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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avant-garde jazz Music Reviews

NATE WOOLEY Argonautica

Album · 2016 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Oregon-born, Brooklyn-based trumpeter Nate Wooley is one (together with cornetist Kirk Knuffke) on the forefront of today's New York adventurous jazz scene. Prolifically documented, Wooley is known by series of very experimental recordings,where he plays using different parts of his disassembled horn,adds vocalization,noise,drones,amplification,etc. At the same time, he released some really accessible music, as "(Dance To) The Early Music",where he plays compositions of Wynton Marsalis.

Nate's new release "Argonautica" is of that category which modern jazz market really needed. For younger generation's numerous jazz fans, who's main listening is different forms of jazz fusion, and who is bored by predictability and limitations of that genre,"Argonautica" builds a bridge to more adventurous but still accessible areas of modern jazz.

The album contains one long composition, but there is no reason to afraid of continued noodling or free form abstract constructions. On "Argonautica" Wooley starts where early Miles Davis'(or very first Weather Report albums') creative fusion has been finished and carefully moves towards freer improvisation and more modern sound never loosing fusion ground under his legs.

Wooley's band is actually a double-trio here: two trumpeters, two pianists and two drummers.One trio is led by Wooley himself and the other - by veteran cornetist Ron Miles. Other band's members are Tyshawn Sorey trio's pianist Cory Smythe with Bureau Of Atomic Tourism's keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin on Rhodes plus drummers Devin Grey and Rudy Royston.

Differently from Miles early fusion, reeds don't fly over the band's sound, instead one can hear lot of fragmented snippets,short solos and variable sounds/noises, sometimes spiced with Dumoulin electronics. Drums and piano generate busy environment and Rhodes goes even funky.

"Argonautica", one almost forty-three minute long composition, is actually a kaleidoscope of all the time changing movements inside of the selected formula's frame. Balancing precisely between fusion and free, it represents fresh and never-boring accessible side of modern avant-garde jazz (or creative adventurous fusion - depending on listener's starting point).

MASAHIKO TOGASHI Masahiko Togashi + Masabumi Kikuchi : Concerto

Album · 1991 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Two Japanese jazz greats pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and percussionist Masahiko Togashi recorded “Concerto” in 1991 – quite prolific period for both (especially for Kikuchi who founded one of his most successful project Tethered Moon with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian right at that time). Released soon after, this duo album hasn't been noticed and became an obscurity. Many Kikuchi fans even don't know such release exists.

In 2016 it has been re-issued in Japan so it is much more accessible now. Being mostly known as an object of discussions between collectors (as rule no-one of them ever heard its content) – is this album really all that good?

Almost two-hour long collection of improvisations is obviously dominated by Kikuchi's piano work. It is probably most lyrical work of everything what Kikuchi has been ever recorded. Bigger part of this double-CD set is filled with down tempo piano pseudo-classical balladry, similar to Russian romantic classics coming from 19 century. Togashi's percussion doesn't produce the beat or rhythm of any kind and is used mostly for ascetic licks over sentimental piano recital.

Inexperienced listener can be fooled by tuneful accessibility of Kikuchi's piano and easily imagine he's listening to slightly modernized chamber romanticism piano pieces. Only after some time one can cath up that music generally starts nowhere and goes to eternity. Familiar with Kikuchi's later recordings knows that he introduced very own avant-garde improvisational techniques, playing accessible liquid tunes' snippets in never-ending cyclic way. In fact, such kind of music can be started at any place of CD and can be finished same way – the resulted piece will be almost as representative as any other taken from the double set.

On some pieces (like “Passing Breeze”) Togashi's percussion takes more initiative and adds more blood to previously almost meditative piano-dominated music. “Unbalance” (longest album's composition lasting 16+ minute) particularly destroys chamber lullabies for characteristic Togashi's percussive air temples and quite refined piano-percussion duels.

Still in all whole album obviously missing dynamics and too often occurs dangerously close to monotonous sound-wallpaper. Few atonal and more percussive pieces demonstrate better balance between tuneful melancholic atmosphere and dramatic tension, but there are not enough of them to save the album from "lullaby" effect.

So - it's great that one more "secret album" of Japanese avant-garde jazz became accessible for public, but it could be mostly recommended for listeners,familiar with Togashi and Kikuchi (avant-garde period) music. Newbies can be seriously disappointed.

