Jazz at 100 Hour 74: The Avant-Garde

Albert Ayler

Nurtured in the seminal recordings of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor in the mid to late 1950s, the jazz avant-garde came into its own in the 1960s with their continuing creations, those of John Coltrane already featured in this program and those of next generation players, Joe Harriott and Albert Ayler. Defining statements of the free jazz movement in the early 1960s by Coleman, Taylor, Harriott and Ayler in this hour of Jazz at 100.

“If postwar jazz innovators greatly enlarged the parameters of mainstream (or swing) jazz, the avant-garde stretched those parameters to the breaking point. Although the key figures of the avant-garde – most prominently Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane – approached music from very different angles, they collectively challenged the status quo. In refusing to be bound by the rules of the past, they questioned and challenged every facet of jazz’s identity. Concerning rhythm, the avant-garde dispensed with the steady beat, preferring an ambiguous pulse or several pulses at once. Concerning harmony, the avant-garde did away with patterns based on chords or scales, creating a serendipitous harmony as the musicians instinctively felt their way through a performance. Concerning melody, the soloist may shoot for angelic lyricism or indulge in a fury of squeals and squawks – either way, melody no longer relied on harmonic patterns and resolutions. Concerning structure, the avant-garde frequently rejected blues and songs, and encouraged free improvisation, in which the sheer energy or emotionalism of a performance dictated its overall shape… Concerning presentation, jazz could be witty, even funny, but it wasn’t entertainment merely; it was a serious, challenging music, requiring the listeners full concentration – art for art’s sake.” – Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux

Ornette Coleman, Jazz Abstractions & Free Jazz.
“Coleman worked on two important projects at the close of 1960. On December 19 and 20, he participated in Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream album Jazz Abstractions, as a featured soloist on ‘Abstraction’ and ‘Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk.’ These twelve-tone compositions by Schuller present Coleman’s improvisations in the context of strict notation. He’s backed by an ensemble of seven strings and a few other jazz musicians – notably the virtuoso Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet. On the 21st, Coleman returned to the same studio with what he called his Double Quartet, made up of his own group and some of Schuller’s personnel, including Dolphy. This group recorded Free Jazz, an immensely influential work that offered, intentionally or not, a strong counterstatement to the concerto format represented by Jazz Abstractions. In Free Jazz, the entire ensemble was free to shape the thirty-seven-minute performance, although introductory sections were composed, and an order created for solos, duets, and broader collective improvisations. The composition comes to life in the give-and-take among musicians, as they listen to each other and respond accordingly.” – Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux

Abstraction. John Lewis – Gunther Schuller – Jim Hall Orchestra plus The Contemporary String Quartet
(Ornette Coleman-as, Charles Libove, Roland Vamos-vln, Harry Zaratzian-vla, Joseph Tekula-vlc, Jim Hall-g, Scott LaFaro-b, Alvin Brehm-b, Sticks Evans-d). From Jazz Abstraction. 12/19/1960

At over 37 minutes long, Coleman’s Free Jazz is beyond the time constraints of this program. What follows is an excerpt, the final seven minutes of the performance. While the recording features a double quartet – Coleman’s working quartet of Coleman on alto, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums supplemented by an additional quartet of Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (base clarinet), Scott LaFaro (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums), this selection features primarily a duet between the bass players, followed by a drum duet, punctuated by explosions of the double quartet.

Gary Giddins called “Free Jazz, an illuminating fantasia that inspired the new music movement and has yet to be equaled by Coleman or anyone else.”

Free Jazz (excerpt). Ornette Coleman Double Quartet
(Don Cherry-pocket tp, Freddie Hubbard-tp, Ornette Coleman-as, Eric Dolphy-bcl, Scott LaFaro-b, Charlie Haden-b, Billy HIggins-d, Ed Blackwell-d). From Free Jazz. 12/21/1960

