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To paraphrase good ole Mark Twain, free jazz [like people] should be taken in small [but regular] doses.
Probably no other form of jazz requires more patient listening and sustained efforts at assimilation, than free jazz, also sometimes called Freedom Jazz by some who like to split hairs. Of course one does not include the much-admired and yet much-maligned avant-garde and the other assorted ‘atonal’ forms of jazz which also developed almost simultaneously branched out in entirely different directions. Free jazz happens to hold some ‘lasting value’ or staying power, indeed.
There could also be no other more effective method of putting off a newbie permanently than exposing him or her to the aggressive assault by a free jazz exponent, worse still, by a totally arrhythmic atonal orgiastic outpourings of over-excited emotional excesses from an expressive saxophonist or a trumpeter, either. To paraphrase good ole Mark Twain, free jazz [like people] should be taken in small [but regular] doses.
At the same time we cannot forget that once the seemingly overwhelming anarchy of sound is slightly more familiar, even the greenest amongst the greenhorns begins to like a certain piece, in certain parts. Well, the first rung of the ladder has been crossed... It goes without saying then, that a judicious choice in making the selections for the newbie should be of paramount importance.
That’s precisely what my good friend Scott Dolan of Florida [now Missouri ] has done. An excellent job in this direction by burning a couple of CDs for me, which I can wholeheartedly tout as one of the best introductions ever to free jazz and ‘straight-ahead’ jazz. It was my good fortune to get into an argument with him over this topic earlier last year when my column was just two installments old : the exchange of ideas and arguments was fast and furious, much like the music that gushes lustily from some of the wonderful selections Scott has made for my listening pleasure.
It begins with "Music Matador" by Eric Dolphy, playing his magical bass clarinet with a gay abandon. The tune is catchy, the musical arrangement is quite stimulating and the use of minimum instrumentation makes it doubly attractive –one could even say, it makes the tune easily digestible. I wish to dwell on this particular tune and air my views, which Scott usually finds interesting...
First of all, the tune "Music Matador" showcases the brilliant genius of Eric Dolphy as a composer [ frankly this is one aspect I never paid serious attention to : this is precisely what I call re-learning the ropes... great fun... ] and Scott is right when he says it’s difficult to imagine what heights this genius might have reached as a composer too... it’s also impossible to understand why many record companies turned this gifted genius down whenever he approached them with this particularly astounding piece. But then, the Beatles were turned down sharply too. Probably making cocky gaffes comes naturally to recording moguls and their decision-making lackeys.
On the first listen, "Music Matador" with its rather unusual almost Bossa Nova-ish rhythm, stands out. It may even sound like a Latin dance number, if played in the background, with your mind busy elsewhere. However, on a careful and focused aural scrutiny, it magnanimously throws open up virtual treasures of most amazing sounds-bytes. Dolphy’s bass clarinet seems subdued throughout, and a zebra-strip like sound-collage emerges wherein the brighter strips are Sonny Simmons’ rather petulant solos and his screaming interludes now and then. The dark stripes are Dolphy’s self-indulgent but deeply engaging solos.
Prince Lasha [could someone please tell me more about him?] on the flute, gives off truly dazzling flashes of genius and the bassist Richard Davis, highlights his own undisputable mastery over this wonderful instrument amply. Clifford Jones on soprano sax remains a step stylishly behind Simmons, appears happy to be led and so is the impish trumpeter Woody Shaw. All told, a dizzying masterpiece indeed, from the album ‘Conversations’. I would most certainly like to listen to this album, Scott, thanks a lot indeed.
Scott has often laid heaps of praise on a pianist, Eric Reed, whom he considers a gifted genius, and who has shown off his cool skill on a number of tunes here... and it is difficult to disagree about his exalted talent. Well my old time favorites Wynton Kelly and McCoy Tyner are there, too : but Reed somehow has a haunting quality to his playing [ which I had noticed first in Kelly of course, several decades ago when the jazz world was young... to some extent Ramsey Lewis and even Horace Silver had developed this haunting quality to their piano playing]. Even Ahmad Jamal had it, and Oscar Peterson developed it too. It’s a charming attribute, this quality.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.