KEITH TIPPETT You Are Here... I Am There

Album · 1970 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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ALotOfBottle
”The jazz scene in Britain was never that exciting. It was always such hard work.” -Pete Sinfield [BBC Prog Rock Britannia, 2009]

Simultaneously with the explosion of “new” post-psychedelic rock music in the United Kingdom in the late sixties, the country’s youth was also breeding a distinctive jazz scene. One of the key figures in the movement was Keith Tippett, born in 1947. As a teenager, he studied piano and church organ, playing with various local bands in Bristol. At the age of 20, Tippett moved to London, wanting to find fulfillment as a jazz musician. Soon, he founded The Keith Tippett Group, a sextet consisting of Elton Dean on saxophone, Mark Charig on cornet, Nick Evans on trombone (all three musicians also contributed with Soft Machine at the time), as well as Alan Jackson on drums and Jeff Clyne upright bass. In January 1970, the band recorded what came to be, You Are Here… I Am There, Keith Tippett’s debut as a bandleader. The album was released on the Polydor label. As a side note, it was at that time that the pianist guested on King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon.

The overall atmosphere and aura of You Are Here… I Am There points at the influences of American jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Charles Mingus. The record shows a strong tendency, however, towards a distinctive sound that was, at the time, new, embraced by musicians such as Jan Garbarek and Ian Carr. Above all, Tippett’s compositional style bears traces of the artist’s classical training, unveiled by his harmonic and dynamic awareness and careful balance between improvisation and composition. At the same time, in a reasonable dose, the sextet also captures the kind of spiritual aspect of American jazz, particularly powerfully displayed by Albert Ayler, John and Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra.

A calm, meditative solo passage carefully bowed by Jeff Clyne on upright bass opens the first piece on the album. “This Evening Was Like Last Year (To Sarah)” acts as a thoroughly absorbing foreplay. The crystal-like piano joins the instrument, working towards an uncertain atmosphere. The effective interaction is disturbed by the joining horn section. Very sleepy, yet pronounced notes of a saxophone, cornet, and trombone help the piano grow powerful with the band following the mode it sets. Suddenly, the whole band is given an adrenaline rush, the music becoming louder and more intricate. The dream-like texture of the opening is proficiently combined with wholesome horns. When the drums enter the equation, completing the whole line-up, the composition appears to have finally found its path, becoming less fluid. After reaching the climax, all of the instruments retreat, leaving the piano alone to open “I Wish There Was a Nowhere.” Very quickly, however, bass and drums join, settling on a repetitive groove, a base for what will turn out to be a lengthy jam, for Elton Dean on saxophone. Kurt Vonnegut’s description of Angela Hoenikker’s clarinet playing from his novel Cat’s Cradle would well render Dean’s solo which seems to go ”from liquid lyricism to rasping lechery to the shrill skittishness of a frightened child, to a heroin nightmare.” Soon, the groove fades away with Mark Charig’s cornet taking the lead. The mood becomes very mellow, recalling some of the most beautiful cool jazz ballads of Miles Davis. Unnoticeably slowly, the piece reclaims its weight, with all the musicians exploring countless improvisational regions. After a long piano solo, all of the instruments meet, leading to a beautiful ending of the track, adding a few whimsicalities on the way.

On side two, “Thank You For The Smile (For Wendy And Roger)” is based on a progression that seems a little… contrasted, different. The purpose becomes apparent after a very brief jam, where the wind instruments make a direct quotation of the theme from The Beatles’ hit “Hey Jude.” The listener comfortably lays back thinking ”Oh, okay, so this is the nature of the track, that’s where they are taking me.” Such a tongue-in-cheek interjection is very welcome, adding a bit of spice to the progress of the work as a whole. “Three Minutes From An Afternoon In July (To Nick)” opens with a Peter Brötzmann-esque sax, setting the stage for Nick Evans’ trombone melodies. The bells played by Giorgio Gomelsky, an iconic film maker, impresario, music manager, songwriter and record producer, add a little mysticism. Towards the end, Evans gets an a capella solo, before the dark “aftermath” from the whole band. “Battery Point (To John And Pete)”, a relatively short affair, starts with a carefully designed interplay between the horns, before a quieter passage with added upright bass, on which Jeff Clyne showcases his abilities without the support of the group. “Violence” reminisces bebop in its rapid pace, but utilizes harmonic solutions untypical of the movement. Every musician gets to display their improvisational skill on top of this rhythm. Just like every other instrument before, Alan Jackson is given some time for a drum solo, very energetic and accurate. “Stately Dance for Miss Primm” makes a bit of a difference in comparison to the material of side two with its funky pulse. Listeners should take note of the amazingly-thought wind instrument arrangements in the main theme. Elton Dean plays another wonderful, emotional solo, followed by Nick Evans’ take on improvisation. After the return of the main motif, the piece slowly descends into silence and that’s when we can hear a snippet of Tippett using something different than an acoustic piano. To my ears it sounds like an electric piano of a sort. An interesting mystery indeed.

