Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Declarations of Independence

After four decades, free jazz maintains a presence

By Ron Wynn

JUNE 1, 1999:  The past two years have seen jazz musicians, fans, and critics in even more of a reflective mood than usual for a genre already obsessed with tradition. That's largely because they've been marking the centennials of some larger-than-life figures: George Gershwin last year, and now Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael this year.

But there's one jazz anniversary not getting widespread attention; in fact, it's even being reviled in some circles. It was about 40 years ago that a Texas alto saxophonist with a plastic horn, a ragged tone, and a radical approach to harmony, melody, and composition blasted his way into the spotlight, igniting a sound some called "free" music, others "avant-garde" or "the new thing." Even today, many people still blame free jazz for the final destruction of improvised music as a viable force in American popular music.

While pianist Cecil Taylor and bandleader Sun Ra were already experimenting with variable time signatures, collectively improvised works, and other elements of the free style, it was Ornette Coleman--with his furious, alternately jagged and somber solos--who brought this music into prominence.

With his extensive background in R&B and blues, Coleman sought to liberate jazz from what he felt was too much dependence on a steady pulse, rigid arrangements, and simple retoolings of show tunes and pop works. Although he released some landmark works in the late '50s, his 1960 Atlantic LP Free Jazz--featuring two 20-minute-plus pieces with overlapping solos, clashing rhythms, and searing, raging patterns--signaled the official beginning of the free music revolution.

A year later, John Coltrane's Impulse release Africa/Brass hinted at the saxophonist's own shift toward free jazz, a transformation that would become complete in mid-'65, when he dissolved his heralded quartet and began recording a series of highly charged, almost frighteningly stark records. A host of players, from the great (Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown) to the not-so-great (Frank Wright, Prince Lasha, Sonny Simmons), embraced the style, while critics on the left shouted praises and those on the right howled in protest.

Free music might have influenced many musicians, and it still enjoys a cult following in Europe and America, but it was never widely popular or profitable. The emphasis on lengthy compositions with fierce, wailing solos, subtle rhythms, and shifting harmonies meant there was no chance free pieces could find their way onto radio or into jukeboxes. Coltrane, Coleman, and Ayler albums were virtuoso releases, so intense they required absolute attention.

Strangely, this new art form, pioneered by black musicians, was never able to attract a sizable African American audience. While activists such as Amiri Baraka and critics such as Nat Hentoff and A.B. Spellman lauded the genre's link to the civil rights struggle and to African American culture, far more black fans opted for the simpler sounds of organ combos and "funky" ensembles, or they deserted jazz altogether for soul and R&B. The Apollo Theater, once a bastion of jazz, openly refused to book free musicians.

Coltrane's death in '67 was the final straw for many major labels. They churned out a few forgettable sessions to burn off contracts, then moved on to fusion in the '70s, "young lions" in the '80s, and the current hard bop-dominated wave of the '90s. Free musicians went underground, turned to independent labels, or moved to Europe.

Recent months, however, have seen some rekindled interest in this music. Impulse has reissued its greatest free sessions, putting back into circulation previously out-of-print classics from Coltrane, Shepp, Brown, Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and others. Blue Note, in its massive boxed set celebrating the company's 60th anniversary, has included contributions from avant-garde pioneers pianist Andrew Hill and saxophonist Sam Rivers. And Rhino's extensive Atlantic reissue line includes a six-disc boxed set containing all of Coleman's 1959-61 dates.

Perhaps the clearest sign of renewed interest in free music is the return of the Art Ensemble of Chicago to a major label, Atlantic, for the first time since the mid-'80s. The Art Ensemble evolved from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective of Chicagoans who began playing together in the early '60s. The organization included arrangers, composers, and soloists who weren't just interested in free music, but in a variety of styles; they were also concerned about opportunities for African American musicians and about maintaining ties with the black community.

