Free jazz is challenging, violent, political, spiritual, joyous, peaceful, and a million other things. It’s about shattering forms in order to find a new world of sound somewhere further outside. And once this new world is found, it’s time to go looking for a newer one.
When, as a college student, I first purchased Ornette Coleman’s landmark album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, the record store clerk mumbled to me, “I didn’t make it all the way through this album the first time I put it on.” Ignoring his advice, I went home and listened to it all the way through. Many times. I loved it. I went looking for more. These are 10 of the albums I found. It should go without saying that this list is meant, not as a dead-end, but as a pathway that leads to the listening of many, many more fantastic free jazz albums.
10. Noah Howard
The Black Ark
Several ripping solos by the saxophonists Noah Howard and Arthur Doyle on this 1969 release that was recently reissued by Bo’Weavil. The New Orleans native Howard played with big American guns like Sun Ra and Archie Shepp, as well as European bosses like Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink (the Dutch musicians that co-founded the Instant Composers Pool). Howard led a few stellar quartet dates for ESP in the 1960s, but this septet album (featuring the understated Philadelphia drummer Muhammad Ali, Rashied Ali’s brother) is his finest.
9. Dave Burrell
Released in 1969, this is pianist Dave Burrell’s most vicious and dense work (which isn’t to imply that La vie de bohême is an easy listen). I’ve seen Burrell perform many times in the past few years, and on more than one occasion he’s left blood on the keys. Burrell certainly got bloody on this recording with saxophonists Arthur Jones and Archie Shepp, bassist Alan Silva, cornetist Clifford Thornton, trombonist Grachan Moncur III and drummer Sunny Murray. Very bloody. (Note: This same lineup, minus Jones, appears on Archie Shepp’s Live at the Pan-African Festival. Another must-have.)
8. Anthony Braxton
In the liner notes to this 1970 solo double-LP, the saxophonist Anthony Braxton wrote, “With different forms of music being so readily available it has become very difficult to distinguish between forms or approaches. Maybe we are at the junction where we will not need this anymore.” Braxton, an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, pulled inspiration from all over. On this daring album, the first solo saxophone album ever, he dedicated tracks to both John Cage and pianist Cecil Taylor, and found inspiration in Karlheinz Stockhausen and other things most of us will never understand. (Another great solo sax album: Evan Parker’s Monoceros.)
7. Bill Dixon
Son of Sisyphus
Bill Dixon, the Massachusetts born multi-instrumentalist, was one of the most articulate early free jazz musicians when it came to integrating classical music into the jazz form. While much of the “genre” is considered loud and aggressive, Dixon explored space and silence. The new sounds he created on trumpet, working with artists like Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley, can be heard today in younger voices like Nate Wooley and Rob Mazurek. Recorded in 1988 with a quartet that included the bassist Mario Pavone, Son of Sisyphus is one of his best albums as leader. (Also, see Dixon’s Tapestries for Small Orchestra, released in 2009, the year before he died.)
6. Manfred Schoof
Don’t forget the Europeans. Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun is an essential recording, but a similar lineup appears on this lesser known date led by the German saxophonist Manfred Schoof: bassists Buschi Niebergall and Peter Kowald, drummer Han Bennink, saxophonist Evan Parker, and pianist Fred van Hove. Sven-Ake Johansson and ICP co-founder Willem Breuker from Machine Gun are missing, but on European Echoes, in exchange, we scoop up guitarist Derek Bailey and pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, among others. Fair trade. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence.
5. The Giuseppi Logan Quartet
The Giuseppi Logan Quartet
Born in Philadelphia, Giuseppi Logan reloacted to New York City in the early 1960s and worked with Bill Dixon, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. He recorded two excellent albums for ESP, including this quartet date on reeds with pianist Don Pullen, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Milford Graves, and then he disappeared for 40-plus years. Many thought he was dead, but he resurfaced in 2008, and has since recorded two impressive albums. This 1964 debut, though, remains his best.
4. The Roscoe Mitchell Sextet
Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell played with Albert Ayler in a band while stationed in Germany with the United States Army. In the mid-60s, upon returning to the United States, he helped create the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and the corresponding Art Ensemble of Chicago. Playing alongside fellow AACM members Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, Maurice McIntyre, Lester Lashley and Alvin Fielder, Sound is one of Mitchell’s finest early moments. The song above is a tribute to Ornette Coleman.
3. Black Artists Group
BAG In Paris – Aries 1973
Founded in St. Louis in the mid-1960s, the Black Artists Group was a collective of black artists, poets, playwrights and musicians, including Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett and Baikida Carrol. In 1969, BAG took over a warehouse in St. Louis where they’d host concerts, plays, film screenings, and art exhibitions. Among the group’s incredibly rare recordings is this gem snatched from a Paris gig in 1973.
2. Chris Corsano/Virginia Genta
The Live in Lisbon
Here’s something newer. The drummer Chris Corsano’s everywhere. He has worked with free jazz old-schoolers like Joe McPhee (see Nation Time) and Evan Parker, and also with Björk and Rangda (with Sir Richard Bishop and Ben Chasny). The abrasive Italian saxophonist Virginia Genta plays with the various Jooklo ensembles, and has collaborated with folks like C. Spencer Yeh and Mats Gustafsson. The two united on this small porch in Portugal, and some brilliant bedlam ensued. Complete rage.
1. Matana Roberts
Coin Coin Chapter One: Les gens de couleur libres
Maybe you know the saxophonist Matana Roberts because she played on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Yanqui U.X.O., but you should know her for other reasons. Roberts would almost definitely object to this being called a “free jazz” album, but I think it is the best free jazz album to come out in the last 10 years. Released last year on Constellation, Roberts leads this large ensemble on an epic, beautiful, tragic and triumphant journey through the history of Black American life and music.