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.

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This list is in progress since the site is new. We invite all logged in members to use the "quick rating" widget (stars bellow album covers) or post full reviews to increase the weight of your rating in the global average value (see FAQ for more details). Enjoy JMA!

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avant-garde jazz Music Reviews

WADADA LEO SMITH Wadada Leo Smith & John Lindberg : Celestial Weather

Album · 2015 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Finnish TUM label is a home for US giant trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith most significant European recordings,mostly all monumental by form and size (incl. some double-CD studio releases). Smith's most current music isn't easy accessible,but is uniquely deep and represents one of the best modern creative genres borders crossing jazz around.

Wadada's newest TUM release isn't another monumental work as we could expect though. "Celestial Weather" is a collection of bare-naked minimalist duets with Smith' regular acoustic bassist John Lindberg, all duo's originals.

Divided to three parts, "Celestial Weather" demonstrates another side of Wadada - with same bassist he plays for decades Wadada feels very comfortable on almost chamber pre-composed pieces and very free-improvisational songs.

Recorded just by trumpeter and double bassist duo,this album is surprisingly filled with music. Sounds are clear and often quite ascetic,but it is not an album where nothing happens or where silence is a big part of recorded sound. It is quite different from Smith more bombastic works and probably not every fan of Great Lakes Suites or Ten Freedom Summers will like "Celestial Weather", but in on its own way this new release is a really important example of Wadada's creative legacy.

KENNY GILL What Was, What Is, What Will Be

Album · 1971 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
In the late 70s, you could go to the very back of a used record store’s jazz section and find all the obscure late 60s-early 70s records that people had unloaded. The late 60s was an interesting period in which the avant-garde, soul jazz and early fusion all converged into what many later called ‘spiritual jazz’. Lengthy African influenced jams, in which almost anything could happen and horn players played hand percussion when they weren’t soloing, were the style of the times. These albums were easy to spot due to the colorful dashikis and massive hair styles of the participants. It is from this cultural backdrop that we get this very Coltrane influenced album, “What was. What is and What will be”, by pianist Kenny Gill. Some sources list this album as rare, but since it can be found on eBay for around $12, it must not be that rare, but its certainly not common either.

Gill has an all-star band on hand here. Bob Berg, Carlos Garnett, Stafford James and Norman Connors were all in the very early stages of their career at this point, but all four went on to enjoy success, but not without their own share of ups and downs. Although there is plenty of free playing on here, this isn’t just a jam session as Gill is very much into arrangements. The music on here varies from straight up modal jams to atonal free parts, as well as long solemn statements that sound like calls to prayer. Gill’s playing reflects his devotion to John Coltrane in that he can channel both McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane, yet other times Gill has his own high speed jittery voice that may remind some of Cecil Taylor, but without Taylor’s sheer power.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding this album, who is Kenny Gill and where is he now, and why only one record from him? If you look around on the internet, you will find that at about the same time Gill recorded this on the WB’s Racoon label, he helped the three remaining members of the Youngbloods fulfill a recording contract obligation for the same label by recording a sarcastic Dadaist FU type album called “Crab Tunes/Noggins”. Apparently Gill’s intense piano playing was what they needed to make the album sound over the top. So possibly “What was…” was the Youngbloods thank you to Gill for helping them, or possibly they heard “What was..” first and decided he’d be perfect for the Noggins project, who knows.

LISA ULLÉN Lisa Ullén Quartet : Borderlands

Album · 2016 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Korea-born Sweden-residing pianist Lisa Ullen is probably better known outside of Sweden by her collaborations with another Korean ex-patriot, New York resident cellist Okkyung Lee. In Nordic countries Lisa is well-known as highly experimental contemporary classic/improvisational/jazz musician.

Ullen debut album as leader has been released right a decade ago. Even if "Borderlands" is third quartet's album, and the line-up isn't changed a lot during these years(the only different member on new release is bassist Nils Ölmedal,who changed Ulf Åkerhielm participated on debut album), Lisa Ullen Quartet isn't a working band.Just time to time experienced members busy with other works reunite for recording of some new material.Of all three other quartet musicians,trombonist Mats Äleklint is probably most known artist (member of leading Nordic jazz bands Angles, Fire!Orchestra, All Included,Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, etc).Drummer Andreas Axelsson is better known as singer/vocalist in different metal bands(incl. Marduk,Edge Of Sanity,etc).Bassist Ulf Åkerhielm is a member of less known but excellent Brus Trio,the band which recorded with Roscoe Mitchell,John Tchicai and Charles Tyler.

