Avant-Garde Jazz

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In brief:

The Avant-garde Jazz genre at JMA generally consists of jazz that is usually atonal, and quite often a-rhythmic as well. Avant-garde jazz can be ‘free’, in that there is no prescribed structure for the musicians to follow, or there may be some sort of compositional structure being used as well. Other factors that can result in an avant-garde tag include the use of extremes, such as extremely loud music, or extremely quiet music etc. Also, experimental presentations can be considered, such as a piece where the performers are playing without being able to hear each other, or all of the musicians are submerged in water, etc. Generally the Avant-garde Jazz genre is reserved for musicians from a jazz background, but JMA also includes some non-jazz avant-garde musicians in our Jazz Related Improvisation/Composition genre.

The history:

In all arts, the term avant-garde refers to those who lead the way towards experimentalism and change. This was true in music up until about the mid-60s, when western concepts of harmony and structure hit a breaking point. Prior to the 60s, western concepts of musical advancement centered around increasingly chromatic harmonies moving towards atonality, and increasing difficulties and complexities in rhythm. This breaking point, or dead end for western ideas of continued advancement occurred in the world of concert hall music with John Cage’s chance operations, and it occurred in the jazz world with the arrival of ‘free jazz’. Both John Cage’s aleatoric music, and free jazz, turned western ideas of linear advancement on their head and instead showed the ongoing development of music to be more like a snake swallowing its tail, more circular than linear. In other words, how different was ‘free jazz’ from early man’s attempts to intuitively make music with a hollow log or reed. Surely there are differences, but there are also unmistakable similarities.

After this sort of philosophical breaking point, the term ‘avant-garde’ found a final resting place in the world of jazz as being jazz that is usually atonal, often a-rhythmic and quite often free of any structure. Over the years, many avnt-garde jazz artists began to mix compositional structure with free style playing, but there still continues to be devotees to a 60s style totally free approach.

As we move further into the 20th century, what is termed “avant-garde jazz’ may not necessarily be on the front-lines of change, instead, Avant-garde Jazz as defined by JMA, and as defined by most jazz resources stands as one more genre with its own fixed history, definitions and boundaries. Today’s artist can chose elements from the ‘avant-garde’ as well as any of the other historical jazz genres. In today’s jazz world, the elements introduced by the avant-garde are alive and well, and more common than ever, but many artists today will mix those avant-garde elements with all the other stylistic elements musicians can choose from. Today's top jazz composers and performers often challenge themselves to make music that blurs boundaries such as free and structured, or atonal and tonal.

From a musician’s point of view, the advent of free jazz opened some doors, and closed some others. The initial impact of the freedom was exhilarating as artists like Lennie Tristano, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp and Albert Alyer unleashed some of the greatest jazz ever recorded, but in time, a lack of harmonic changes (chord changes) to work with made many musicians feel like they were playing the same solo over and over. After the initial explosion of the mid 60s, many musicians were happy to go back to the eternal challenge of trying to reconstruct music from a set of complex and harmonically rich chord changes. Still, there continues to be artists such as Joe Morris, Ivo Perelman, Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann, who continue to make meaningful modern free jazz.

avant-garde jazz top albums

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HENRY THREADGILL Henry Threadgill & Make A Move ‎: Everybodys Mouth's A Book Album Cover Henry Threadgill & Make A Move ‎: Everybodys Mouth's A Book
HENRY THREADGILL
4.92 | 5 ratings
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CECIL TAYLOR 3 Phasis Album Cover 3 Phasis
CECIL TAYLOR
5.00 | 3 ratings
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GRACHAN MONCUR III Some Other Stuff Album Cover Some Other Stuff
GRACHAN MONCUR III
4.77 | 6 ratings
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GRAHAM COLLIER Darius Album Cover Darius
GRAHAM COLLIER
4.88 | 3 ratings
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SUN RA Live at Montreux Album Cover Live at Montreux
SUN RA
5.00 | 2 ratings
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BILL DIXON Intents & Purposes Album Cover Intents & Purposes
BILL DIXON
5.00 | 2 ratings
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JOHN COLTRANE Last Performance at Newport July 2 1966 Album Cover Last Performance at Newport July 2 1966
JOHN COLTRANE
5.00 | 2 ratings
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ERIC DOLPHY 'Out to Lunch!' Album Cover 'Out to Lunch!'
ERIC DOLPHY
4.63 | 49 ratings
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PHAROAH SANDERS Elevation Album Cover Elevation
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4.71 | 8 ratings
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CECIL TAYLOR Silent Tongues (aka I Grandi Del Jazz) Album Cover Silent Tongues (aka I Grandi Del Jazz)
CECIL TAYLOR
4.78 | 4 ratings
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KENNY WHEELER Kenny Wheeler / Lee Konitz / Dave Holland / Bill Frisell : Angel Song Album Cover Kenny Wheeler / Lee Konitz / Dave Holland / Bill Frisell : Angel Song
KENNY WHEELER
4.83 | 3 ratings
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SUN RA Sun Ra And His Astro Infinity Arkestra : Atlantis Album Cover Sun Ra And His Astro Infinity Arkestra : Atlantis
SUN RA
4.61 | 12 ratings
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avant-garde jazz Music Reviews

MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS Levels And Degrees Of Light

Album · 1968 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
"Levels And Degrees Of Light",released more than a half-century ago, is an almost forgotten cornerstone evidence of the entire epoch, and that's a shame. One of AACM founder pianist Muhal Richard Abrams (or simply Richard Abrams at the time of release) debut contains lot of ideas which have been developed for upcoming decades with a great success.

Just three longish compositions, all different but beautiful in their own way. One big surprise is lot of ambient sounds, similar to "white noise" on two longest album's compositions, recalling early synthesizers sound. Not common in jazz, early (rare and really expensive) synthesizers attracted interest of some known pianists, as Paul Bley or Richard Teitelbaum among others,so there are some recordings coming from 70s with use of this instrument,but the biggest surprise is that there on "Levels And Degrees Of Light" no electronic devices are used at all!

Main sources of ambient noise are Gordon Emmanuel vibes on opener and Leroy Jenkins violin on "The Bird Song". On "Levels And Degrees Of Light" classically trained vocalist Penelope Taylor sings over the ambient sounds, with addition of Abrams soloing on clarinet. Album's longest composition "The Bird Song" (filling all B-side on original vinyl release, but stated second in line on CD reissue)contains characteristic for 60s recitative poetry (read by David Moore).

"My Thoughts Are My Future - Now And Forever" which closes digital edition of this album, is shorter and more usual for the time groovy high-energy free jazz composition with staccato piano,sax soloing from Anthony Braxton (most probably his first ever recorded work) and lot of space for drummer Thurman Barker.

The album which probably doesn't sound such a radical from time distance at the day of release was innovative and perfectly illustrated the musical concept of then newly established musical school/movement of innovative Chicagoan artists which is still alive and active nowadays.

RODRIGO AMADO Rodrigo Amado & Chris Corsano : No Place to Fall

Album · 2019 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Astral Spirits label started in 2014 as extravaganza of sort offering obscure left-field avant-garde/free improve artists music in a form of old-fashioned audio cassettes. It looked more like a hipster dream than real world idea to listen music which usually requires especially high quality sound from something what never was a synonym of "quality sound" or quality in general.

Still,five years after, they are alive and kicking with wide catalogue and more renown names in there. Becoming more earthy they started offering vinyl and CDs besides of cassettes as well.

On one of their newest releases one can find quite a regular free jazz recorded by duo of Rodrigo Amado and Chris Corsano. Reeds player Rodrigo Amado (using exclusively tenor sax on this record)is one of the main faces of very active Portuguese avant-garde jazz of last two decades. American drummer Chris Corsano played with Bjork on her "Volta" and collaborated with Evan Parker, Thurston Moore and Nels Cline among many others.

Reedist-drummer free form music, recorded in Lisbon studio five years ago is groovy, soulful and even bluesy in moments. As many other better Amado works, there are lot of tunes and emotions besides of big doze of energy. Rodrigo never loses his way of controlled improvisation and as a result songs sound quite accessible, almost memorable.