Cecil Taylor, Into The Hot.
“Taylor coined the term unit structures … as a means of describing his method. Rather than compose a single theme to spur improvised variations, he constructed his works out of modules, or units; the group worked through each unit in sequence… Jimmy Lyons, with his quick ear and particular affinity for Taylor’s method, became a kind of translator, interpreting Taylor’s figures on alto saxophone and showing other musicians how to phrase and develop them. Lyons brought to Taylor’s music a vivid tie to the bebop past, through his timbre and phrasing. [Drummer] Sonny Murray, on the other hand, helped to trigger Taylor’s most radical departure from the past: a way of playing rhythm based not on a preset meter, but on the energy level of the performance… Working with Murray, Taylor intensified the level of interaction with the drums, so that rhythm followed from the force of the band’s energy. The center of that force could be the piano or the drummer or another soloist.” – Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux

“’Bulbs’ is [a] ‘talker’—the horns seem to speak to one another, sometimes angrily, others gently, and then moving into a jivey exchange with the piano. Taylor picks up the tempo with scattered lines and clusters, with the horns interrupting here and there. Jimmy Lyons’ alto sax jumps in and floats over the top of the driving piano and the other horns, which offer their voices here and there. [Archie] Shepp winds it up with an aggressive tenor solo and more interplay with the rest of the group.” – Amy Duncan

Bulbs. Cecil Taylor Orchestra
(Jimmy Lyons-as, Archie Shepp-ts, Cecil Taylor-p, Henry Grimes-b, Sonny Murray-d). From Gil Evans – Into The Hot. 10/10/1961 (The Norton Collection)

Joe Harriott, Abstract.
In the end, England and Europe provided a more fertile audience for the jazz avant-grade than the US. One of its earliest proponents was the Jamaican-born alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, whose approach may be seen as a strain independent of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. In the liner notes of his 1962 release Abstract, he wrote “of the various components comprising jazz today – constant time signatures, a steady four-four tempo, themes and predictable harmonic variations, fixed division of the chorus by bar lines and so on, we aim to retain at least one in each piece. But we may well, if the mood seems to us to demand it, dispense with all the others”
“The obvious impression is that Joe’s brand of abstraction is still deeply grounded in blues, calypso and bop, but Harriott doesn’t do bop from the inside; rather he dresses up his own individual conception with a boppish costume and a few Bird feathers. His harmonic grasp isn’t conventional either, and it doesn’t take much cynicism to suggest that this was one of the things that pushed him towards freedom. That said, [the LP Abstract is] a great record, and one that consistently belies its title. ‘Shadows’ might almost be a Parker line turned on its head and as with classic bebop it’s the interplay of saxophone and trumpet that counts. Originals like ‘Modal’ are more schematic … – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Shadows. Joe Harriott Quintet
(Shake Keane-tp, Joe Harriott-as, Pat Smythe-p, Coleridge Goode-b, Bobby Orr-d). From Abstract. 5/10/1962

Modal. Joe Harriott Quintet
(Shake Keane-tp, Joe Harriott-as, Pat Smythe-p, Coleridge Goode-b, Bobby Orr-d). From Abstract. 5/10/1962

Albert Ayer, Spiritual Unity.
“Among the second wave of free jazz players, Albert Ayler would grasp with the greatest clarity the deconstructive phase the movement was now entering. He explained to interviewers that the goal now was to escape from playing notes and enter a new realm in which the saxophone created sound. In contrast to Ornette Coleman, many of whose solos could be notated and analyzed for their musicological implications, Ayler defied such assimilation. The well-tempered scales of Western music were incapable of encompassing the bellowing, moaning spasms that fled from the bell of his horn. Ayler was a master of the “dirty” tone, that calling card of the African American musical tradition with a lineage predating Louis Armstrong and Robert Johnson. He was a virtuoso of the coarse and anomalous, with an impressive bag of tricks at his disposal: stomach-churning waverings out of tune; low-register barks and high-pitched squeals; a vibrato so wide that it bordered on parody; darting phrases, hieroglyphics of sound representing some hitherto unknown sublunar mode; tones Adolphe Sax never dreamed of and Selmer never sanctioned.” – Ted Gioia

“The … trio recording Spiritual Unity, which featured Ayler alongside [drummer Sonny] Murray and [bassist Gary] Peacock, was a major statement, the most cohesive ensemble project the saxophonist had undertaken to date. Ayler showed that his radical remaking of the jazz saxophone vocabulary was largely self-sufficient, needing no other horns to set it off or support its blistering attack. It encompassed fervent explorations of harmonics, haunting stringlike evocations in the higher register, and Vesuvian explosions of sonic lava. Peacock and Murray hold onto these energized lines with the determination of cowpokes latching onto steers at the rodeo. To their credit, they grapple masterfully with Ayler’s unpredictable leaps and turns.” – Ted Gioia

