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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ERIC DOLPHY 'Out to Lunch!' Album Cover 'Out to Lunch!'
ERIC DOLPHY
4.60 | 57 ratings
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PHAROAH SANDERS Karma Album Cover Karma
PHAROAH SANDERS
4.61 | 35 ratings
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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
4.74 | 8 ratings
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GRAHAM COLLIER Darius Album Cover Darius
GRAHAM COLLIER
4.88 | 4 ratings
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GRACHAN MONCUR III Some Other Stuff Album Cover Some Other Stuff
GRACHAN MONCUR III
4.71 | 8 ratings
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PHAROAH SANDERS Elevation Album Cover Elevation
PHAROAH SANDERS
4.66 | 10 ratings
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PHAROAH SANDERS Live at the East Album Cover Live at the East
PHAROAH SANDERS
4.85 | 4 ratings
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WAYNE SHORTER The All Seeing Eye Album Cover The All Seeing Eye
WAYNE SHORTER
4.60 | 15 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
4.75 | 5 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
4.75 | 4 ratings
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ERIC DOLPHY Last Date Album Cover Last Date
ERIC DOLPHY
4.75 | 4 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
4.53 | 13 ratings
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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

JIMMY GIUFFRE Music for People, Birds, Butterflies and Mosquitos (aka Night Dance)

Album · 1973 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Reeds player Jimmy Giuffre started his musical career as a respectable West Coast cool jazz artist, but in the late 50s switched to his own chamber avant-garde jazz. Not explosive, harsh or noisy, as the dominating free jazz of the time, Giuffre built solid ground for a more intelligent and well-balanced stream, which influenced hundreds of jazz musicians for the upcoming decades and partially re-vitalized the more adventurous wing of the so-called ECM sound of 70s and 80s.

After a series of genre-defining albums, Giuffre stopped recording as a leader in early 60s, occasionally playing in rare collaborations. His "Music For People, Birds, Butterflies & Mosquitoes", originally released in 1973 after a decade of silence, wasn't noticed at the time of release, and stayed underrated for decades. This is not particularly unusual, mid-70s was a very different time for jazz.

Remastered reissue released by Candid 50 years after the original release gives the rare opportunity to perceive it now, from the distance of time. Minimalist acoustic trio with both lesser known Japanese bassist Kiyoshi Tokunaga (who played with Giuffre on few more upcoming albums) and American percussionist Randy Kaye plays bare-naked groovy compositions, heavily rooted in bluesy hard bop. Giuffre himself plays tenor sax, flute and clarinet, twelve short compositions all contain snippets of tunes, but are quite free at the same time. More than once the album's music brings an association with Eric Dolphy's "Out To Lunch", just Giuffre's drum-less trio sounds more abstract and chamber comparing with Dolphy's free-bop.

Reissued album's sound is excellent, with rich acoustic bass, well-separated percussion and spacey, but deep reeds. At best, Giuffre builds a bit melancholic but cool atmosphere with his ascetic but tuneful pieces. Still, from some point the album's music can sound a bit repetitive and directionless too.

All in all, "Music For People, Birds, Butterflies & Mosquitoes" is one among the better Giuffre post 60s albums, and an interesting addition for an underrated jazz giant legacy.

NOAH HOWARD The Black Ark

Album · 1972 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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Rexorcist
Noah Howard is someone very few people actually know beyond maybe one album. Usually that album is The Black Ark, which some rank among the finest free jazz albums in the world. I'm a bit shaky on free jazz as it's proved more challenging to find releases that flat-out amaze me, and that much of it is based on general dicking around rather than forming a consistent whole with a strong vibe. Jazz is one of the pinnacle "vibe" musical genres, so if it doesn't have strong vibes.

The way I see Noah Howard's albums, including The Black Ark, is that if this is his absolute best as people and online ratings say, there's at least one certain thing here. Noah Howard has shown himself to be able to progress experimental jazz into shifting territories pretty well. I can appreciate how his songs are shifting into a new kind of rhythm ever couple minutes or so, maybe even every minute, whether slowly or quickly, and these pieces feel like they belong on the same song. Sometimes this is intriguing, but other times the album feels simple and generic. If you transitioned the post-bop of Art Blakey's albums, I think you'd get a similar composition but with more oomph.

This is especially true for the second half, in which the vast majority of tricks have either been done before, or are drawn out longer than their welcome. So this is a blatant sign of an obviously dominant side A. The album's pretty fine, but after having heard much of this not only from other free jazz albums but other jazz albums across the spectrum, I don't really feel the need to go back to this.

RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK Prepare Thyself to Deal With a Miracle

Album · 1973 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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Rexorcist
Roland switches between more avant-garde pieces and more spiritual pieces. We get an incredible calm on Seasons right after an uneccesarily repetitive and somewhat lacking opener which feels experimental for the sake of it. This ars gratia artis behavior largely succeeds when atmosphere comes into place. But even though Seasons is an improvement over the opener, while the calm is beautiful, sometimes it can be a little too much, as if there's really not much diversification between each part of a song. So in the end our experience is mostly ups and downs. Celestial Bliss is a different track, using a little bit of funk to create a tribal and rustic feel, like listening to some friends play jazz around a campfire. It had its charm throughout the whole track.