There are lot of straight-in-your-face flowing pieces, and some slower ones, but altogether the album (of cassette size, not too long - and I really like it more and more)works pretty well. The energy is more positive and optimistic then destroying, and some songs are almost free jazz ballads. Changing each other, the collection of musical pieces sound surprisingly orthodox, almost traditional in good sense(within such a nontraditional music as free jazz is)

Another strong work of one of better European jazz sax player. Portuguese jazz from "hot" switches to "mature" and stays one among most interesting scenes in Europe.

THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO Nice Guys

Album · 1979 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
The Art Ensemble of Chicago(AEOC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. They already played a series of gigs in US and announced upcoming European tour in October. Double album with new studio and some live recordings "We Are on the Edge" has been just released as well.

The band for all these decades was an unorthodox avant-garde celebrities of sort - their early circus-like shows and use of nontraditional sound instruments ("little instruments" - bells, bicycle horns, birthday party noisemakers,etc,etc)made them name partially around Europe as non-conformist forerunners, at the same time they were rarely supported by music critics and never experienced real commercial success. With years to come they received almost cult status as influential early avant-garde jazz band, but many newcomers are often disappointed when listening their one or another album.

There are many reasons why it happens that way, but the main one is their music worked well when evidenced live and in the times when them looked really alternative/counterculture act (i.i. late 60s -early 70s). The Western world was different and it wanted something revolutionary or even "revolutionary". They just started in right time (and in a case with Paris ca.1969 - in right place). Their music doesn't date all that well, at least some part of it.

The other reason why many their albums (to be honest - almost all) doesn't sound all that attractive today is on a peak of their early popularity they released plenty of badly recorded and edited music. All but one their albums recorded between 1969 and 1974 were released on tiny European (predominantly French) labels as BYG or America and often sound as unedited demos. In case with AEOC music bad sound mix and uninspired editing means that the listener receives a collection of muddy directless never-ending noises coming from small instruments time to time interrupted by tuneful marches and "true" instruments soloing. Those familiar with band's impressive discogs will probably agree that it is almost impossible to mention even a few really great their albums (in whole). As rule, even their better releases contain few stronger pieces and lot of fillers. At the same time, early live recordings are predominantly of bootleg quality and can be recommended for hot fans and collectors mostly.

Their first American major label release came in 1974 only (on Atlantic) and it stays one of their better works for sure. Second album has been released after five years only, and it is the one we are speaking about - "Nice Guys" on prestigious ECM! Musically it represents a wide variety of regular AEOC music, but in term of quality it is a big step ahead. Renown by their recordings exclusive airy clear sound, ECM people recorded the material in their main Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg with full respect to each of many sounds traditionally produced by band. At last the dedicated listener can hear every smallest bell's ring and car signal's call as if he's in a room where the band is playing live.

Surprisingly how much that sound/mix quality adds to band's music - being musically mostly the same on "Nice Guys" the band sounds much richer and for sure more attractively. Then, there are only 6 compositions chosen for the album and them mostly are all quite short (in AEOC terms). It means there are no long bulky "little instruments" soling at every possibility, as it was before. General band music's relaxed and improvisational nature is presented well enough but still all material is edited making it much more listenable.

The opener "Ja" contains reggae rhythms and is one of these band's songs that stays in memory for years. Less than two-minutes long "Nice Guys" is a groovy song nicely filling the gap between the opener and "Folkus" - a longer and freer composition demonstrating all the collection of band's "little instruments" and gongs sounds and excellent recording studio and ECM engineers abilities as well. And - it doesn't sound annoying or boring.

On "597-59" band runs ahead on whole cylinders with continuing reeds soloing over the groovy drums/bass shaking ground, in a true free jazz fashion. Finishes with extended solo bass dance.

"Cyp"doesn't have such busy sound as other album's compositions, it is slower,almost static with crispy sound from each instrument, free and near philosophical. "Dreaming of the Master" - the closer and longest album song, is dedicated to Miles Davis and surprisingly enough it sounds not much different from Miles himself, circa late 50s.At least in the beginning and the end - central part is dedicated to free jazz.

"Nice Guys" is a high quality representative AEOC album covering their first five years. As almost any other ECM release it has re-issued many times and it isn't a problem to find it for purchase. One better choice for newbies and anyone interested to find out why Art Ensemble of Chicago are celebrities till now. Find it, listen and then go to see them live.

