Free Your Mind, Your Free Jazz Ass Will Follow
By Jeff Jackson
Free jazz — it’s a place of outsized personalities, outrageous stories, and uncompromising music. There’s the performer who plays so hard that keys fly off the piano. The bandleader who claims to be from Saturn and outfits his 30-piece orchestra in space gear. The saxophonist whose ragtag gospel marches influenced The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The avant gardist whose White House recital moved President Jimmy Carter to tears. The group that dons tribal gear and lab coats to perform music that swings from vaudeville to African chants.. And the free jazz legend whose music touched so many lives that a church was founded in his name.*
Free jazz has a reputation for being intimidating and esoteric, but it’s often more fun and accessible than most straight-ahead jazz. Six years ago, my pal Jeff Golick and I launched Destination: OUT (www.destination-out.com), the first jazz MP3 website. We were inspired by the sad fact that some of the most exciting jazz albums were out-of-print and known only to hardcore collectors. We wanted others to hear the tunes that made us fans — and ironically, this was the same music most jazz critics warned people to stay away from!
Over the years, Destination: OUT has been praised by Playboy and The New York Times, but we’re most encouraged by comments from readers who’ve been turned on by tracks we’ve posted. There’s this stupid idea that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the best place for jazz newcomers to start. But that album’s slick sophisticated abstractions have discouraged more potential fans than it’s inspired. Most Shuffle readers are more likely to dig, say, Miles Davis’s freaky and funky Bitches Brew or Sun Ra’s futuristic Disco 3000. This strain of free jazz still sounds fresh, provocative, and relevant. We believe a lot more folks would love this music if they’d get beyond its reputation.
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FREE JAZZ
(aka Avant Garde Jazz, aka Out Jazz, aka That Horrible Racket)
IT’S ALL JUST NOISE.
Well yeah, some of it is really noisy. Free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock famously said, “I go onstage, and my intention is to make the first four rows bleed from their ears. “This is the strain of the music that’s influenced bands like Sonic Youth, Wolf Eyes, The Stooges, The Melvins, Lightning Bolt, and the like. Think of it as ecstatic freak-out music. The sort of stuff that peels back the lid of your skull and rearranges your atoms.
But that’s only a small part of the sub-genre. Free jazz spans 50 years and numerous countries and includes music that’s so delicate it’s practically ambient, as well as tunes with a funk beat strong enough to shake the dance floor. There are albums that have strong echoes of freak folk, minimalism, gutbucket blues, exotica, hardcore thrash, Afrobeat, electronic beats, and more. It’s an entire continent of sound represented by tens of thousands of albums. Once you start digging, you’ll be amazed by the variety and vitality. There’s something for almost every taste and mood.
I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LISTEN TO FREE JAZZ
OR: HOW DO YOU TELL THE GOOD STUFF FROM THE BAD?
Relax and trust your instincts. Most people automatically assume that there’s something in free jazz they’re not getting. Like you need conservatory training to appreciate what the musicians are doing. Nonsense: It’s just sound. Sometimes it’s complex and abrasive, sometimes funky and buoyant. But there’s no code to be broken. As Gertrude Stein once said, “There’s no there there.”
A newcomer listening to Free Jazz isn’t different than someone who’s just discovering punk, electronica, roots reggae, or whatever. The more you listen and expose yourself to different facets of the music, the more likely you are to find what you like. Maybe Ornette Coleman grates on your ears. Be honest with yourself and keep looking, because maybe Sun Ra or Matthew Shipp will excite you.
If you can, see some free jazz live. Pieces that demand concentration when they’re coming out of your speakers often seem effortlessly absorbing in person. You may rush to turn off a Cecil Taylor album the first time you hear it, but live you won’t be able to take your eyes off the man. In performance, the music’s passion and exuberance is impossible to miss.
IT’S TOO OUT THERE FOR ME.
Maybe. But if you’re already listening to acts like Radiohead, Animal Collective, Sonic Youth, TV on the Radio, etc., then you’re ready. Without knowing it, you’ve already been listening to free jazz filtered through other sensibilities. Some of the classic free jazz albums might even sound too tame.
To hear some a sampling of free jazz MP3s, visit www.destination-out.com
Jeff Jackson is the co-proprietor of www.destination-out.com, Arts & Culture Editor for Charlotte Viewpoint, founding director of the NoDa Film Festival, a member of the Obie-winning Collapsable Giraffe theatre company in New York City. He also teaches film at UNC-Charlotte.
*Answers: Don Pullen, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Coltrane.