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
4.62 | 52 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
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GRAHAM COLLIER Darius Album Cover Darius
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4.88 | 4 ratings
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PHAROAH SANDERS Elevation Album Cover Elevation
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4.69 | 7 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

RORSCHACH Rorschach

Album · 2019 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Rorschach, or more precisely, Rorschach test, is controversial psychological test developed in the early 1920s and named by its author Swiss Hermann Rorschach. It's based on psychological analysis of personal interpretations of inkblots and suggested to be used to examine a person's personality characteristics and emotional functioning. Such inkblot example is used as the front cover art for unorthodox Belgian quartet named "Rorschach" debut album.

In combination with seven untitled free form compositions, subjoined with authors recommendation "title the music pieces with your own associations", it becomes obvious that the listener is offered to participate in such a test of sorts, just interpreting musical pieces, not inkblots.

Rorschach quartet is in fact existing Antiduo (teacher/pupil pianists duo Erik Vermeulen and Seppe Gebruers) expanded by adding two drummers, Eric Thielemans and Marek Patrman. On paper this may sound quite confusing and even probably dreadful, but in real life this album consists of seven beautiful etudes, very different from often hardly accessible free form improvisational music. The two pianos play a lot of melodic snippets, often with obvious roots in European romantic classics, what builds is a very moody atmosphere, with touch of sentimentalism, almost dreamy. True, musical compositions have no special structure and develop unpredictably but somehow the pianists control that process very well. Drummers are both delicate, with use of mallets more often than sticks, and are more responsible for adding some sound accessories to the whole music than for framing or anchoring the sound. Abstract and impressionistic, this music has a more modernism spirit of the 20th century than of the more destructive and noisy fashion of more current experimentalism.

As the album's authors suggested in their liner notes, I tried to interpret their offered sound-blots as I felt them. Short excursion to Rorschach testing evaluation analysis says that interpretations of the same inkblot varies depending on many factors, even a person's origin and cultural background. So, every listener will probably hear something different, but I expect many will like what they hear anyway.

LISBON IMPROVISATION PLAYERS Motion

Album · 2004 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Sax player Rodrigo Amado was one of the key figures in new Portuguese adventurous jazz during first decade of the new Millennium. On the wave of his homeland avant-garde jazz scene's popularity explosion, Amado's lead projects won respectful reputation around Europe and partially in the States. Still, differently from series of recordings under his own name, Rodrigo's earlier project Lisbon Improvisation Players stays in the shade, and it's a shame since Player's music is right on the level of any of Amado's later bands, and in moments even overtakes many of them.

For "Motion" Rodrigo forms Portuguese-American quartet where he plays tenor and baritone in a company with American soprano/tenor Steve Adams with support from Portuguese drummer Acacio Salero and American double bassist Ken Filliano.

All of the album's material is pure improvisation, but same way as with many other Amado's works, it sounds well organized, full of tunes and generally quite accessible. Based on so-called "improvisational composition" techniques, Amado adds a lot of tuneful snippets to his music and even if each of the four quartet's members are soloist here nothing sounds too chaotic or extremely "out". Even more - the opener "Perpetual Explorers", is an improvisational composition of rare beauty containing lots of lyrical tones, fragile grace and in all sounds quite close to modern academic composed music. "Motion" coming after has more muscle and is more free-jazz rooted still having all that melodic charm.

If only the whole album was like these two songs it could be crowned as modern creative jazz masterpiece. Still, the album's central part loses this highest level of sharpness a bit still staying an excellent example of truly reflective high-class musician's collaboration.

Lasting near an hour, this album doesn't leave a feeling it's too long or too complex what is quite a common case with improvisational music. The main reason is Rodrigo's ability to make even quite quirky music to sound attractive and accessible (this ability with no doubt is a main reason of the success of many of his other albums as well).

More relaxed, more experimental and surprisingly often more beautiful music than one can find on other better known and more popular Rodrigo Amado albums, it can become a great surprise for fans of Amado's later works and with no doubt is a "must have" release for everyone with interest to Portuguese creative jazz.

HARDCELL (BERNE + TABORN + RAINEY) Electric And Acoustic Hard Cell Live

Live album · 2004 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Some years ago sax player Tim Berne started recording for German ECM label and his music received much wider distribution (and some additional glances for working with one of the most prestigious jazz labels ever). He already had a chance to be contracted by major labels in the States in the mid-late 80s, but the few albums he released didn't satisfy Columbia's people, so Tim returned back to the half-underground scenes in New York, having a cult following from fans of "New York new avant-gard jazz", whatever it was.

For those knowing Berne from most current ECM works he most probably associates with well-composed modern complex jazz, perfectly played but a bit too chamber (or not raw enough - you choose). Then a journey to Berne's 90s and 00s recordings (mostly on tiny labels or his own Screwgun) can offer plenty of pleasant surprises. "Electric And Acoustic Hard Cell Live" is a good example and there are some more with no doubt.