Trumpeter Lester Bowie, a St. Louis resident who moved to Chicago in the early '60s, teamed with Chicago saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, and with fellow founding AACM member bassist Malachi Favors. They initially recorded as The Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble in 1967, using various session drummers. The quartet departed America for Paris in 1969, working with the Anthony Braxton Trio, then returned in 1971. By that time, drummer Don Moye had become the fifth member, and they were renamed the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Through the '70s, '80s, and '90s, the Art Ensemble has been among jazz's most unique operations. They've enjoyed periods of prolific activity and times when they've either been in exile or virtually defunct. Bowie and Mitchell have maintained splinter groups for many years, while Jarman finally departed the band in the early '90s to join a Buddhist dojo in Brooklyn. The Ensemble has never considered itself a jazz band or a free group; when pressed, they simply say they play Great Black Music. Art Ensemble concerts mix and match idioms from funk to swing; the musicians perform and write originals almost exclusively, with compositions that range from intricately notated works to frenetic blowing pieces, from throbbing ballads to comedic mid-tempo works. Their live shows integrate poetry and dance into the mix, and the performers frequently wear African masks and regalia.

Atlantic was the first major label to record the Art Ensemble in the early '70s; thus it's appropriate they've now rejoined the company almost 27 years after their first Atlantic date. The group's current release, Coming Home Jamaica, was cut in December '95 and January '96 during a lengthy sojourn on the island. Buoyant Caribbean-tinged rhythms from Favors and Moye punctuate such cuts as "Lotta Colada," "Odwalla Theme," and "Strawberry Mango." But the music is more subdued than usual; only on "Mama Wants You" and "Malachi" does Mitchell cut loose with trademark smears and saxophone thrusts; he plays 10 wind instruments but seldom adds his customary vigorous touches. Bowie is far more aggressive; his flickering lines, rapier accompaniment, and energetic bursts are continually delightful.

Far more representative (and engaging) Art Ensemble performances are available on two new reissues, originally released by Atlantic in the early '70s: Baptizum and Fanfare for the Warriors (both Koch/Atlantic) showcase the original group at a time when they'd just returned from Europe and were anxious to reacquaint themselves with American audiences. Baptizum is a masterpiece, cut live at the '72 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. Everything, from the dashing Favors piece "Illistrum" to the riveting exchanges between Mitchell, Jarman, and Bowie on "Unaka" and "Ohnedaruth," reflect a group in top form.

The same holds true throughout Fanfare for the Warriors, a studio date produced by the legendary Michael Cuscuna. Bowie's "Barnyard Scuffel Shuffel" offers bluesy refrains and flashy trumpet licks, while the title cut and a rerecording of "Illistrum" feature furious interaction, booming accompaniment from Moye, and superb solos. Fanfare is also among the rare Ensemble dates with a pianist; fellow founding AACM member Muhal Richard Abrams provides harmonic grounding and explosive keyboard support seldom heard on group projects, contributing entrancing phrases and rigorous accompaniment.

Bowie's and Mitchell's side groups also have new albums. Bowie calls his band, Brass Fantasy, "avant-pop," and their latest endeavor The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music, Vol. 1 (Atlantic) includes renditions of works by The Spice Girls (!), Marilyn Manson (!!), and Cole Porter. The four trumpet/three trombone/tuba/French horn/percussion configuration creates intriguing voicings, dialogues, and sections, and the rhythmic flavoring from drummer Vinnie Johnson and percussionist Victor See Yuen nicely compensates for the absence of piano and bass. Bowie's splats and bleats on "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and "Notorious Thugs" reinforce his reputation as a musical trickster, and Brass Fantasy repeatedly prove it's possible to rework rock and pop into an improvisatory context.

Mitchell has been the Art Ensemble member most interested in classical/jazz interaction, and that's the territory his multi-reed unit The Note Factory explores throughout Nine to Get Ready (ECM/RCA). Songs like "Leola" and the title cut emphasize collective interaction and have limited solo space, while "Bessie Harris" and "Hop Hip Bip Bir Rip" accent crisp rhythms and whirling solos from Mitchell, trombonist George Lewis, and trumpeter Hugh Ragin. Mitchell incorporates drummers Tani Tabbal and Gerald Cleaver, plus bassists Jaribu Shahid and William Parker, firmly within a group context; there's no instrumental dueling or rhythmic clashing, just a melding within defined, yet quickly shifting harmonic borders.

The Art Ensemble remains among jazz's premier units, both as a collective force and as individual musicians. Fortunately, they're back on labels with enough distribution muscle and promotional force to gain them some attention. They'll never be celebrities, but there's no question that they're vital figures in modern American music.

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