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

Showing only albums and live's | Based on members ratings & JMA custom algorithm | 24 hours caching

ERIC DOLPHY 'Out to Lunch!' Album Cover 'Out to Lunch!'
ERIC DOLPHY
4.60 | 55 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
4.77 | 7 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 | 3 ratings
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GRAHAM COLLIER Darius Album Cover Darius
GRAHAM COLLIER
4.88 | 4 ratings
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PHAROAH SANDERS Elevation Album Cover Elevation
PHAROAH SANDERS
4.71 | 8 ratings
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PHAROAH SANDERS Karma Album Cover Karma
PHAROAH SANDERS
4.55 | 33 ratings
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GRACHAN MONCUR III Some Other Stuff Album Cover Some Other Stuff
GRACHAN MONCUR III
4.69 | 7 ratings
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WAYNE SHORTER The All Seeing Eye Album Cover The All Seeing Eye
WAYNE SHORTER
4.60 | 12 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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PHAROAH SANDERS Live at the East Album Cover Live at the East
PHAROAH SANDERS
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
4.53 | 13 ratings
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KEITH JARRETT Sun Bear Concerts Album Cover Sun Bear Concerts
KEITH JARRETT
4.55 | 11 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

WHIT DICKEY Astral Long Form : Staircase In Space

Album · 2022 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Yesterday I used the rare opportunity to visit a retrospective exhibition of renown avant-garde artist, probably better known in Europe than in the States, Marina Abramovic. I made a 200 kilometres-long round trip on a warm summer day, and it was worth it. There were many Abramovic filmed happenings demonstrated on the big screens in a modern art gallery, in total darkness, many screens placed at the same hall. There was one, where she is cutting a five-pointed star around her belly button with a razor blade (so-called "Thomas Lips"), filmed in the year 1975. It was very impressive emotionally (knowing that Marina was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in a family of high level Communist party functionaries of former Socialist Yugoslavia), but at the same time it looked like it's coming from very old past. From the times, when the world was divided between modernists and conservatives, at a time of aggressive feminism, sexual revolution and lots of freedoms coming soon. Quite surprisingly, looking back from now at these protests, and the revolution looks very "organic", and let say "natural". And yes, free jazz was a part of it.

In a modern world, which is thousands years away, we understand all these freedoms as natural, but in fact, we are living in a much more conservative world. We have just a few formal restrictions, but we are not really free. Our lives are complex, and nowadays free jazz is not all that free anymore.

American drummer Whit Dickey is one the great figures of New Millennium creative jazz, working with many leaders of the scene. On "Astral Long Form: Staircase In Space" Dickey leads a quartet with sax player Rob Brown, viola player Mat Manieri and bassist Brandon Lopez. Their music is free, but also well organized, clever, knotty and still dreamy at times. One can hear some (possibly) pre-composed pieces here and there, but it still sounds as spontaneous very much. Tagged by the artist as "channeling ecstatic cosmic vibration", it has nothing too much in common with space psychedelia of the 60s. Being still rooted in Coltrane's legacy, it is very a modern take on things, the music, which is miles away from free jazz of "summer of love" era, its not "organic" or "natural" at all. And it is not naïve, it comes from our clever and already slightly tired world, much more complex than last century's 60s.

And it is among best soundtracks of today's life too.

JOHN COLTRANE John Coltrane/Archie Shepp : New Thing At Newport

Live album · 1966 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
This review of “New Thing at Newport” is based on the original LP on the Impulse! label, and what a beautiful production it is. You get a gatefold album cover with plenty of inside liner notes written by Nat Hentoff and Archie Shepp, plus a nice photo of Archie on the back cover decked out in about the coolest sports jacket you have ever seen. Shepp and John Coltrane share this album, but they do not play together. One track from Coltrane’s evening performance leads off the album, which is followed by four Shepp tracks that took place earlier that day in the afternoon.

Coltrane’s “One Down, One Up” is an absolute powerhouse performance from arguably the hottest quartet in jazz history. This is the last year that Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner will stay with John, but they certainly found their mountainous peak before moving on. The recording quality is pretty bad, but John and McCoy come through loud and clear. The lead melody is a short little RnB riff, but listen how Coltrane works it and develops it. There is a reason why other musicians consider him to be a genius and worthy of emulating. Possibly knowing what Coltrane was going to be doing that evening, Archie decides not to go for the same intensity during his afternoon performance. Instead, he presents an eclectic set of almost chamber-like avant-garde jazz, possibly somewhat similar to Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” album.

The recording quality on the Shepp tracks is much better, possibly the Coltrane set just had way too much sonic volume to deal with. “Rufus” is a free post bop number with great playing from Archie, as well as Bobby Hutcherson on vibes who is excellent all though his part of the album. “Le Matin des Noire” has some interesting arrangements and sometimes resembles a 20th century avant-garde classical piece. “Tracks” is a short little spoken diatribe against heroin and the injustices that encourage it, and “Call Me by My Rightful Name” is a ballad of sorts with Archie shifting between a pretty melody and very odd atonal excursions.

