Sunday, February 7, 2010
Ornette COLEMAN Double Quartet - Free Jazz ( A Collective Improvisation) 1961
By 1961, when Free Jazz was released, alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman was infamous in the jazz world. His searing alto sax and full-ensemble take on melody were assailed by critics. Free Jazz only furthered Coleman's infamy, with its seamless, seemingly atonal high energy and wholesale lack of a melodic or harmonic center. For the session, Coleman assembled two complete quartets and had them play the same music opposite each other, with diving power and a kind of strange grace usually associated with acoustic blues. The music is raw and incisive, with sharp tones and biting solos appearing amidst propulsive rhythms that still seem whispery in their swishing shuffle. This recording helped cast the 1960s--and every decade since--in jazz. It drew a line in the sand, and critics, fans, and musicians are still haggling over the line today.
By Andrew Bartlett.
Cover of "Free Jazz" (1960) featured a reproduction of one of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, "White Light." The reference is an apt one--like Pollock, Ornette has always had faith that out of chaos, intuition and freedom, beauty will emerge. For the recording session of "Free Jazz," Ornette brought with him two quartets (each with bass drums, and two horns) and had them play simultaneously, giving them only a few very vague directions.
What emerged was, like a Pollock painting, a thing of primal beauty and power, formally strange and surprisingly dance-like. It is also (like a Pollock) better experienced than described.
Each quartet occupies their own stereo channel (Ornette, Don Cherry, Scott LaFaro and Billy Higgins are on the left channel; and Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell are on the right). The music that comes out of the speakers is much more than an experiment; it's also much more than just the collective sound of all these wonderful musicians. It's an ecstatic work that has been an inspiration to creative musicians for over 40 years, and it will continue to be for many years to come.
Let's get rid of some myths about this great Album.
First of all, "Free Jazz" is NOT CHAOS. Listening to this all the way proves it; "First Take" is the same piece, and if you compare "Free Jazz" and "First Take," you will see similarities and structure. So let's get rid of the idea that this was "totally improvised" first. There is an underlying structure to this piece, and you can figure it out if you try.
Secondly: it is NOT ATONAL. What is happening here is that several different melodies are going on all at the same time, but each melody that each musician plays is meant to interact with the melodies the other musicians are playing. There are no chords, and there is no ESTABLISHED, FORMAL tonal center. But just because there is no FORMAL tonal center, doesn't mean there isn't one.
Third: It is NOT AMELODIC. There are lots of melodies here. If you listen to it, you can find lots of melody. They may be odd melodies, but they are there. In particular, everything that Eric Dolphy plays and everything that Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman play makes perfect sense melodically. You may not agree with their tone choices or with the concept of "harmolodics" that underlies this piece, but listening to it, you will find melody.
Fourth: IT IS NOT DIFFICULT TO LISTEN TO. The other reviews compare this music to higher mathematics and imply that listening to this is impossible unless you're an intellectual. The best way to approach this music is with NO PRECONCEPTIONS, including the preconception that you have to be an "intellectual" to appreciate this music. "Free Jazz" is a futuristic version of the early jazz bands, where everyone played solos all the time over a melody that was not played but generally understood. The only difference is that here, there are several melodies, all of which interact, and the piece is set free from strict 4/4 time.
The best way to listen to this is to forget what everyone tells you about it, and just let it happen in the room. Let it play all the way out, even the "dissonant" parts, and listen to it. Listen for the funny parts, the humorous asides, the way Ornette's wry lemony sax contrasts with the dry growl of Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet and Don Cherry's rounded trumpet. And please, don't miss Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden having a bass conversation, or the way that Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell interact with each other; these four people are counted among the best on their instruments, ever, and what they do here counts.
Don't treat this as abstract, intellectual, "weirdo" music. Listen to it without any preconceived notions. Don't compare it to anything else. Let "Free Jazz" be free; that's part of the meaning of it. Just listen. Then listen again. Then you'll get it. Promise.
Ornette Coleman- (Alto Sax);
Freddie Hubbard- (Trumpet);
Don Cherry- (Pocket Trumpet);
Eric Dolphy- (Bass Clarinet);
Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden- (Bass);
Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell- (Drums).
01. Free Jazz
02. First Take