Feed Your Ears: Second Wave American Free Jazz

A lot of people know about the first wave of American free jazz: Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and the rest, along with the late work of John Coltrane. We'll have future posts devoted to those guys, but this one is about the ones who came immediately after them. Many were associated with Chicago rather than New York, and they brought an awareness of contemporary classical sounds to bear on the improvisational ethic of their forebears.

We'll start with Anthony Braxton, surely one of the most technically gifted and imaginative saxophonists of all time. Let's start gently, with a very young Braxton's interpretation of Coltrane's classic tune "Impressions". He does here what he often does when playing a standard, which is he starts off playing quite straight and slowly, little by little, takes it way outside and lets his imagination run riot:

Braxton's output is vast and extremely various; here he is taking the paint off the walls with a high-energy quartet in a classic free jazz manner:

Now, I'm a sucker for that kind of thing but most people find it a bit abrasive. From a few years later, here's a concert recording by perhaps Braxton's finest band, a quartet that fortunately recorded a lot and featured the amazing pianist Marilyn Crispell. This piece is hardly recognisable as "jazz" at all, at least in terms of its methods; it has more in common with classical spectralism with its long notes and microtonal tunings, creating clouds of sound that seem to hang in the air:

Braxton has more recently been involved with what he calls "Ghost Trance Music", a style of playing that involves composed lines intertwining together with lots of improvisation but less emphasis on "solos". As someone in the comments points out, the tune sounds a bit like a Zappa composition but the methods used are completely different. The music begins at 2:12.

Here's saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. The whirlwind of notes he creates here is a great source of ideas for inventing fast-moving runs on the guitar. Listen to the way he uses articulation and tone to give these blurry lines shape and pace:

There's a lot in common here with Coltrane's great album Interstellar Space, and Mitchell may be using some patterns derived from Slonimsky in places here just as Trane did throughout that album.

Violinist Leroy Jenkins (no, not that one) was a long-term collaborator with Mitchell, but his style is much more classically-influenced. In this clip he mixes standard classical techniques with jazz and bluegrass ideas, all coloured by his extremely idiosyncratic intonation. He's not playing "out of tune" here, or at least not by mistake: this is the way he wants you to hear it. We spend a lot of time being careful to play in tune when we use techniques like bends, the slide or the whammy bar, and it's interesting to experiment with notes that aren't conventionally in tune for expressive effect:

Trombonist George Lewis is one of the most sonically adventurous of all the Chicago crowd, and has played with many musicians from around the world, fusing their own styles with his avant garde jazz sensibilities. Here we find him duetting with Yi Yi Wang on the Chinese erhu. Together they create a weird, sour kind of music that constantly seems to be trying to find its balance:

Finally here's something with a tune, a piece by a big band led by Henry Threadgill with some fun solo statements and a general sense that the band are thoroughly enjoying themselves:

Some of this music is undoubtedly offputting if you aren't familiar with the traditions it comes out of. It can even sound as if the people involved don't really know what they're doing (well, in an important sense they don't, since they're improvising, and often pushing themselves to be as creative as they can while they do it). I hope there are some sounds or ideas here that inspire you, and you'll find plenty more by all the artists mentioned here on YouTube.