Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia

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Todd S. Jenkins
Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
ISBN: 0313298815
Two volumes, 468 pages

Free improvisation may represent only a minute fraction of music sales, to the extent jazz has much of a market share in the first place. But ironically it's one of the richest and most diverse segments of the jazz world, at all levels—artists, instruments, approaches, labels, and recordings alike.

It's also interesting to note how free jazz has accrued a cult-like following among listeners discriminating enough to appreciate its more abstract and often emotionally involving sounds. They gather on the internet in news groups and on bulletin boards, flocking to "underground" publications both electronic and on paper, like The Wire, Signal to Noise, and One Final Note. The mainstream press might relegate free improvisation to its back pages, but the genre certainly has its share of supporters, who more than make up for their minority status by virtue of raw enthusiasm.

Todd S. Jenkins' encyclopedia of free jazz serves everyone with an interest in the subject, because it focuses on delivering a scarce commodity: information. These two volumes consist mostly of alphabetical listings of artists, groups, and record labels. Also included are a few brief essays at the start of the first volume which offer background and make some important connections among all the branches of the tree.

The first essay attempts (successfully) to clarify what defines jazz, free jazz, and free improvisation, providing some relatively direct discussion about the nature of free music, though it's inevitably impossible to classify any of this stuff in unambiguous terms. The second major essay is a historical analysis from atonal music through the modern era, with special attention to early events, important movements, geography and politics, spirituality, and the present-day threads that stretch into the great beyond. A relatively compact timeline lays out significant events from 1949 through 2003.

But the real meat lies in the individual listings, and Jenkins does an excellent job of being inclusive, which is no easy matter given the incredible diversity of the movement. He also aims in-depth coverage at a few artists who deserve special attention. The longest listings (several pages each) belong to Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Sun Ra, which is exactly the way it should be. To his credit Jenkins does a good job of highlighting key female players like Irene Schweizer and Susie Ibarra, just to name a couple of examples. The overall balance and prioritization is about right.

Attentive readers will find a few omissions and errors in these listings, and I noticed that neither Atavistic nor ECM is present, which is a little surprising, but these things do happen. If you want to check out some extended whining on that particular subject, read what Ken Waxman had to say here. In my opinion the value of the information content in these books vastly outweighs any of these shortcomings, and I suspect future editions will make the appropriate repairs. Anyone who's obsessed with accuracy should consult a second source no matter what, anyway.

The main virtue of this encyclopedia is that it gathers nearly the entire free jazz family under one massive umbrella, and I know that I'll be consulting it on a regular basis. A strong effort and an invaluable resource.

Note and disclaimer: Todd S. Jenkins has contributed to All About Jazz since 1999.

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