Keith Tippett’s solo debut, You Are Here… I Am There showcases his distinguished compositional style in addition to exploration of numerous improvisational fields by him and his band mates. The material The Keith Tippet Group have got to offer on this release should be of interest to fans of jazz of musicians such as Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, and the already-named John Coltrane. However, those, who appreciate the jazzy side of progressive music with bands such as Soft Machine and Nucleus, should definitely get their hands on You Are Here… I Am There. A beautifully-tangled masterpiece!

RED TRIO Empire (with John Butcher)

Album · 2011 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Portuguese adventurous jazz scene during last decade demonstrated possibly biggest number of young and or new/newly discovered interesting musicians of all Europe. I can mention reedists Sei Miguel and Rodrigo Amado, or young generation sax player Susana Santos Silva among some others. But speaking about collectives,not individual artists, with no doubt first what comes to mind are Red Trio.

Debuted in 2010 with their self-titled album, the trio of double bassist Hernani Faustino,drummer/percussionist Gabriel Ferrandini and pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro are excellent example of true collective musicianship. There are no leader in a band, and not because of formal statement - their music is a result of equal participation when each member is right in place and it is impossible to imagine final music without his part.

Based more on Bill Dixon legacy,when the textures are not less important than structures and sounds, than on widely popular but obviously over-exploited way of noisy exalted free improvs or pseudo -intellectual structure-less noodling, Portuguese trio plays very modern post-jazz when elements of acoustic ambient, jazzy industrial/noise and more traditional acoustic jazz trio all are equal parts of aesthetically attractive musical picture.

On "Empire", band's second album (and first international release), trio collaborates with unorthodox British sax player John Butcher. Three compositions of vinyl-only release sounds fresh and demonstrates rare form of exploratory in modern jazz when searching of new forms doesn't separate music from listener. All album long open ears listener feels like he is participating in artists collaboration carefully and with high level of professionalism stepping ahead and even more - it looks like he goes with them this fragile and beauty way they are laying behind.

One great example of new millenium adventurous jazz, unfortunately out of press vinyl release only.

ORNETTE COLEMAN The Shape of Jazz to Come

Album · 1959 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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frankbernardi22
Since the first grooves, "The shape of jazz to come" (1959) shows all the alloy of a masterpiece. A son, this one by Ornette and Donald, lovely brooded by two creations that came before: "Something else!!!!" and "Tomorrow is the question". Should both vinyls be listened to - and loved - linked together, as the two moments have common roots, and that's more than a story or a concept: it's the developement of a large extended view. As Bob Palmer of "Rolling Stones" will write on the back of Ornette's "Science Fiction" at the beginning of the Seventies, the first thing in Ornette's appearing "is that it grabs you inside before you 'undestand' it intellectually. Ornette doesn't wait for introduction". At the same time all that should be unattainable and dumb without Coleman and friend's "years of discipline and determination". Here we are more on a Davis' side than on a Coltrane's, and we certainly don't speak of abnegation and sacrifice (taken for granted) , but of clearness of purposes. Being, the aim, in Ornette and Miles, the return to the core of music, to the African root: well different the shape of path, but very similar under the "weight", the proportions, the rigour of the output (in the meantime Trane "lays out" meditating on the meaning of it all). The '59 masterpiece (in this case "The Shape...", not "Kind of Blue"!) finds brilliantly and easily the prints let in "Tomorrow...": first tune, "Lonely woman", has that bitter taste found in "Lorraine", with its funeral march atmosphere (that will be unbeatable in "Beauty is a rare thing" from "This is our music"); and from "Focus on Sanity" (also in "The Avant Garde" with Coltrane and Cherry) to the ending "Chronology", Coleman's "speech" gives demonstration of itself without any need of utter explanation. At the same time, the severe placement of mics for capturing the sound of the combo, finds a sort of acoustic resolution of the project. Each horn a channel, the rest for sublime machine Haden and Higgins, immune from the fear of empty spaces. Here the silence is coinceived like a 5th sideman, or more. And silence has been one of great Miles' best friends too...















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