Help me understand "free jazz"

Discussion in 'Music [DB]' started by krfoss, Feb 12, 2022.

  1. krfoss

    krfoss Supporting Member

    Nov 29, 2007
    Orange County, CA
    First, please no "you just don't get it, man" responses. I'm already establishing this.

    Its a granted point that each musician is likely doing something very complex and theoretically technical in their own right, but I find it to be musical gibberish.

    Is this just a form of jazz that I don't like on a personal taste basis? Or, is there some element of it I'm not listening to correctly that needs to be appreciated in a specific way? Kinda of like a " you don't know what you dont know' way? I love dixieland jazz, which has elements of free jazz where everyone is playing their own part, but that seems much more coherent and listenable to me.

    So, help me out. I'm not trying to be insulting to those who love it (necessarily), just trying to see behind the curtain a little.
  2. The Owl

    The Owl

    Aug 14, 2005
    Free jazz is definitely something very specialized in terms of audience appeal and I suspect a lot of it's practitioners want it that way. I used to like some of it but completely lost my taste for it in recent years.

    One thing that turned me off to it was the snooty, elitist attitude behind it, plus it just sounds so angry and hateful to my ears. There always exceptions of course, like the early Ornette Coleman stuff that actually had melodic content. There was a trio in Boston called The Fringe that could conjure up very beautiful passages and not default to the "honk and skronk" thing that so many free jazzers default to.

    The sheer number of self proclaimed free jazzers makes it difficult to tell the real musicians from the hacks.

    Another aspect of free jazz, you'll definitely be playing for free 10 times out of 9. More people onstage than in the audience.

    Don't feel bad if you don't get free jazz. It's not for everybody.
  3. bass12

    bass12 Have You Met Grace Jones?

    Jun 8, 2008
    Montreal, Canada
    Just to step back a bit, do you like bebop or is that also something that you find displeasing to the ear?
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  4. Cal03


    Jun 19, 2021
    I listen to some free jazz and free jazz-adjacent stuff once in a while (Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Hamiet Bluiett and associated acts). The listening experience is not too different from the more "out there" contemporary and avant-garde classical music. The cacophony and sheer virtuosity can be exhilarating, and it can be good experience to push your boundaries every now and then. I find that duos strike the best balance of freedom while having enough structure to hold it together.

    But it all grows tiresome after a while. I can appreciate it from a distance and even listen to it occasionally, but certainly not all the time.

    Last edited: Feb 12, 2022
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  5. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    Ha, I'm not a free jazzer, but I used to love hearing the Fringe at the Willow in Somerville in the early '90's. Saxophonist George Garzone was certainly not averse to "honk and skronk" (or just blowing empty air through the horn while fingering keys, or any number of bizarre effects), but the level of creativity, and above all, instrumental interplay really made it worthwhile.
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  6. I like to play free(ly), but I also like to agree about the degree of freedom. I usually suggest 3 different approaches:

    1. time, no changes,
    2. changes, no time, or
    3. no time, no changes

    Option 3 being the most challenging in terms of making meaningful music. By acting and reacting and having a similar mind set with others, beautiful results can also be achieved.
  7. Reiska


    Jan 27, 2014
    Helsinki, Finland
    My wife loves to dance to free jazz, both classic and contemporary, and I love to watch that happen. We both listen to free jazz, and play impovised stuff together and in different settings.

    One does not have to like everything, methinks.

    One does not have to " understand " free jazz, it's more about the vibe and colour in that art form. At least for me it's about digging, not understanding. I generally find the bop thing more theoretical and complex.

    Go see the live thing! It's definently a living creature at it's best. Expose yourself to it, and maybe you find yourself touched by it one day.

    Also, add some free improvising into your practising and playing schedule.

    My 2 cents.

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  8. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    If you think of jazz music in parallel to art, compare bebop to Picasso, and free jazz to Jackson Pollock...