Still, the music on Ullen Quartet third album isn't typical Scandinavian melodic and eclectic mix of jazz,rock and Balkan rhythms as one could probably expect from line-up. One of Lisa's more "jazzy" project, the Quartet plays quirky mix of free jazz, contemporary classical avant-garde and free improvisation. There are lot of rhythms,overlapping structures and distorted trombone sounds, Ullen piano techniques are obviously influenced by Cecil Taylor (or better to say Masahiko Satoh - kind of "Japanese Cecil Taylor" with very percussive playing but differently from Taylor on Far-Eastern manner free of emotional coloring).

There are lot of silence as part of music, not everything works and 53-minutes long album sounds too long at the final part. But at their best moments Quartet demonstrates vital and even playful eclectic modern avant-garde jazz, influenced by everything and influencing many other musical genres.

PHAROAH SANDERS Tauhid

Album · 1967 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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liontime
Tauhid is an excellent work nearly on par with 1969's Karma. This record should not be overlooked by fans of avant-garde jazz, especially devotees of the trinity that is Coltrane, Ayler and Sanders. If you're here for the extraterrestrial, multi-tonal saxophone playing - you'll certainly find it.

The album begins with dense, modal piano, tremolo guitar and scattered percussion with Sanders characteristic sleigh bells periodically brightening the mix. At around five minutes, the band rests while Henry Grimes bows a few slow bars on the bass followed by Sanders coming in on the flute. The band members trade off improvising, often alone, until the nine minute mark when Dave Burrell comes in with the main piano riff that will last until the end of the first side of the record. The whole band comes in and Sanders finally lets loose on the sax; his performance is as masterful and 'out there' as ever, and if you're already a Pharoah fan - you know what to expect.

On side two of the album, my personal favorite Sanders track begins. 'Japan' only features Sanders on vocals; the melody is simple and amiable with gentle accompaniment from the rest of the band. Sanders' spiritual approach to music is perfectly manifested in this song, and one feels a harmony and closeness with Sanders that can't be found anywhere else in his discography. 'Japan' is a true highlight of the avant-garde era; its gentle approach unlike any other artist of the time.

The last track begins with a drum solo that quickly turns into group free improvisation. It is a medley with three parts that features plenty of Sanders on saxophone. This track is sonically more experimental and challenging than the first track, but there are still moments of blissful rest. The outro is sparse and quiet, with Sanders playing a slow exit.

HARRIS EISENSTADT Old Growth Forest

Album · 2016 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Harris Eisenstadt is probably most popular Canadian jazz drummer of younger generation. With no doubt for many listeners his name associates with "Canada Day" series of nu jazz albums first of all, but he has released some avant-garde and third stream music as leader as well.

On Harris' newest album as leader, released on Portuguese Clean Feed label, he plays original compositions with tree renown American advanced jazz artists. With two of them - trombonist Jeb Bishop and bassist Jason Roebke - Eisenstadt already played in same trio (led by Bishop) and even released one album on Polish Not Two label eight years ago.Harris current quartet includes one new member - tenor Tony Malaby, one of brightest contemporary advanced jazz sax player around.

Album's material has been recorded spontaneously in a studio right after two gigs in New York's The Stone. All musicians are true professionals and mostly had some experience playing together, but lot of time has gone from these dates. The material (even if Eisenstadt is stated as composer) is obviously mostly free-improvised, and it's obvious that the quartet isn't a working band.

Despite of all members' professionalism, recorded music contains only a few attractive moments. Most of the time the listener gets quite bulky and not too much inspired jam session,demonstrating how great musicians constantly are loosing their ways. Started from nowhere, the flow of short snippets tries to get the direction or at least to be transformed in better interplay,but generally it never happens. The final impression is that four great musicians must to play the jam they don't have inspiration for.

With no doubt this album's line-up will attract many fans of modern creative jazz, but I afraid only hottest fans will probably find it at least enjoyable.

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