“Science teachers and the mentally ill, that’s all jazz is for.” So proclaims Vince Noir of the Mighty Boosh. While this brash and mildly offensive assessment is ultimately incorrect, there is an element of truth to it. At the one end, jazz is perceived as a boring, conservative, toe-tapping, offensively inoffensive, dated genre — thus appealing to that boring, conservative, dated science teacher we all had — and at the other, a wild, noisy genre, characterised by unpredictability, chaos and spontaneity — hence the link to the mentally ill, I suppose (a crude stereotyping which I don’t endorse — of the mentally ill or jazz).
Nevertheless, free jazz falls mainly in the latter camp. Pioneered by the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, at its most extreme, free jazz is characterised by a rejection, or at least subversion, of structure, metre, and timing, even tonality. If you decry jazz as boring and conservative then listen to this. It’s noisy, abrasive, and disorientating, and often displays the raw emotion and power of such extremes — for example by forcing horrible wailing or screeching noises from the saxophone which can sound like animal or human screams — that it can be overwhelming. But at the same time, free jazz could be assessed as the most conservative of jazz genres. While often considered, quite rightly, to be very avant-garde, it also aspires to the original, primitive, spiritual roots of jazz music. Particularly with John Coltrane: the alien, babbling, screeching noises he makes with his saxophone, heard on albums like Meditations, have been compared to the sound made by one speaking in tongues, in a trance or state of religious ecstasy.
What the listener is met with has been dubbed “sheets of sound” — dense, chaotic instrumentation, often completely freely improvised. In contrast to the ugly holocaustic sounds of noise music, free jazz, while abrasive and chaotic and even sometimes conventionally ‘un-musical’, manages to be far more emotionally evocative and uplifting: at its best, the musical rendering of an overflow and explosion of human creativity and feeling.
The tactic of this column is to draw the reader in to the more extreme, inaccessible side of the genre by going through sounds that are more familiar, yet still influenced by it. While free jazz had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, it is still very much around today in new and exciting forms, and its influence can be heard in a range of other styles.
Tesla — Flying Lotus (2014)
Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus is one of the most innovative and creative electronic producers around. One consistent trope throughout all his music, is the shamanic, free jazz influence, particularly on his last album, Your Dead! This is perhaps due to his being the nephew of the great free jazz pianist Alice Coltrane. Featured on this track is the great nu-jazz bassist, Thundercat.
Lonely Woman — Ornette Coleman (1959)
With the release of the aptly-titled The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Ornette Coleman sowed the seeds for all the free jazz that would follow. While to many listeners this might sound like fairly standard jazz music, it was revolutionary at its time for rejecting all chord-based instruments like piano and guitar, and thus all chord structures. What was also shocking to contemporary listeners was the harsh, ugly timbre of Coleman’s saxophone. In his justification he said, “Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night, but differently each time.”
povi poti — Matana Roberts (2011)
Matana Roberts, more than any other musician to my knowledge (except perhaps Kendrick Lamar), ambitiously attempts to embody narratives of national and cultural identity within stories of individuals, almost like a novel, or film. But while Kendrick Lamar has eleven Grammy nominations, Matana goes relatively, and criminally unknown. She is currently working on a twelve album long series (!?) documenting, through the saga of her extended family’s subjection to the North American slave trade and its subsequent legacies, the story of black America, meshing together a variety of jazz subgenres with spoken word. On this track, Roberts utilises free jazz, including screamed vocals and screeched saxophone noises, as the only genre emotionally powerful enough to convey the anguish of her characters.
The Future Of Royalty — Zs (2010)
Not strictly free jazz. Not even jazz really. In fact, not fitting into any definable genre. Zs are really really weird: obnoxious and annoying, making music that sounds like you’re on a construction site in the middle of a metropolis traffic jam. But at the same time they manage to be engaging and intriguing. On this track they wear their free jazz influences on their sleeves with the wailing tuneless saxophones and pounding distorted drums.
Consequences — John Coltrane (1966)
I implore you to listen to music from John Coltrane’s free jazz era. No one does it like he can. While very intense and not exactly accessible, once you let the waves of chaotic, babbling, repetitive rhythms and noises wash over you, and draw you in, it’s possible to tap into the spiritual intensity of Coltrane and his fellow musicians. Coltrane became passionately religious after overcoming his addiction to heroin, and is even considered a Saint by the African Orthodox Church in America. Both the pain and anguish of his vice and addictions and his subsequent religious fervour and passion is incredibly laid bear in his music.