JOHN COLTRANE Concert In Japan

Live album · 1973 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
“John Coltrane Concert in Japan” does not have very good sound quality, but it is an important example of an important group at a time of important development. Back when this album was recorded (1966), it seemed all avant-garde jazz was poorly recorded, as if that was one more way of avoiding commercialism and/or the establishment. To this day I sometimes wonder if that was the case for some of the early free jazz albums. By 1966, free jazz was not exactly new anymore, but it was still fairly new to a lot of people and it would still take a few more years for free jazz to become an accepted part of the jazz world.

Although very much an avant-garde album when it was recorded, Coltrane’s playing on here is mostly tonal as he delivers sheets of modal scales and pentatonic colors. Pharoh Sanders, on the other hand, is more apt to slip into screams and exclamations, as well as making his saxophone sound like a pre-colonial African reed instrument no where near the European concert invention it is. Rashied Ali’s drumming continues the African vibe as he is able to sound like a large African percussion ensemble by himself. Alice Coltrane supplies cascading scales and chords, often imitating an Indian tamboura in the way she provides a constant background for the soloists. Jimmy Garrison on bass is the only person left from Coltrane’s more traditional previous group, but unfortunately you can barely hear him at all.

If Sanders and Ali bring an African sound, the Coltranes often seem to be channeling classical Indian music with John’s relaxed opening to “Peace on Earth” sounding much like a morning raga. The way the two Coltranes build their improvisations again recalls Indian ragas. Although, “Peace on Earth”, mostly lives up to its name, the rest of the music on here is quite intense, especially when Sanders gets everyone fired up with his fierce repeating atonal scales. On the closing track, Sanders and Coltrane finally solo together and what a hell raiser that is. Too bad there was not more of their simultaneous improvs on here.

SUN RA It Is Forbidden (at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in Exile)

Live album · 1974 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
This review of "At the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in Exile 1974 - It is Forbidden" by Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Arkestra, is about the vinyl LP version of this album. The CD has a few more tracks, although a lot of those tracks are songs that have been recorded and released many times before.

A quick sum up of this album would be; an excellent live performance captured with a sub-par recording. The album cover notes don't say how they recorded this, possibly off of the PA sound board. Fortunately you can hear most of the instruments and the balance isn't too bad, but the sound is sort of flat and dull, a bit distant, but this is hardly the worst recording quality that you can find on a Sun Ra record.

Side one is mostly free jazz and is quite lively and kinetic as the band switches from full ensemble assaults to frantic solos. Sun Ra rarely has a guitar player, so Dale William's massive presence is a bit of a pleasant surprise. His huge wall of sound ultra distorted and processed guitar sounds like Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock, Pete Cosey and Thurston Moore all playing at the same time. Sun Ra picks up his influence and creates synthesizer attacks that sound like May Day! May Day!!! in the next century.

Side 2 kicks off with some swingin hard bop and shows a side of John Gilmore we don't often hear as he plays his best soul jazz riffs. Sun Ra subverts the rhythm and they all go off free form for a while. Next up is a not too long vocal chant and then longtime Sun Ra favorite, "Watusi". Its a great song, but better recordings of it exist elsewhere. Overall, a fairly good album for the Sun Ra fan, with its most unique feature being Sun Ra's and Dale William's use of larger than life electronics.

SUN RA The Solar-Myth Approach Vol. 1

Album · 1971 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
“The Solar Myth Approach Volume 1” may not be Sun Ra’s worst album, but it is far from his best. A combination of mostly lackluster music, bad sound balance and bad recording quality all come together to make an album that only the most ardent Ra fan can enjoy. The most creative track comes at the opening of side one on which a repeating bass note and some low horn tone clusters topped with a few high pitched squeaky horns imitate the sounds of electronic keyboards. The end result is more similar to the music of Stockhausen or Xennakis rather than what one would expect from a ‘jazz’ big band. Unfortunately the rest of side one meanders between percussion workouts and what sounds like someone vocalizing through a horn. The percussion is okay, but the vocalizing gets annoying pretty quickly. Side one closes with a uninspired and poorly recorded version of “The Satellites are Spinning”, there are much better versions of this song out there on other Sun Ra records.

Side two picks things up with some free jazz that would sound better if Sonny’s clavinet wasn’t louder than the horns. This is followed by a solo synthesizer track that shows off Ra’s unique approach to that instrument. Next up is a brief big band arrangement, one of the few on the album. Side two closes out with more percussion, as well as some electronic keyboard interludes. Overall, side two is an improvement over one.

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