    To an unschooled listener, bebop loosely follows form and eventually confirms melody. To an unschooled listener, free jazz is more form-less and melody-less, but there is deep coordination between the artists involved, and that's where the interesting things happen.

    That said, to get a real insider view of free jazz, we need to hear from our own @damonsmith.
  9. zootsaxes

    zootsaxes Supporting Member Commercial User

    Mar 6, 2015
    Memphis TN
    What I like most about free jazz is that I don't understand it. Being trained in a 'bebop factory' university setting, I often get hung up on what is right vs wrong, good vs bad, appropriate vs not. By my estimation, free jazz is a more "no wrong answers" context in which one can focus one's intent on the 'extra-musical' and/or the esoteric, "spiritual" aspects of tonal organization. It's a different type of listening (and playing!) when you're analyzing a thing (as one may listen to straight ahead bebop, for example) versus when you're letting the sound just wash over you - trying to transcend judgement and contextualization - "Oh the Mystery!" ... I'm on a big Tisziji kick right now. Can't get enough! My wife can't stand free jazz and I have to be very delicate when I try to transcribe my Liebman lines, lol...
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2022
    Reiska likes this.
  10. krfoss

    krfoss Supporting Member

    Nov 29, 2007
    Orange County, CA
    Thanks to everyone for the feedback. Ill give it all some thought and expose myself to the groups suggested. I also appreciate the permission to not like it without my music appreciation card being revoked.
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  11. waver


    Nov 19, 2016
    Memphis, TN
    As kind of said above, I equate free jazz somewhat to abstract visual art.

    Sometimes my reaction to either is “well anybody could do that”, and other times it’s “wow that’s beautiful”.
  12. oren


    Aug 7, 2007
    Salem, OR
    “Free jazz” can cover a lot of territory. Some of it you may love and some not. I second the suggestion to get out and see some people who are really skilled play live - to hear and see it happen in front of you in real time will help you decide if you want to dive further into this pool.
  13. eh_train

    eh_train Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 12, 2004
    Owner, Stand Up Guy Basses (Repair/Sell/Buy upright basses)
    PLEASE, don't miss out on Eric Dolphy's 'Out to Lunch'! Recorded very shortly before his passing (in 1964), it features Eric as leader, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams. If nothing else, with such intensely talented players, it puts to rest the complaint that "my kid could do that". I also love this album because it's not 100% free - there are some beautiful melodies that frame the very free blowing.
  14. scott reed

    scott reed Supporting Member

    Nov 4, 2002
    Look for a book called "Free Jazz" by Ekkehard Jost. It's on Amazon. Artists and music analysed.
    Scholarly but well organized. Modal to Sun Ra. Used it for "Jazz School" in a past life.
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  15. lurk

    lurk Supporting Member

    Dec 2, 2009
    The trouble with Free Jazz is the same trouble with a lot of mainstream jazz - a lot of folks these days don't really play it very well. If it's mainstream jazz it might be not very good, and you might be bored, but at least you can admire chops sometimes and you won't be made to feel bad. If it's bad free jazz, you're in for some torture. You might want to start with some of the acknowledged masters - Cecil Taylor for example. Check out Unit Structures on Blue Note. Fanfare for the Warriors by the Art Ensemble of Chicago (pretentious name, but a great group). Of course Ornette. His early stuff is very easy listening and his rhythm section grooves (most of the time) by any standard. The Golden Circle recordings are quite pretty and charming. After that you can dip into his Prime Time stuff. There are lots of fakers out there, but there's lots fakers out there in regular jazz too simply regurgitating stuff they've transcribed and impersonating jazz music.
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  16. peteswanson91

