Review Summary: For being the inaugural record of a notoriously daunting genre, Free Jazz swings as hard as anyone, while never daring to stay on its comfort zone. A surprisingly accessible first shake at an amazing genre and an excellent album on its own right.
In the early 1950's, Stan Kenton released a series of tunes which combined Jazz and Modern Classical in a way that was never seen before with his arranger Bob Graettinger. While their style was so strange at the time that many would even say that it wasn't jazz, and he wasn't an explicit influence on too many avant-garde jazz musicians, they had showed the world that experimentation in Jazz was indeed there and the directions that could be taken were, to the say the least, fascinating.
But with Kenton and Graettinger's work being seldom noticed, in just a few years jazz begun to feel like it was wasting its own potential; Many artists, for whatever reason, found little interest or simply found it too risky to attempt to go much further than the standard. While musicians like Cecil Taylor and Herman Blount (Sun Ra) would begin throwing their own spicing into the pot, jazz still felt like a prisoner, a captive soul waiting for its release from the shackles. On the very bookend of the 50's, on November 1959, an ambitious kid from Texas would come along to remove those shackles; The Shape of Jazz To Come, a prophetic title if there ever was one, turned a man with not much to his name into a hero, and it only took a few months before many started riding on his coat tails in search for the next big thing in jazz. There was still something within the genre that needed release, though - While Coleman had introduced concepts like forsaking harmonic instruments (therefore, chords) completely, his other big innovation, that was to have the soloing be completely, indeed, improvised/free, seemed to hold some shackles of its own, one which once again would trap jazz in a smaller cell. And merely 2 years after his ground breaking release, on September 1961, he decided he would once again be the one to release jazz from its captivity. And if The Shape of Jazz To Come was him removing the shackles, this time he would tear down the entire prison completely.
Now, I understand some may find it boring, tiresome and/or irrelevant to bring in history lessons into reviews (Complete with lofty wording and metaphors), but frankly, in this case, it couldn't be done in any other way. Because, to me, one of the biggest thrills of listening to Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation
(From here on, simply known as Free Jazz
) is understanding that something completely unprecedented is unfolding before my ears. A form of octet (or "Double quartet") that followed the structures set by the "rules" of jazz and then proceeds to twist it to a point that they are no longer recognizable to all but the most trained ear. And this is what's most fascinating to me about Coleman and in particular this album; While he was very much determined to create something that had been never been done, he's still delving into territory where he has no presedent, no one to lean back on for a tried and true formula. He had entered a territory that was completely uncharted and he knew there was no chance to mess up. Coleman (or his side-men, for that matter), gracefully, is neither silly enough to hastily step into the unknown, knowing he might misstep, nor foolish enough to renounce his influences (Thankfully, he's not scared of trying different things either, but this album is proof enough of this), so for most of this record, we find most of these musicians moving at speeds and grooves that were unfamiliar to them, but they make them their own by combining all that had built them into what they were (The blues, the gospel, the church clappers, etc). This results in an album that's more than out there enough for the neophytes, but with sense of joy and just plain fun
that would seem like the anthitesis of a genre where everything is, indeed, free formed, but finds itself fitting extremely nicely. More than anything else, despite its scatterbrained concept, Free Jazz
This is mostly accomplished by Coleman's distinctive direction - While all of the musicians were told to play whatever they wanted and however they wanted it without any sort of limitations, Coleman never sounds like he's lost control of the situation, as the majority of the grooves come directly from or are in response to him, and Coleman himself, despite his advocation of total freedom in his playing, is still a very melodic, rather bluesy player who never misses a step. Not without someone else to lean on though, he is primarily aided directly by his long time friend Don Cherry and the always bizarre Eric Dolphy. Both of these players, primarily, build upon the structures that Coleman creates and interplay between themselves and the rest of the band in order to glue most of the pieces together in a way that fits and at the same time doesn't. For example, one particularly entertaining bit partains to Dolphy imitating the sounds of trumpeteer Hubbard while increasingly adding more deranged and wonky sounds, as if to effectively attempt to steal his thunder with a winking eye. In general, everyone on this record sounds like they're having a great time, not just playing, but utilizing the ideas of the other in order to "Out-weird" the other, and the buttery smooth chemistry between each and every player are all glorious showcases of this.
What also helps keeping the record in focus is the fact that both of the quartets are placed separately within the audio channels of the headphones (or speakers, whatever you're listening to this on) - Coleman (Alto Sax), Cherry (Pocket Trumpet), Scott LaFaro (Bass) and Billy Higgins (drums) on the left channel, Dolphy (Bass Clarinet), Hubbard (Trumpet), Charlie Haden (Bass) and Ed Blackwell (Drums) on the right side. This results in all of the grooves melding together a bit nicer than they otherwise would, and most notably makes the bass interplay (Particularly at minute 25, where the jam becomes led by dual bass solos) much clearer. With all of this, Free Jazz
never turns into a mush, a blob of sound that's either particularly difficult to listen to (At least not to more open ears) or discern. Because of this, as I have mentioned before, Free Jazz
feels more welcoming than what its status as the catalyst to a genre like free jazz suggests - We still get a familiar solo vocabulary (see my previous comment on Coleman being a very bluesy player) and most of the album still utilizes the classic pattern of dedicated solo sections and has the band jam momentarily between most of them. In general, if jazz was a painting, Free Jazz
would be that painting morphed - Much bigger, rougher, messier strokes of the brush, but the picture is very much similar.
Inevitably, this might turn the ears of some listeners entrenched fully into this realm, believing it to be simply not "extreme" or "experimental" enough, and I suppose there's not much that can be done about that (Although that is gravely missing the point, in my opinion). But as a historical document, Free Jazz
's importance is hard to overstate (Even the aforementioned Cecil Taylor wouldn't find his true muse until after this), and as a listening experience, Free Jazz
swings, smiles and dances with as much energy as any while having more than enough brains to balance it out for anyone looking for more than only this. A truly revolutionary invention that is as fascinating as it is simply entertaining, Free Jazz
is a masterwork of a man who did so much with so little, and if for nothing else, showed the world that rules, even in jazz, were meant to be broken.