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

STEVE LACY The Beat Suite

Album · 2003 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
One of the greatest soprano sax avant garde jazz musician Steve Lacy recorded "The Beat Suite" almost at the ned of his long-lasting and extremely prolific career. Fortunately, it is no way master's melancholic look to his past. Oppositely, "Beat Suite" is ambitious project brewing beat poetry with Lacy's improved trio's music.

Beside of Steve regulars acoustic bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch, there are two very important collaborators participated. First is trombonist George Lewis, and the other - operatic voice singer (and Lacy's wife) Irene Aebi. Irene participated previously on some Lacy's recordings and everyone familiar with their tandem knows that her singing is an acquired taste: use of operatic voice in avant-garde jazz compositions are appreciated by ones and hated by others. Anyway, "The Suite..." is mostly based on Aebi's singing so chose properly.

Quite unusually for Lacy's music, each of ten compositions contains lyrics, including such renown material as William Burroughs "Naked Lunch", Kerouac "Wave Lover" or Alien Ginsberg "Song". Irene's singing isn't easy acceptable source of songs' lyrics so it's great that liner notes contain all the texts.

Music is quite different from Lacy's regular as well - more relaxed, with lot of free trombone soloing, it combines more 50s "beat" atmosphere (or even cool jazz) than usual Lacy's late 60s free jazz-influenced works with minimalist early 20th century/ Weimar era influenced operatic songs.

Steve Lacy recorded "The Beat Suite" at his late sixties, just a few years prior to passing away. It's really impressive evidence how creative great sax player stayed till the end of his life.

CHARLES TYLER Charles Tyler/Ensemble : Voyage From Jericho

Album · 1975 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Bari sax player Charles Tyler, one unsung hero of early free jazz generation,met Albert Ayler when them both were just a teens. Tyler moved to New York after Ayler and soon find himself playing in Ayler's band. Tyler recorded "Bells" and "Spirits Rejoice" with Ayler and recorded two albums as leader for legendary ESP (in 1967-68). Than moved to LA for few years where played with Arthur Blythe and David Murray among others. In mid 70s Tyler returned back to New York where he played and occasionally recorded some more albums. Being one of most significant baritonist of his generation (besides of more known Hamiet Bluiett) Tyler never received serious fame or following. In early 80s he toured Europe with Sun Ra Archestra and stayed in Denmark, than relocated to France where passed away in 1992.

"Voyage From Jericho" is Tyler's first in line of albums, released in mid 70's. Excellent quintet,containing Arthur Blythe on alto, acoustic bassist Ronnie Boykins, trumpeter Earl Cross and drummer Steve Reid plays five free-bop originals, warm, groovy and tuneful. As on some other albums, Tyler successfully mixes Ayler's early jazz roots and free reading with Eric Dolphy's free-bop and Pharoah Sanders spiritual jazz. Quite simple,not overloaded music radiates original beauty and naturalism, both were often missed by later generations of free jazz musicians.

Great place to start for fans of Ayler more accessible recordings or Dolphy's free bop. The album has been reissued in France in 1993 (by Bleu Regard) but still stays real obscurity though.

WILDFLOWERS Wildflowers 2: The New York Loft Jazz Sessions

Live album · 1977 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
In the late 70s, it was becoming increasingly difficult for jazz musicians in the avant-garde to get a recording out. Most major labels had lost interest because avant-garde jazz didn’t generate enough income to bother with, unfortunately a lot of great music went unrecorded. In 1977 a small subsidiary of LA based disco label Casablanca, called Douglas, stepped up to the bat and released a set of compilations called “Wildflowers”, that documented New York City’s fabled ‘loft scene’ of the late 70s. This excellent series of compilations still gives us a vivid picture of what that vibrant and creative loft scene was all about. “Wildflowers 2” is of course the second album in that series, and features great performances by stellar musicians such as Anthony Braxton, and a very young Leo Smith, before he added Wadada to his name.

The generally accepted cliché about loft jazz was that everyone was playing ‘free jazz’, but “Wildflowers 2” presents a good example of how varied and unpredictable the loft scene really was. Side one opens with a grooving modal jam by Sonelius Smith that may remind some of Pharoh Sanders’ ‘spiritual jazz’. This track is followed by an extravagant post bop ballad featuring Ken McIntyre on flute and Richard Harper on piano. This song’s dramatic flourishes may remind some of Jaki Byard’s work with Eric Dolphy. This side is great, but the real fireworks come on side two.

Side two opens with the always brilliant Anthony Braxton and his ensemble romping their way through “73-S Kelvin”, a bizarre and often times humorous Braxton original that appears on a previous album with Braxton and Chick Corea’s group, “Circle”. At the end of the composition, Braxton launches into a furious sax solo that shows why he was, and probably still is, the master of extended techniques on the saxophone. The following track features Marion Brown solo on the saxophone as he combines tonal passages with some extended techniques of his own. The album closes with Leo Smith’s ensemble that features a young and very fiery Oliver Lake on saxophone. The opening melody is humorously deconstructive and deliberately obtuse, somewhat like a child that hates their music lessons. Its very refreshing to hear all of this because much of today’s avant-garde seems to be lacking in any sense of irony or humor. After the opening arrangement, Lake and Smith both take turns with solos that are careful in construction, as the ensemble is also very spare and careful in their contributions as well. This is a good example of that well-known AACM approach to free improv that values silence as much as noise.

