A Casual Stroll Down The Free Jazz / Avant Garde Avenue
“ In Free Jazz perhaps the pioneering work to my mind came from John Coltrane whose slow but determined brick-by-brick removal of all intellectual barriers in Jazz seems now like a historical inevitability. ”
Since most of the readers of this column who write to me seem to be rather at home with the Swing and Be Bop or Hard Bop and Cool Jazz eras, I have been meaning to write a piece on Free Jazz and its slightly sterner-miened cousin Avant-Garde. There can be hardly a doubt that reactions will ensue rather like dormant seeds sprouting to sudden life with the first rains'
This piece was inspired by Chris Greco, a modern day jazz scholar and musician of rather exalted caliber and erudite leanings which is a rare combination indeed. I have had the pleasure of listening to, absorbing profusely and getting influenced rather deeply by his album Pleiadian Call.
I find Chris a fascinating phenomenon. Here's why : he holds a master's degree in Composition with what he describes rather adequately as a style rooted in the contemporary Western or European tradition and experience in multiple jazz idioms. He plays with amazing fluidity and ease several instruments 'again a hallmark of some of the great trailblazers in Jazz : clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, soprano sax and flute. To cap it all, he has put to use, his great knowledge of music theory, composition, music history and performance with practice 'an unusual and wholly satisfying result in the form of Pleiadian Call.
Free Jazz is not everyone's cup of tea, as a wide cross section of the baby boomers who grew up on traditional and straight-ahead varieties will emphatically say. Speaking from personal experience I would very candidly announce my own constraints in a holistic appreciation when it comes to taking a hard look at some of the more 'advanced' compositions in both Free Jazz and Avant-Garde styles. Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy would easily, with their rather over-intellectual and inaccessible deeply introverted styles, would exemplify this shortcoming : whether it is my failure to cross an imagined boundary or theirs, to become more accessible and easily digestible, is a debatable point I would leave here unelaborated.
In Free Jazz perhaps the pioneering work to my mind came from John Coltrane whose slow but determined brick-by-brick removal of all intellectual barriers in Jazz seems now like a historical inevitability. Though I have never studied art criticism nor music theory, I do feel that my four decades of intense listening and internalization of Jazz in its myriad manifestations qualifies me to make intelligent comments on such perceived-to-be difficult styles. Again, let me re-emphasize an important point. What one has heard during teenage or adolescence periods can sound insipidly insufficient now in one's middle-age, and what seemed like pure musical nonsense then, can now make copious sense too. I have experience both these phenomena with a crystalline clarity in Free Jazz and Avant-Garde.
For the fence-sitters, and I know like me there are thousands out there in the wilderness, waiting to drop their arsenal and join the ranks, my free and frank advice would be to give an honest listen to all those 'inaccessible' pieces by the Free Jazz exponents and experience this reawakening, this blossoming within of some unnameable, something almost implausible, something you can't put your finger upon. And yet the same ephemeral 'thing' seems to stick to the psyche like a calculated insult, like sudden act of charitable windfall-like goodness from an unlikely source.
I would not have ventured too deep into the alien territory when it comes to Free Jazz, were it not for the hugely gratifying act of guidance from my friend Scott Dylan, who not only very kindly sent me a lot pointers, advice, and even music to illustrate what could be the main features of attraction in Free Jazz. We both avoided references to Avant-Garde, I was acutely aware for that happens to be an esoteric club 'has always been. As I kept telling him, some of the seemingly unmusical activities of very intellectual players like Gil Evans, Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans : who introduced the atonal and rhythmically unshackled styles with a gay abandon during the late '60s, seemed inaccessible to me then as now.
So for the teeming multitudes who shy away from Jazz which sounds as if it is not being played within the usual restrictions of melody, rhythm and limited improvisation, Chris Greco provides a wonderful new avenue to try out all that remains to be tried out'the beauty of his music lies in the subtle manner in which he imparts a sort of balanced magnitude of improvisation to the theme in every piece, at no point he seems to desert the listener and indulge in his own private mumbling talk with the horn 'as the non-Free Jazz community of listeners is too painfully aware of. Moderation is the key, for him, whether it is the glorious marriage of the neo-classical touch with a fundamentally jazzy leit-motif, or the tightly-knit improvisation within a decently compact timeframe. The music has a sort of controlled wildness overriding a highly civilized core : and that balance surely is a rare accomplishment.
Another rather fetching peculiarity one cannot fail to notice in Greco's compositions, is his superb ability to paint soundscapes which to a sensitive ear and a creative mind, can conjure up scenes of utter exotic charm, a superhuman dancer in moonlight performing some celestial rituals on an abandoned island full of rainforest type natural beauty, an unreal bird on a soaring flight to infinity, a dark and brooding scenario with spookiest effects triggering some ticklish sensations in the aroused intellect' it's a veritable feast for the sprightly imagination of all those who can see feel and absorb with eyes closed.
Whilst on the subject of Free Jazz, through the champion ministrations of Chris Greco, a word about the Avant-Garde effects would not be out of place indeed. A few numbers, perhaps a few phases in particular numbers, do seem to lift the Free Jazz concept a little higher towards what appears to be the more adventurous avenues. The fact that he has managed to mix and balance such difficult idioms into easily palatable pieces, is also no mean achievement. In other words, he has not lost sight of the more traditional forms of Jazz, whilst painting his own inner emotions with musical colors 'perhaps that's why the music appears to be a cut above the usual cultist offerings which are meant for the chosen few. There can be no denying that those who have stuck on with the freedom concept in Jazz have simply erected invisible but impenetrable barriers around their music : and that's something the newbie would find both fearsome and mildly repulsive. Quite the opposite seems to be the overall effect of Greco's music.
To those who feel that I have specialized in writing about musicians who have passed away or were at their peak forty years ago, I dedicate this piece that deals with a young musician who can ride several Jazz idioms as comfortably as a circus performer would ride a cycle with one two or three wheels. Jazz lives, replicating itself in its kaleidoscopic variety all the time. Long live Jazz !
Till next month then, cheerio ! Take care everyone, and write to me if you feel like. I always write back to every email I receive, personally and rather enjoy doing that.