WHIT DICKEY Whit Dickey & The Tao Quartets : Peace Planet & Box Of Light

Album · 2019 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
AUM Fidelity offers two albums recorded by two different bands as a double set. Core duo of leader seasoned drummer Whit Dickey and alto saxophone player Rob Brown play on both, and them both are named Tao Quartet.

A first one, responsible for "Peace Planet" contains two stars - pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker. Whit Dickey who made a name playing with David S. Ware, was a regular member of Matthew Shipp bands from 1992 till now. Matthew Shipp and William Parker both were regular members of same Ware quartet as Whit Dickey. Rob Brown recorded two duet albums with Shipp, and he's a regular William Parker band's member for two and a half decade. All that means all quartet members have excellent communication on five well-composed pieces full of tunes and great solos of each member. Stylistically music of this album stays quite close to what William Parker play with his small bands - tuneful well-controlled adventurous jazz with lot of excellent piano playing coming from Matthew Shipp.

With no obvious leadership, "Peace Planet" is collaboration of four equal jazz improvisers of highest class, enough accessible listening to attract fans of any of members and multilayered and creative for repetitive listening (and far not only one).

Second set's album,"Box Of Light", is a way different. Dickey-Brown duo is completed till (Tao) quartet with trombonist Steve Swell and bassist Michael Bisio instead of William Parker. Sounding as much bigger band, this another Tao quartet play freer jazz often sounding as just spontaneous improvisations. Tons of brass coming from sax player and trombonist constantly soloing against each other with groovy rhythm section represents best free jazz in tradition of lofts era. Just as with many of similar recordings there are not much stays in memory after whole album's listening besides of excellent member's techniques and impressive interplay.

Looking from the label's point of view probably it's easier to sell two albums packed in one set than try selling each of them separately. From consumer's side the opinion on such packaging can be different though. There is no choice of purchasing only one of two set's albums, so buy both or don't buy at all. Surprisingly, during some last years it became a fashion of sort - finding new single release of William Parker, Wadada Leo Smith or some others renown avant-garde jazz artist is mission impossible. Be ready for double or triple set. Sometimes bigger sets contains music which has strong relation and must be presented in continuity, then it sounds at least understandable. Double sets containing two separate albums of different bands or triple sets filled till their size mixing new, archival and already released material in different combination smell a bit like marketing trick. Avant-garde jazz becomes commercial product?

WILLIAM PARKER William Parker Quartets : Meditation / Resurrection

Album · 2017 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
There are quite a few avant-garde jazz veterans still creative and active around, but surprisingly enough some of them experience a true renaissance for last decade or more. Henry Threadgill or Wadada Leo Smith are great examples. Bassist William Parker, who played still with Cecil Taylor, is another one on the list. What is even more surprising, all three artists mentioned above during last years somehow switched towards more monumental forms of music releasing large scale recordings, from extended suites to double and triple disc sets one after another.

Parker's "Meditation/Resurrection" is another example of such release. Double-CD set contains twelve compositions recorded with two different bands, each on separate disc. The music presented is characteristic for Parker melodic groovy avant-garde jazz rooted in trad jazz and blues with African rhythmic elements and European composition influences.

Both parts sound not all that much different what is understandable - both are recorded by same William Parker core trio consisting of himself on acoustic bass,alto saxophonist Rob Brown and drummer Hamid Drake, just rounded out till quartet with two different musicians.

On a first CD it is a kalimba and trumpet player Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson. With Hamid Drake switching on gong and Parker himself playing tarota (a Catalan double-reed instrument) in moments, "Meditation" is quite a true title for this part. Partially relaxed, freer and esoteric, this music combines Eastern gathering with early jazz and blues marching playfulness.

On a second CD,"Resurrection", core Parker's trio contains their usual fourth member - pianist Cooper-Moore (all quartet is known under the name "In Order To Survive"). Here pianist is a significant player pushing the band towards more structured compositions with brilliant Rob Brown alto and Parker bass soloing above often bluesy in deep but complex and knotty piano-drums rhythmic flow.

Equally strong release among some more released by Parker during last years, not too massive but (as even more in case with his so beloved triple sets) would be more useful released as two separate albums. OK, his label probably has a different opinion here.

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