The second half is made up of one 20-minute track: Saxophone Concerto, which is also divided into three connected sections. The first of these is Saxophone Miracle, which is hardly miraculous and more standard for avant-garde compositions. It's a nice beat but that's about it. In fact, it feels more like post-bop by complete accident. This is fixed after about six-and-a-half minutes when the music becomes more hypnotic and nocturnal on the second third, One Breath Beyond. Unfortunately, this section eventually just focuses on repitition for mood, and gets overdone. The third act, Dance of Revolution, brings out the free jazz and keeps things both serene and complex, bringing the epic to a good close.

Overall, the whole album was fairly well put together but still left me wanting. The first half gradually got better, but the second half wasn't as well-written as it could've been.

PHAROAH SANDERS Karma

Album · 1969 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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Rexorcist
I've been on a spiritual kick for a few days now, as I'm trying to force onto myself a top 50 spiritual jazz albums list, and then move onto free jazz and diversify a top 100 avant-garde. As you can see, I'm proudly autistic. I just love making lists! But these lists have to be PERFECT. So I demand perfection. And lemme tell you, spiritual jazz is a challenge. While I absolutely adore atmosphere, I don't like it when songs are too long. I even have trouble with Frankie M. So I need something that switches and diversifies every few minutes, even from a spiritual jazz album. Thankfully, Pharoah Sanders often builds his albums on this concept, and the best example is Karma.

I recently compared Karma to his other big hit album led by Alice Coltrane: Journey in Satchidananda. Both are incredible, but I wanted to know which album I prefered since I hadn't heard either in a while. Now I know it's Karma. See, the reason Karma is the best example of Pharoah's love of switching things up (as shoved in our faces for proof on Thembi), Karma puts 80% of its runtime on 1 track. This track is the very essence of Pharoah Sanders' style. It has sparse but scattered vocal chanting of a very ritualistic and calming style accompanying an up-and-down rollercoaster that brings us into the spiritual world of heaven, drags us down to the free jazz chaos of our own world, and back up and back down and back up, ending with a culmination of both complexity and atmosphere for its second track., diversifying itself from the 32-minute epic. This journey is much great than Alice Coltrane's, who keeps us in the mysticism of Earth while Pharoah goes astral.

I should also mention that this is one of the very first avant-garde jazz albums I'd recommend to anyone to get them invested in jazz, telling them to just let the music take them away into another world and not worry about a beginning and an end. This album, despite its obvious avant-garde behavior, is actually pretty accessible in comparison to a lot of avant-garde jazz out there. This, Journey in Satchidananda and Tauhid are the three starting points I'd recommend for a beginner. Karma is currently in my top 20 albums of all-time, if not solely due to the fact that Pharoah mastered his style so early in his solo adventures.

MAX ROACH The Max Roach Trio featuring the Legendary Hasaan

Album · 1965 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
One of the most innovative and interesting piano players in jazz history, Hasaan Ibn Ali, was almost never recorded, but fortunately Max Roach put pressure on Atlantic records to record the guy and Atlantic finally relented under the stipulation that the album featuring Hasaan be released under Max’s name, hence the album, “The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan’ came to pass. After the release of this album there was enough interest in Hasaan to have him come record some more, but unfortunately incarceration over drugs got in the way and his recordings were shelved and presumed lost. Fortunately some of those recordings have been dug up and released, so now there are a few more recordings under the Hasaan name, but without this one Roach album, everything would have probably been forgotten.

All of the song’s on ‘Max Roach Featuring Hasaan’ are Hasaan’s compositions, and they reveal his very personal take on what jazz could be. It is an avant-garde album for its time, but it is far from free jazz. Hasaan lays out what he wants from his musicians, and Roach and bassist Art Davis are creative enough to pick up on his vision. A casual listen might reveal a rather dissonant hard bop album, but closer listens show that the rhythmic concepts of this album were way ahead of their time. The musicians seem to hold a pulse together, but it is constantly morphing and changing every couple of bars. The musicians seem to be almost independent of each other, yet they manage to keep it all together somehow.

Tonally, Hasaan is often compared to a cross between Monk and Cecil Taylor, more or less a very dissonant hard bopper. He was also heavily influenced by outside bebopper Elmo Hope and can sometimes recall Herbie Nichols, Jaki Byard and maybe some of Mal Waldron’s more outside excursions. Throughout the album, harsh atonal tone clusters can come slamming down followed by scattered skittish rapid flurries of single notes tempered with unpredictable rhythmic variations. Since Hasaan’s music sounds right at home in the 21st century, you could also reference Matthew Shipp and Jason Moran as pianists who cover somewhat similar ground. This is one of those albums you can listen to over and over again and always find something new.

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