent deep physical bass on three compositions (I believe Peacock's time in Japan was his most inventive and advanced period), but generally this album is Kikuchi duo work with leading Japanese percussionist Masahiko Togashi.

Masahiko Togashi was one of very first Japanese free-jazz drummer in early 60s, but after accident in late 60s he wasn't able to play drums anymore. He switched to percussion and developed very complex and loose own techniques.Here on "Poesy" Masahiko demonstrates it in whole.

"Poesy" isn't characteristic album for Japanese early 70s jazz scene - it isn't loud,noisy,dissonant and quirky. No-one push music to the limit here. Kikuchi is obviously influenced by American jazz tradition, he plays tuneful and even warm piano,but without sentimentalism or catchy appeal of some his later works.He even doesn't scream a lot when playing on Jarrett's manner(he will develop this techniques later, but you still can hear him here as well what shows that he did it originally,with no relation to this Jarrett's manner; Jarrett will become star after few years).

"Poesy" is a great title for this music,just think about Western-Japanese cocktail,mixing European tradition with American freedom and Eastern Buddhist meditativeness.Music sounds well balanced as rarely,being beautiful,adventurous and stimulating at the same time.

Kikuchi will return back to States soon where he will stay for decades till now.He will release many albums developing his own style (some of them are really successful, others-not so much).Gary Peacock will become a real ECM star playing with Jarrett and Paul Motian among others (his Japanese period collaborations stay one of his most interesting works till now). Masahiko Togashi continued to enjoy Japan's cult percussionist status for decades ahead.

This album (with magnificent full title "Poesy:The Man Who Keeps Washing His Hands")was reissued on CD and became easier accessible evidence of great times in jazz.

TIM BERNE Shadow Man

Album · 2013 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Composer and sax player Tim Berne music was never an easy listening, "Shadow Man",his second album for ECM is even less so.

Known for decades as one of leaders of contemporary New York avant-garde jazz, Berne was known by his explosive and noisy recordings with electric band first of all. When in 2012 he released his first ever album for ECM, some his old fans decided that he's selling out (my old friend,originally physical engineer,but who lives organizing jazz concerts and running jazz label for years said that year he's not interested in Tim Berne's music anymore). Were they right? I don't think so.

Even on Berne's first ECM album,"Snakeoil",he demonstrated new concept,combining unusual for him fully acoustic quartet's music with crisp ECM sound. Second album,released an year after, "Shadow Man" is recorded by same acoustic quartet, this time in New York with assistance of Berne's one-time collaborator David Torn. Both albums are studio-recorded under well-known ECM attention to sound quality and details.And them both perfectly show the other side of Berne's music - great composer and almost pedantic studio musician. Comparing with ECM debut, "Shadow Man" is more matured,deeper - and being seriously pre-composed - freer. It's obvious that all quartet feel more comfortable in their new music, which is quirky,complex,multi-layered and beautiful at the same time.

More than 70 minutes long, this album doesn't sound like such. Even experienced listener will hardly separate where composed is changed with improvised and vise versa. Never Berne's music has been recorded with such attention to smaller details, and at the same time it didn't become too bloodless or mannerist,not at all. Even more - besides of five Berne's originals there is one Paul Motian song - "Psalm", full of sensitiveness and beauty,which was hardly imaginable on Berne's albums from previous decades.

Most probably the formula of success lays on original combination of Berne's NY avant-garde jazz tradition and ECM studio excellence,leaving European chamber jazz influence (which makes many ECM releases so face-off) aside.

This album with no doubt requires repeating listening and with every spin opens more and more new sides. One among few current time jazz albums,looking not in the past but towards advanced jazz future.

MATTHEW SHIPP Piano Sutras

Album · 2013 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
In a world over laden with talented jazz pianists, Matthew Shipp is able to stand out, not just for his technique, but more for his unique musical vision that combines the history of avant-garde jazz piano with modern abstract post bop and 20th-21st century concert hall music. “Piano Sutras”, released in 2013, makes for a great introduction to Shipp and the variety of styles he can employ. Although the jazz elements are here, much of this album sounds like a modern concert hall recital, which is no big surprise given the extant to which jazz has influenced the typical modern composer. In fact, it would not be surprising if someone thought this was a recital featuring a sampling of modern composers as each of these pieces seems to have its own distinct personality.

Album opener and title track, “Piano Sutras”, kicks things off in concert hall mode, sounding at times like a modernized version of Scriabin. Follow up track, “Cosmic Shuffle”, gets us back on a jazz joint as Shipp visit’s the early days of stride and boogie and runs them through the abstract de-constructionist blender. Later track, “Blues to a Point”, also uses older jazz styles, reworked for the new century. Its not uncommon for reviewers to compare Shipp to Cecil Taylor, and the similarities do exist, but the difference being that Shipp’s approach to Taylor’s jagged expressionism is more subdued and refined as would fit today’s jazz sound. “Uncreated Light” is one track that carries the Taylor mark with its heavy noisy low end rumbles and harsh blues based riffs.

There are two well-known standards on here. “Giant Steps’ is given a brief spin with Shipp just letting the chords float on their own without too much embellishment, possibly a nice contrast to those who always try to cram as many notes onto “Giant Steps” as they can. “Nefertiti” is the other familiar number, which Shipp plays with considerable low end murkiness, possibly in contrast to other’s overly pretty versions of the same tune. Both songs are used more for their harmonic colors, rather than an excuse to solo.

This is an excellent CD, especially if you enjoy that esoteric place where modern jazz meets modern classical music. You can listen to “Piano Sutras” many times and still always hear something new. This is music that rewards close listening.

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