Saturday, December 4

‘He didn’t adhere to any of the rules’: The fascinating history of free jazz | Documentary films


WWhen Miles Davis first heard the music of Eric Dolphy, a key figure in the free jazz movement, he described it as “ridiculous,” “sad,” and just plain “bad.” Encountering the first sounds of free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, Thelonius Monk said that “there is nothing beautiful about what she plays. He’s just playing loud and dragging the notes. Anyone can do that. “The editors of the jazz world bible, Downbeat Magazine, went further, initially criticizing the entire genre as a force that is” poisoning the minds of young musicians, “recalled jazz critic Gary Giddens.

Given the revolutionary nature of music, it is not surprising that many in the field received it with such disdain. “Free jazz didn’t adhere to any of the rules of what was considered music at the time,” said Tom Surgal, director of the new documentary Fire Music, which covers the history and breadth of the movement. “There wasn’t a single musical tenant that this music didn’t challenge.”

That included everything from his approach to chords to rhythm placement, the role of solos, and the basics of melody and harmony. Atonality and abrasion were embraced, polyrhythmic and polyclonal modes were amplified, and risk was idealized, paving the way for some of the most extreme and, for some ears, difficult music ever made. As even Surgal admits, “this music is not easy to digest.”

A pivotal figure in the genre, Cecil Taylor, had advice on this. “In the same way that musicians have to prepare, listeners have to prepare,” he said in an old interview used in the film. But when the movement began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, few were prepared in any way. Bebop dominated jazz at the time, exemplified by well-established stars like Max Roach, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, each of whom featured coded approaches to solos, beats, and melodies. As exciting, erudite, and skilled as his work may have been, his approach had become familiar enough to encourage artists like pianist Taylor and saxophonist Coleman to seek something new.

Taylor began to capture that on the record with his 1956 debut Jazz Advance, in which he displayed a highly percussive approach to his instrument, performing with equal energy and technique. The music created by his quartet expanded the use of improvisation, bringing a wild character to the original pieces, as well as standards like Cole Porter’s You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To. On Taylor’s two albums released in 1960, Air and The World of Cecil Taylor, he pushed further, leaving more traces of bebop to play in a world of his own making.

Coleman followed a similar trajectory. His first album, Something Else !!!, released in 1958, had a boldness that would grow exponentially. The title track of his 1960 album Change of the Century could be taken literally as it foreshadowed new ways of balancing dissonance, cacophony, and virtuosity. But the true moment of the line in the arena didn’t come until the following year, with the release of an album that gave this emerging style both its name and its mission: Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. Credited to the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, the set featured two self-contained groups of musicians performing at the same time. Each quartet had a drummer and a drummer, as well as two wind instruments. On the left channel, listeners could hear Coleman on sax and Don Cherry on trumpet; on the right Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. The nearly 40 minutes of music they played represented almost uninterrupted improvisation, anchored by a few sections that, ironically, tended to be the most disruptive. Still, the result had its own sense of order and logic, not to mention striking beauty, once you get used to it. “This was not an idiot from the music circle,” Surgal said. “It was a symbiosis. There is a lot of interaction and empathy at work. It’s very much about the musicians listening to each other. “

It’s also about your balance between freedom and discipline. “Improvisation is informed by passion and conditioned by knowledge,” Taylor said in an old interview used in the film.

Free jazz musician Ornette Coleman performing in 1971.
Free jazz musician Ornette Coleman performing in 1971. Photography: Jean-Pierre Roche / Photo credit: JP Roche. Image courtesy of Submarine Deluxe

Despite how controversial this work may have been at the time, Surgal said its creators did not feel that they were in any way disproving their predecessors. “Free jazz musicians weren’t slandering what came before,” he said. “In their minds, they were just creating the next step.”