Hard Cell was a short-lived super-trio of sorts uniting Tim Berne with his regular keyboardist Craig Taborn and Californian drummer Tom Rainey. Just two albums have been recorded, both live (both released on Berne's own Screwgun label). Four tracks (lasting between 7 and 16 minutes each) are raw, muscular tuneful and surprisingly post-bop influenced. Recorded during two different gigs, the material presented is of quite good sound quality and contains a lot of audience emotional evidences, all for good.

Two tracks sound like an audience recording, but as on some better bootlegs, this fact even adds more blood and adrenaline into the music and common atmosphere. There are no traces of Berne's later chamber sobriety to be found here and Craig's use of electronics only adds effect of modernity. Being energetic, music here sounds far from some noisy free jazz chaos clichés, it is melodic and combines improvisations with well composed material.

This is one of Berne's better recordings which can be recommended for his more current fans - most probably you will find a lot of things you will like here.

BONJINTAN Dental Kafka

Album · 2020 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Free jazz sax player Akira Sakata is probably the most significant Japanese still active musician responsible for the the formation of the country's avant-garde jazz scene in early 70s. While still being a marine biology student, he started playing very new for Japan jazz genre in the late 60s. Between 1972 and 1979 he was a member of Yosuke Yamashita trio - the band that raised high the level of avant-garde jazz on the Japanese scene.

After he collaborated with Bill Laswell (playing with his Last Exit band on one album) and releasing a series of Laswell produced albums. Sakata experienced a return to fame during the last decades, being prolific and surprisingly creative, at the same time.

Bonjintan (what can be probably translated as "the simple man diary") is one of Akira's newest projects. It brings together such giants of the international improvisation scene as Italian keyboardist Giovanni Di Domenico and American bassist Jim O’Rourke (plus younger Japanese drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, who are regular Giovanni Di Domenico collaborators for the last couple years). "Dental Kafka" is the project's second studio release (recorded in Japan).

Differently from many of Sakata's current projects, Bonjintan isn't extremely loud, screaming or explosive. This new album opens with oscillator-like electronic drones, recalling more some early minimalism works than the usual Sakata thunder-like chaos.

Surprisingly enough, Sakata doesn't play any reeds on "Ape Huci Kamuy" at all. Predominantly a keys/bass/drums electronics soundscape piece that is scented with his recitative voice (not screaming singing as often, but more an old times fairy tail movie's storytelling, Far East edition). Perfectly fits for imaginary adaptation of "Lord Of The Rings" for Far East market.

As a balance for opener, "Dental Kafka" opens with Sakata's soulful screaming sax soloing, returning the listener to more usual for Sakata music sound.

"Koro Koro Donguri" is a more meditative song again, with Akira playing clarinet with busy but very gracious participation of all the quartet's members. Far not so easily accessible music sounds almost chamber here.

"Bonjin" - the album closer and shortest song (still over ten minutes long) is a beautiful, almost dreamy ballad, started by piano and drums, Sakata comes at one moment with a beautiful, slightly melancholic tune, soloing. It recalls renown Prokofiev "Peter and the Wolf" theme and Akira's early band, Yosuke Yamashita trio works from the early 70s at the same time.

"Dental Kafka" represents more lyrical/philosophical side of a seasoned veteran's music, and does it pretty well being complex, hardly expectable and accessible all in one. Great artist at his mid 70s and is still extremely creative and capable producing great new music, not just enjoying his fame from the previous years.

SAM RIVERS Sam Rivers trio - featuring Cecil McBee and Norman Connors : Emanation

Live album · 2019 · Avant-Garde Jazz
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snobb
Reedist Sam Rivers was one of key figures in New York loft jazz, but before that he did his name playing as a member of Cecil Taylor's group. Rivers left only a limited amount of recordings coming from the 70s, so any archival release from that time attracts interest of artist's fans.

"Emanation" comes from 1971 Rivers' Jazz Workshop residency in Boston and contains just one 76-minutes long track, divided in two parts because of physical vinyl album space limitations. "Emanation" represents a rare recording of early Rivers' trio with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Norman Connors, which has been documented only once till now - on excellent (and as well live) "Stream", recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973 and released same year on Impulse!.

Trio format for Rivers usually was a platform for his most freer experiments and "Emanation" is no exemption. The album opens with inspired sax soloing tuneful and playful, and high energizing all at once. Sound quality is quite acceptable for such sort of recordings, but the mix is a real problem here. Drums fill the sound mix with lot of cymbals, but what is even worse - at 11:25 Rivers leaves the scene for McBee's almost five minutes long bass solo improv, during which the listener hears almost nothing, especially during the very first minutes. Bass is placed far behind the scene on the sound mix, and it's a real pity since McBee does a really great job here.

At 16:00 Rivers returns with flute, and then switches to piano (sounding a bit out of tune and too far behind the scene in the mix as well). Still in whole the recording demonstrates pretty well the spirit and energy of the time, and evidences Rivers great ability at playing post-bop rooted free jazz in his own inspired and quite accessible way.

"Emanation" is a great addition for Rivers (who was under-documented, especially during his early solo period) fans. Not really a place to start for newbies, it is a valuable evidence of this great artist's legacy and in general - the spirit of the time.

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