Perfect Sound Forever

Free jazz: Theme Amour Universal

Albert Ayler (courtesy of Jason Zachariah), Art Ensemble of Chicago (courtesy Eyeneer Music Archives, photo by Gilbert Moreau)

By Tim Ryan (February 2001)

Free jazz, or fire music, can tap emotions with power and articulation well beyond other genres. Punk rock has the rage, bebop has the avant-garde creds, country has the pain, rap has the politics. But no form captures the bohemian, the emotional, the political and the power of individual creativity with the same aplomb.

That's not to imply that anything in the annals of the music is just right for day-in, day-out listening, or that the genre's best has outdistanced what any other music has to offer. Free music has always created a rift. Put it on in company, and the result is either intrigue or outright disgust. While the title of "charlatan" fits some of the avant-guardists, the genre has offered some of the most challenging and beloved music in the modern jazz pantheon. Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch (Blue Note), Ornette Coleman's The Shape Of Jazz to Come (Atlantic), Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures (Blue Note), have earned special places in the hearts of jazz fans, who will include them with more mainstream selections on a list of favorite albums.

Still, free jazz doesn't have the same cool of other sub-genres. The intensity, the experiments in rhythm, tone and structure may not sit well to the uninitiated. But when a force like Albert Ayler, or a collective like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, boldly look at how listeners hear or react to music  and build upon the language and tradition of other forms, the jazz of the late 1960's and early 1970's sounds as fresh and postmodern as anything today.

"Truth is Marching In."

Those four words are the title of an Albert Ayler song. They could be lyrics in a revolutionary chant, or a hymn, or the title of a painting. In many ways, they are all of these things.

Beginning with a slow, chamber-sounding prelude, the instrumentalists, including Ayler's brother, Donald, free mainstays Henry Grimes and Beaver Harris, and converted classical violinist Michael Samson build intensity before charging forward with a pounding parade of sound that strikes a listener with its remarkable, deft turns of grace and crude, articulate force. The group barrels forward, chasing an elusive, all-encompassing muse. It may have been the magic John Coltrane brought to the Village Vanguard on that December night, when he witnessed Ayler and company summon such unprecedented sounds.

"Truth" is only one example of Ayler's saxophone work on the two-disc Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse! Recordings (Impulse!), which is as diverse and possessed as any in the music. It evokes funeral marches and Balkan folk music, Mariachi bands and symphony orchestras. It has folk simplicity and classical complexity, beauty and noise, delicacy and power, sadness and exhilaration.

Ayler's tragically short life was marked by many sharp contrasts. He honed his chops in Army bands before diving headfirst into the free music pioneered by Ornette Coleman. He was dismissed as a fool or praised as a genius. He could state themes of folksy or bluesy simplicity before launching into blasts of free-form blowing. His song titles could evoke the sacred ("Heavenly Home," "Spirits Rejoice," "Divine Peacemaker") or the haunting ("Ghosts," "Witches and Devils"). Even his beard - half black and half gray - seemed to contain a contradiction. The vocal-like tone of Ayler's saxophone is the essence of this music: It can wail with pain, or sing with praise to a higher being. It speaks with the words of the moment.

It's the same thing that makes colonial New England tombstones so eerie. It's the evocation of the spiritual, of the spectral, of greater powers all around. And it's the craft, a complex simplicity, classy and learned, but also maintaining folk traditions through the ages.

Free jazz need not mean simply honking, dissonant noise, though it can. Generally, however, the best practitioners of the form, such as Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Sonny Sharrock, understood that the intensity of such dissonance can be combined effectively with moods, tones, and even instruments of great variety, thus creating new worlds of sound. Most of the great avant-garde recordings define certain limits, rather than striving for total freedom. By utilizing recognizable forms, and tapping into the listener's subconscious musical library, the best free artists were able to comment on existing forms while exploding their boundaries.

In the case of the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Les Stances A Sophie (Universal Sound), the cinematic soundtrack medium was the source of containment. However, the soundtrack works as an independent album, which is fortunate. If obscurity is a plague upon much of the genre of free jazz, it follows that the film the Art Ensemble scored is listed on the Internet Movie Database, but has no mention of cast, plot, or even the involvement of the group. Is the film, like the album, an overlooked gem? Is the music reflective on, or independent of, a moody, complex film?

Jazz soundtracks often exploit sketches of moods to dark, enticing effect. In such jazz films (a large category, to be sure) as Shadows, Elevator to the Gallows and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the forms butt heads, and often the music's complexity must step aside to accommodate the mood of the film. Miles Davis' work on Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle's debut, is in many ways deeper than the film it accompanies, but both understand the importance of tone. The film itself uses smoke-filled rooms, quiet desperation and night textures to create a triumph of style over substance. The music, much of which was improvised by Miles and his band, is cinematic in its ability to conjure said images. As far as Miles' albums go, it's nowhere near his most complex or compelling work, but it shows that the surface qualities of jazz can be used to cinematic effect; the tone reveals the truths.

Even without seeing Les Stances A Sophie, it's not hard to contrive a plot for the music. The ebb and flow, the development of the sound, works like that ninth grade English assignment about the rise of the plot to the climax, and the conclusion and lessons drawn from the tale. And, like Elevator, it's a good thing the album was recorded in a city as inspiring as Paris, with French titles and everything.

Some of the music has the lonely feeling of the obscure; a conversation with a compatriot about a film few have seen, a discussion in the corner of an underappreciated diner or café in a big city, a lonely walk by the waterfront on a cloudy overcast morning or a meeting with a dangerous stranger. Other tunes beg to be heard, and have the swagger of the hero of Breathless sauntering through the city as danger surrounds him. Like most classics, Les Stances has a diversity of mood, a complexity. Like many lost classics, it is uncategorizable, but contains a mainstream notion or two, taken to an extreme in the opposite direction; turn it 180 degrees and you have a hit.

The hit potential comes from the opening number, "Theme De Yoyo," sung by Fontella Bass, wife of late Art Ensemble trumpeter Lester Bowie. She's best know for singing "Rescue Me," and here, as the group's pianist and singer, she brings a soulful voice to the groups avant-James Brown-isms. A funky backbeat may be interrupted by a quick break of free-form blowing, and back to the groove. In fact, the work of the rhythm section, with drums and bass provided by Don Moye and Malachai Favors, respectively, is possibly the most daring thing about the album. Freedom for the dance floor was a concept that has rarely been exploited since, if at all.   Fontella Bass sings again on the album's last cut, like the music that backs the credits, or a reflective closing line.

As I write these words, this cloudy Sunday in January has shifted to a sunny afternoon- still beautiful, but no longer moody. The potency of Stances is increased tenfold on lonely nights, cloudy afternoons and inquisitive, overcast mornings. Those are times when evil flutes, ominous pianos, and curious trumpets sound the best.

Free jazz is lonely music. You don't spin it in company. It's music that doesn't take well to sharing, because it creates a world onto itself.  But the first time I heard Live in Greenwich Village, I couldn't believe it. I ran to the phone, dialed the number of some friends, and left "Truth is Marching In" on their answering machines. I had to spread the word.

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