Ten Free Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die
Free jazz is challenging, violent, political, spiritual, joyous, peaceful, and a million other things. It's about shattering forms in order to find a new world of sound somewhere further outside. And once this new world is found, it's time to go looking for a newer one.
When, as a college student, I first purchased Ornette Coleman's landmark album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, the record store clerk mumbled to me, "I didn't make it all the way through this album the first time I put it on." Ignoring his advice, I went home and listened to it all the way through. Many times. I loved it. I went looking for more. These are 10 of the albums I found. It should go without saying that this list is meant, not as a dead-end, but as a pathway that leads to the listening of many, many more fantastic free jazz albums.
10. Noah Howard
The Black Ark
Several ripping solos by the saxophonists Noah Howard and Arthur Doyle on this 1969 release that was recently reissued by Bo'Weavil. The New Orleans native Howard played with big American guns like Sun Ra and Archie Shepp, as well as European bosses like Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink (the Dutch musicians that co-founded the Instant Composers Pool). Howard led a few stellar quartet dates for ESP in the 1960s, but this septet album (featuring the understated Philadelphia drummer Muhammad Ali, Rashied Ali's brother) is his finest.
9. Dave Burrell
Released in 1969, this is pianist Dave Burrell's most vicious and dense work (which isn't to imply that La vie de bohême is an easy listen). I've seen Burrell perform many times in the past few years, and on more than one occasion he's left blood on the keys. Burrell certainly got bloody on this recording with saxophonists Arthur Jones and Archie Shepp, bassist Alan Silva, cornetist Clifford Thornton, trombonist Grachan Moncur III and drummer Sunny Murray. Very bloody. (Note: This same lineup, minus Jones, appears on Archie Shepp's Live at the Pan-African Festival. Another must-have.)
8. Anthony Braxton
In the liner notes to this 1970 solo double-LP, the saxophonist Anthony Braxton wrote, "With different forms of music being so readily available it has become very difficult to distinguish between forms or approaches. Maybe we are at the junction where we will not need this anymore." Braxton, an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, pulled inspiration from all over. On this daring album, the first solo saxophone album ever, he dedicated tracks to both John Cage and pianist Cecil Taylor, and found inspiration in Karlheinz Stockhausen and other things most of us will never understand. (Another great solo sax album: Evan Parker's Monoceros.)