    peteswanson91 Supporting Member

    Sep 22, 2004
    Brooklyn, NY
    I always feel there is a misconception……I believe it should be thought of as “you are free to hear what you hear”….In it’s truest sense you are free to hear anything you may hear over anything….the key is to “hear” it….in my perfect world everyone should be free to hear music as they please as long as it’s coming from a true place….Most of us are not truly free in so much as what they hear is what has been heard before, i.e. “playing exactly as the changes are for instance (“how dare you play a natural 13, when the song calls for a b13”). But if one hears that …and truly hears it (even in terms of wanting to create the “rub” of the two adjacent semitones ) then that is “free”. Ornette heard freely I believe with every fiber of my being….he heard music the way he heard music because he allowed himself to be free to hear music how he heard it..
    The caveat is that to truly get there, one has to work incredibly hard at hearing things that are not in one’s comfort zone…you can hear everything and choose to play completely inside as well….you are free to hear that way as well, as long as it’s YOU that are truly hearing it….I feel musicians who play completely outside understand it this way, they would be more open….and if what others may call “free musicians” truly played only how they heard, they would also have a deep appreciation for “inside” playing….they are free to hear music in any way they choose…that is true free music for me
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  17. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

    [QUOTE="peteswanson91, post: 26147722, member: 47262"]I feel musicians who play completely outside understand it this way, they would be more open….[/QUOTE]
    Is there a word or words missing in the section above? I am having some difficulty with this sentence.
    Thanks for your thoughtful and articulate post.
    Don Kasper
  18. peteswanson91

    peteswanson91 Supporting Member

    Sep 22, 2004
    Brooklyn, NY
    Sorry don… should have been and “if” in there … damn you thumb computer!
    Don Kasper likes this.
  19. An easy an answer, is: Free Jazz is different from free improvisation. Free Jazz still uses swing, chromatic harmony and lines, and retains a relationship to jazz, the jazz part is important. There are constant changes. When are we
    not playing a unison, there is a harmony if more than one person are playing.
    They freed themselves from the set forms, however, form then becomes extremely important. Since you are not bringing a form from home you have to build one each time and learn how to navigate it.
    There are often sets of chords that relate to the lines being played, there is just no obligation to play them beyond their usefulness.
    Albert Ayler and early Cecil Taylor are good places to start. After those two, the rhythm section really opens. Still, the drums and bass are responsible for propulsion.
    As far as taste, it is more about starting to explore what other elements of music do taste takes a back seat. Human beings love backbeats and diatonic harmony - this we know. At a certain point some of us want to find out what else there is!
    As far as gibberish, to a point - this is true - but on purpose. No matter what is going into each of our sounds, many of them are designed to not solicit a rote response - this idea gets taken much further in realm of free improvisation. how impossible is it to hear a II-V-I as pure sound? What would happen if you did? If you could? So there is a bit of that in there. So some of the material is about keeping everyone on their toes!
    It has a long history and a lot of variations around the world.
    As far as anger, much of the roots are in the Black Power Movement of the '60s, then you bring in the Germans who were pissed at their fathers in that time for obvious reasons, less obvious was that German music was co-opted during the war and those born during and just after WW2 were pissed as well. So yeah, there is some anger in it still. There are also lots of beautiful versions of it. Paul Motian's Dance is as beautiful as anything and it is free jazz. The musicians who came out of the AACM in Chicago, The Art Ensemble of Chicago (a fantastic name!), Muhal Richard Abrahms, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and many others have written all kinds of complex music with all kinds of systems they were "free" to write those things.
    Sun Ra had whole other systems that changed often. Checking out his work is deep task, but to start just make sure Ronnie Boykins is in the band try Nothing is, Heliocentric Worlds & The Magic City. Steve Lacy is another one to check out.
    Anyway, don't feel bad if it is not for you - however, you are asking so there is probably something in it for you. Just keep listening and asking questions - if you don't get any answers maybe come back to it in a few years.

    There are some strong remasters of a lot of great free jazz classics here, just poke around there for a while:
    ezz-thetics by Hat Hut
  20. I'm in no way advocating them but do chemicals help to get it? Because they apparently played quite a role in the evolution of the genre.
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2022
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