Furthermore, even the wildest had firm roots in established genres, informed by the music of the places in which they grew up. In the music of the Fort Worth-born Coleman, for example, Surgal believes that “you can hear the rough Texan sound of Arnette Cobb or Eddie“ Lockjaw ”Davis. For me, Ornette was always playing the blues. It just had a unique performance. “

The freshness of such interpretations reflected parallel midcentury movements in the world of art and literature. His accent on improvisation and internalization echoed both the Beat authors’ love of spontaneous writing and the attitudes and techniques of the abstract artists of the time. (The Free Jazz album cover included a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s 1954 painting The White Light.) Likewise, anger and the edge of the music reflected the politics of the day. “This music came from the civil rights movement that morphed into the black militant movement,” said the director. “It also reflected the anti-war movement. The shout of the saxophones and the roll of the drums was the perfect complement to the radicalism in the air at that time ”.

At the same time, the exploratory quality of the music reflected the musician’s experimentation with his own psyche. “A lot of the free jazz musicians, especially those in New York, were experimenting with hallucinogens and that experience was informing the music,” Surgal said. “In many ways, this is undocumented psychedelia.”

It’s no wonder rock musicians of the time took notice. The expansive and loud solos of psychedelic rock of the late 1960s used some of the principles of free jazz to push the boundaries of the blues that first inspired them. The fractured guitars on songs like The Byrds’ Eight Miles High were inspired by the angularity and edginess of free jazz. Frontman Roger McGuinn has often spoken of the cues he took from John Coltrane, who went from bebop to the world of free jazz with his classic 1966 album Ascension. Paul McCartney listened to the music of free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler as he wrote songs for the album Revolver and several Beatles attended shows by the London-based free improv band AMM. The clear influence of this music can be heard on British art-jazz bands like Soft Machine, as well as UK keyboard avant-garde Keith Tippet, who channeled the very soul of Cecil Taylor with his deranged piano work in pieces like King Crimson. 1970 individual cat food.

Coleman’s frenzied style influenced not only the sounds of the musicians but, prominently, the movements. After a young Iggy Pop heard Coleman for the first time, he had a revelation: “I can do that,” he told a reporter, “with my body. “

In the mid-1970s, a second wave of New York avant-garde musicians created a scene of their own. Due to their difficulty in getting concerts, they began to present shows in their own living spaces, which spawned the loft jazz movement. Their efforts simply preceded, and at times mingled, with the city’s waveless “punk jazz” movement, led by acts like The Contortions, Mars, and DNA.

The free jazz movement created in New York not only impacted artists beyond the genre, but also seeded scenes in the US, in places like Chicago and St Louis, as well as in Europe and the UK. In one case, he may even have had a connection to outer space: Free jazz artist Sun Ra claimed that he and his music came directly from Saturn. Importantly, each of these artists and scenes had their own version of the music. “Free jazz is not a thing,” Surgal said. “This music is nothing if not varied.”

At the same time, the artists found unity in their uncompromising nature. Unfortunately, that often made it difficult for them to earn a living. Club owners resisted it, so it was difficult to get concerts, at least in the United States. The film chronicles various attempts by the musicians to organize themselves to earn a decent salary, but their independent nature made coordinated efforts challenging. Furthermore, the movement was marred by the youth deaths of some of its central players during their prime. In 1964, Eric Dolphy died at the age of 36 from problems related to his undiagnosed diabetes. Three years later, Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer at 40 and Ayler died in an alleged suicide in 1970 at 34.

In the 1980s, key parts of jazz began to take a more conservative turn. A new movement, called rebop, aimed to return the genre to its pre-free jazz values. Surgal blames the subsequent refutation of the vanguards on “a conspiracy of revisionists.” He notes, in particular, “Wynton Marsalis and his brother Branford who have done everything possible to minimize the exposure of this music and denigrate its contributions. Critic Stanley Crouch led the assault. “

Meanwhile, the alternative rock world abounds with devotees, from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Nels Cline (who serve as Fire Music Executive Producers), to members of Superchunk. Today, some young mathematical rock groups, such as Black Midi and Squid, have applied the dissonance and mania of free jazz to guitar-oriented sounds. Yet as highly regarded as many of these musicians may be in certain circles, Surgal views them as outsiders, and thus, out of necessity, examples of the DIY tradition. “DIY is normally used in relation to punk or hardcore, but these guys were the OGs of it,” he said. “They had to release their own records and find alternative venues to play when the clubs rejected them. His story is a great example of self-determined people who believed in a sound that they knew deserved to be heard. “


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