Free Jazz

Free Jazz

With Ornette Coleman’s first three Atlantics (The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music), the alto saxophonist introduced a quartet sound as innovative as anything Monk, Mingus, and Coltrane were doing at the time. Pocket trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins (or Ed Blackwell on This Is Our Music) joined Coleman in a swinging dance as fiery and relentless as bebop, but with no prescribed chords. The music could go anywhere. And owing in part to Coleman’s Texas roots (not to mention Blackwell’s in New Orleans), the music had a backwoods element of the blues shout not far below the surface. Those who mistook it for “out of tune” were hearing a microtonal, “bent note” aesthetic common to much African American music. Having already made history with the quartet, Coleman added four more musicians in December 1960 and called it a double quartet. They gathered to make Free Jazz, an album title that became a byword for an entire jazz subculture. And Coleman, right on the cover, called the work a “collective improvisation,” all but explicitly invoking the lineage of polyphonic New Orleans jazz. The reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s 1954 painting “White Light” on the cover also situated the music in the context of abstract expressionism more broadly. The music sounded not at all traditional, but its traditional components were there for close listeners to discover. Alongside Coleman, Cherry, and Haden, both Higgins and Blackwell were on drums; Scott LaFaro (of the Bill Evans Trio) played second bass; Freddie Hubbard (soon to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers) played trumpet; and the singular, inimitable Eric Dolphy gave the session a sumptuous low-reed sonority on bass clarinet. Flipping the LP over seemed to necessitate labeling the piece “Pts. 1 & 2,” but in reality this was one continuous album-length work. The sound that greeted listeners was texturally dense, dissonant, at times forbidding. But those who leveled the charge of incoherence at Free Jazz failed to discern a structure that was more or less in plain view: It’s a sequence of short cued ensemble statements followed by solos from each band member. Hearing the shorter “First Take” that came out later on CD, one notes that the cued statements are the same, perfectly executed and full of clear intention. Here was one of the most striking convergences of talent in jazz history, and the sensibility it put forward has remained essential to improvised music ever since.

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