by John Litweiler
Da Capo Press (New York, 1990)
Despite an original publication date of almost 15 years ago, Litweiler's exposition of the history, methods, intentions, and personalities associated with free jazz from its inception remains a useful introduction to this music. Free jazz remains anathema to many musicians and listeners, and is rarely heard on the radio, but it has persisted, reflecting the survival of an impulse towards emotional expression, spiritual purity, and aesthetic freedom in the face of its marginalization. Withal, free jazz has become another flavor in the bag of tricks which younger musicians collect even if they have little interest in an extended performance in this vein.
Litweiler traces the forerunners of performance not bound by the strict schedule of a 32-measure song form or 12-measure blues in the music of the beboppers, the free performances and recordings of Lennie Tristano, the experimental compositions of Charles Mingus. The heart of the book consists of biographical chapters which are half musical analysis, covering the saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, and the pianist Cecil Taylor. Additional chapters survey quite a range of musicians, some of whom flirted with free jazz, and others who mined the vein pretty deeply, from Miles Davis and Jackie McLean to Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. There's a chapter on the musicians' cooperatives in Chicago (Association for the Advance of Creative Musicians) and St. Louis (Black Artists Group, which included other performing arts as well), and another on the European free jazz scene.
The musical analysis is quite persuasive and at least revives the recollection of hearing these sounds, even as it cannot substitute for the reality of that experience. For instance, in the discussion of the Ornette Coleman Quartet's recording of "Ramblin'," Litweiler quotes Kenneth Rexroth on Coleman: "the whole group is from the Southwest, and behind them you can hear the old bygone banjos and tack pianos, and the first hard moans of country blues." After discussing Cherry's and Coleman's solos, he goes on to say
"Haden's strummed replies in the theme are a Bo Diddley vamp which then alternates with walking choruses in his accompaniments; the vamp reminds us that this frontier is vast and lonely, even if the loneliness is as stylized as a cowboy song of abandoned love. Moreover, this syncopated drone is extracted whole from folk music Haden had been inspired by his brother, a bassist in country music bands and the bass solo in "Ramblin'" is even a strummed bluegrass song. Even the fleeting satires of Coleman and Cherry are a feature of folk humor; like a Jimmy Yancey solo, the folk sources of "Ramblin'" are not betrayed, parodied, distorted, or otherwise set at a distance: "Ramblin'" is a folk myth.
This is typical of the evocative and widely allusive analysis.
Free jazz certainly has its advocates and its acolytes. Litweiler's contribution is to blend his obvious sympathies for the music's practitioners with a low-key and well-informed treatment of the music itself. Music this expressive does not need a hysterical defense, and the subject itself is vivid enough that the detachment of the writing helps to clarify the importance of the contributions which free jazz artists have made to American music. Includes notes, discography, index and photographs.
This review copyright (c) 1998 by Larry Koenigsberg.