Looking at the names of the various sidemen on here, many are unrecognizable and unknown, but one surprising name really jumps out, and that’s Stanley Crouch on the drums in Leo Smith’s group. Crouch has become well known over the years as a writer, critic and journalist who is often critical of the avant-garde in jazz. After hearing his flamboyant and devilishly clever contributions to the Leo Smith piece, it becomes obvious that his criticisms are certainly not based on ignorance or any timid feelings about this music.

Like most live recorded avant-garde jazz from this time period, the sound quality on here is a little rough, but back then it seemed like this sort of lack of polish was to be appreciated and admired. An almost kitsch staple of early avant-garde jazz was an acoustic piano that was worn out and out of tune and recorded with a room mic, so there was plenty of vague room reverb. The end result is an instrument that doesn't sound like a European concert hall component anymore, but more like something from Africa with its buzzing off center harmonies. You get a lot of that on here, maybe thats whats missing with today's scene, the pianos are too well cared for, ha.

PETER EVANS Lifeblood

Live album · 2016 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Starting from late 60s solo saxophone recordings aren't rare thing, Chicagoan Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and soprano genius Steve Lacy introduced world to that kind of highly creative and usually very free-form kind of jazz. Solo trumpeter albums are much more obscure though.

American trumpeter Peter Evans (better known to wide auditory as Mostly Other People Do The Killing band member) has already released some, but his newest "Lifeblood" is his first solo trumpet album in five years. It contains recordings from different shows recorded in 2015-16 and lasts almost two hour long. To make things even more twisted,"Lifeblood" is released in digital form only - usual download files and ... USB memory stick (or being more correct - USB credit card memory stick). Since the size of content doesn't exceed the space of casual double CD-set, it's obvious that physical recording's form has been chosen not only because of technical needs.

So - what do we have inside? Solo reeds albums are always hit or miss, at their best such music radiate artist's creativity and technical perfection but sometimes we just evidence never-ending demonstration of musician's ego drilling your ears and twitching your nerves. Than 109 minutes long "Lifeblood" can sound as really risky business.

Fortunately it isn't. Evans plays solo trumpet concerts regularly for years so what one can hear on this album isn't just exotic demonstration of technical abilities on request. "Lifeblood" contains two longer pieces ("suites") - twenty-seven minutes long opener of the same title and three-parts forty-minutes long closer "The Prophets". All music is highly improvised but contains never ending mosaic of tunes and rhythms snippets changind each other very dynamically so such a long free-form album doesn't sound boring at all.

Evans plays trumpet with rare virtuosity using his own techniques besides of more traditional, he uses breathing and his mouse as source for percussion added and generally minimalist music is surprisingly dense and dynamic. Quite unusually for music of such kind all concert sound is warm,even intimate at moments. Peter successfully finds the right balance between passionate playing and relaxed atmosphere, music isn't explosive nor meditative.

Surprisingly, almost two hours of solo trumpet music of free form don't require special concentration from listener. It is not elevator music for sure, but it works pretty well sounding at home when I was doing some home works or reading news in internet. I listened to the album three or four times during last some weeks - it says a lot!

USB stick isn't most popular form of physical jazz album maybe, than go for more usual download and don't miss this probably best reeds player solo album of last decade or so.

THUMBSCREW Convallaria

Album · 2016 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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js
Thumbscrew is a ‘super group’ of sorts in the world of avant-garde jazz. Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums are all heavyweights who have worked with some of the top names in modern jazz, so one can’t be blamed for having high expectations for this talented trio, and on their new album, “Convallaria”, your expectations may be often met, but possibly not on every track. According to the band, they use a fair amount of composition in their music, as well as improvisation, but to most listeners it will be hard to hear a distinct difference between the two, the improvs may sound composed, and the composed sections may sound improvised.

The three tracks that open the album are some of the best. “Cleome” is an off-kilter jazz rock number that features a heavy distorted guitar that sounds like a cross between Sonny Sharrock and Robert Fripp. The opening of “Barn Fire Slum Brew” has Halvorson channeling a fractured Jim Hall before the band stumbles into some modern broken swing that the band grooves on naturally. “Sampson Rhythms” has the band in a more abstract style as they play interlocking phrases as if finishing each other’s sentences. On the next two tracks the band loses some momentum on indulgent noise sections that drag on a little too long. The rest of the album is more hit than miss, with some highlights including avant math rock on title track “Convallaria”, and a slippery island groove on album closer, “Inevitable”.

Overall “Convallaria” is a good album that should please the fans. The strengths on this album do not usually come from the supplied compositions, which sometimes seem stretched thin, but instead come from the creativity of the musicians involved. Mary Halvorson is one of the more original voices in jazz today, and her back up band is intuitive in following her, as well as striking out on their own.

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