Ghosts: First Variation. Albert Ayler Trio
(Albert Ayler-ts, Gary Peacock-b, Sunny Murray-d). From Spiritual Unity. 7/10/1964

Spirits. Albert Ayler Trio
(Albert Ayler-ts, Gary Peacock-b, Sunny Murray-d). From Spiritual Unity. 7/10/1964

Cecil Taylor, Unit Structure.
“In the final analysis, Unit Structures ranks with Coleman’s Free Jazz, Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, and Coltrane’s Ascension as defining statements of the free jazz movement as it matured in the early 1960s. But of these four efforts, Taylor’s is the most controlled and multidimensional. No vestiges of sentimentality, no easy resolutions or soothing cadences, deflect the sharp edges in this music. Yet it equally avoids empty emoting and unrelenting sturm-und-drang exhortation. Taylor remained a voluptuary with the heart of an ascetic: even when this music achieved paroxysms of release, an overriding austerity lingered just below the surface.” – Ted Gioia

“The flow of time in Taylor’s music was, by this time, completely free of conventional jazz metrics… Cyrille played an important role on Unit Structures, varying his attack from the ominous reverberations and asides of ‘Enter Evening’ to the explosive interjections of ‘Steps’ and ‘Tales (8 Whisps).’ Despite the absence of typical swing and bop phrasing, these pieces maintain, for most of their duration, a powerful rhythmic dynamism. The essentially physical nature of the performance comes across, even on record. Single-note runs burst from the piano sounding board; short, acidic phrases crack like a whip; inquisitive chord voicings tremble, stutter, bellow; tone clusters ripple up and down the keyboard” – Ted Gioia

Tales (8 Whisps). Cecil Taylor Trio
(Cecil Taylor-p/bells, Alan Silva-b, Andrew Cyrille-d). From Unit Structures. 5/19/1966

“The jazz school that came to be called avant-garde was first known by other names, few of them neutral. One critic coined the term “anti-jazz” to attack its apparent rejection of mainstream jazz. Another widespread designation echoed the title of an album by Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz… Some called it Black Music, arguing that its ferocity expressed the particular frustration of African-Americans during the civil rights years. Others called it the New Thing, revolutionary music, and fire music. Ironically, the name that finally stuck had been indicated in the title of the first avant-garde album, Cecil Taylor’s 1956 Jazz Advance.” – Gary Giddins & Scott Deveaux

Blue Note Records in the 1960s released such iconoclastic projects as Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, but the label was best known for music on the Art Blakey – Horace Silver axis. As Ted Gioia has noted “…other, less radical Blue Note releases showed that there could be a meeting point between hard bop and the avant-garde. Important projects such as Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure [1964], [and] Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue [1965] … were anything but drab repetitions of old hard-bop formulas.” Pianist Andrew Hill played an important role in much of this music. The Hard Bop / Avant Garde synergy of Andrew Hill, including his contributions to releases by Jimmy Woods and Bobby Hutcherson, in the next hour week on Jazz at 100.

Recordings.
John Lewis. Jazz Abstractions. Atlantic LP 1365
Ornette Coleman. Free Jazz. Atlantic LP 1364
Gil Evans (Cecil Taylor). Into The Hot. Impulse! A9
Joe Harriott. Abstract. Capitol ST 10351
Albert Ayler. Spiritual Unity. ESP-Disc ESP 1002
Cecil Taylor. Unit Structures. Blue Note BLP 4237

Resources.
Duncan, Amy. (2018). Gil Evans: “Into The Hot” (orig. LP: Impulse 9; CD: Impulse 39104). Retrieved from http://jazzhistoryonline.com/Gil_Evans_Into_The_Hot.html
Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 15. The Avant Garde
Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 51. Ornette Coleman (This Is Our Music)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 8. Freedom and Fusion
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Joe Harriott. Abstract
Albert Ayler. Spiritual Unity

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