Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Free Jazz

Free Jazz
Free Jazz - an important genre really in its own right, but with a big influence on what I would call the main stream of jazz development, which is what we’ve been looking at. In some sense, the good news is that, generally speaking, the groups that play it are pianoless, because there’s very often no chords - or chord sequences anyway - so the role of the piano has been downgraded. It’s often in time - so the bass often player plays time - and it’s often (that) there’s a tonal centre around. So people might be in B flat say, but there aren’t chords as such, typically. Anyway, free jazz developed at the same time that modal jazz came into existence.
It was developed in response, really, to the limitations of be-bop, then hard bop and then modal jazz.
“Free jazz musicians” - this is a quote from Wikipedia - “attempted to alter, extend, or break down jazz conventions, often by discarding fixed chord changes or tempos. Whilst usually it was considered as avant-garde, free jazz has also been described as an attempt to return jazz to its primitive, often religious, roots with an emphasis on collective improvisation.”
Who are the key musicians? Well the most imprtant musician of all would be Ornette Coleman, since he was the pioneer of this area.
Other sax players involved: John Coltrane, Pharoah Saunders, Eric Dolphy - who also played bass clarinet - Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler - all those are sax players, and then - rather against what I just said - Cecil Taylor on piano and Sun Ra keyboards - composer Sun Ra - and then Charles Mingus on bass. Let me tell you a little bit about Ornette Coleman. He signed a multi-album contract with Atlantic records and then released this famous record “The shape of jazz to come” in 1959. According to Steve Huey, this record was “a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with.”
There are some people that really just don’t think free jazz has any merits.
Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as (an) iconoclast; others, including the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and the composer Virgil Thomson regarded him as a genius and an innovator. I’ve put up for you reference to a YouTube track from that original album and, more interestingly, the music has been transcribed. I’ll show you the first page on the whiteboard and you’ll see it looks complicated, and there are 4 pages of it. What’s amazing is that you can get all this music for free. There’s a website which I’ll give to you where all the music - I think from this album - is available. Certainly this is. I’ll put this up - this transcription - for you.
It looks incredibly complicated and my guess is that that’s not how it was originally - that Ornette Coleman didn’t write it down, he came up with some ideas, and then some licks and suggestions.
What was a bit strange about this was that it actually has a chord sequence - an 8 bar chord sequence: 2 bars of B flat minor, 2 bars of E flat minor, 2 bars of A flat minor, 2 bars of F7. Lets play it as a conventional chord sequence. 1,2,1,2,3,4.
So you can play it as a conventional chord sequence, but this was the beginning of the journey and very soon chord sequences were dispensed with, and so were pianists. In fact, Ornette Coleman after that album never, I think, used a pianist until the 1990s. The personnel of the orginal band - apart from Ornette Coleman on alto saxophone - was Don Cherry or cornet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. It’s of interest to note that Charlie Haden straddled (the) free jazz arena with straight ahead conventional jazz - whatever you want to call it.
He said he’d always wished he’d made an album with Bill Evans - he never did - but he made a lot of albums with Keith Jarrett - straight ahead albums. He was a key figure in the American quartet - the famous American quartet - led by Keith Jarrett. In particular, they made a lovely album a few years ago (in) 2010 called “Jasmine”, and I really urge you to listen to it. It’s a very simple - they play jazz standards - and a very simple album really, but just beautiful, beautiful.
This is another quote from Wikipedia. “Even from the beginning of Coleman’s career, his music and playing were in many ways unorthodox. He was increasingly interested in playing what he heard rather than fitting into predetermined chorus-structures” - shapes that repeat themselves - “and harmonies” - chord structures. “His raw, highly vocalized sound and penchant for playing “in the cracks” of the scale led many Los Angeles jazz musicians to regard Coleman’s playing as simply out-of-tune. He sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform”.
So that’s Ornette Coleman and I’ve given you a track to listen to and where you can get the music from. Then there’s Cecil Taylor.
Cecil Taylor - an unorthodox pianist. You’ve got to listen to him to really to take him onboard, but listen with an open mind. Listen knowing that this guy is regarded as highly talented by lots of people in the know. Don’t - because he plays in an unconventional manner - be put off by that. Try and listen “in the cracks” - if I could put it like that. He was a classically trained pianist and his main influences originally were Theolonius Monk and Horace Silver.
He later uses more and more unconventional ideas and, again, moves away from conventional harmony. He made his first album in 1956 called “Jazz Advance” and it shows ties to the more traditional jazz music but with a greatly expanded harmonic vocabulary, but then, bit by bit, he leaves that behind and plays this free jazz, as we would probably call it closer today. Some examples?
One of the tracks from “Shape of things to come” is called “Focus On Sanity” and that was the name of a band I put together in, I think, the late 1980s and consisted of Don Richards on trumpet, Tony Roberts on tenor and various other instruments, Peter Maxfield - who’d played with Andy Sheppard for many years - on bass, and a long-standing member of my various groups John Bell on drums. I put up for you the quintet playing “Focus On Sanity”.
It’s a very short track, it’s only a few minutes, but you can get the general idea and that was a kinda - like our, I think, our theme tune. We played it at the beginning and the end of sets when we did concerts. We did a memorable concert once on the main stage at the Bracknell Jazz Festival - that was the main (jazz) festival in Britain at the time. I’ve got a not very good recording of it - it was taken through the house PA system - but there’s some amazing free playing. I’m really surprised to listen to it, that we included it in what was a conventional group otherwise.
So I’ve done it and what can I say to you as pianists about how you play free jazz? The answer is that I have nothing to say really other than you have to do it. It’s really experiencing it which will give you a way to find out how you are going to express yourself in this musical form. So, if you can, try and find some like-minded musicians, listen to some influences and then have a go yourself. It’s really by doing it that, I think, you will get to understand it more. What I have also included is another section from my suite “Four By Four”.
This is Section V and it has some free playing - even freer that free jazz you could say - in it and it might be of interest to you. Let me just tell you a little bit about it. It’s based on two 5-note scales.
So B, C sharp, E, F sharp, A sharp and then another scale - 5-note scale C, D flat, F, G, B flat. Then when you put those 2 scales together, you get a chromatic bit - sorry - then a gap, a minor third and then another chromatic bit. So the notes are squashed together, but there’s gaps of a minor third in the middle and at the end.
The role of the string quartet in this is to play a 6 bar lick of triads over unrelated roots, that goes like this.
So that’s D triad over B, F triad over C sharp, E flat triad over E, F triad over F sharp, B triad over A - I think it is, I’m not sure. Then the tune starts.
There’s a lot of written material that goes on using - exploring those 2 scales. It’s played by Tony Roberts on bass clarinet - a wonderful bass clarinettist - and it’s meant to be played by arco bass, but there’s not many jazz musicians who play arco bass. On this recording it’s Mick Hutton on bass and he didn’t play arco bass - but it still sounds good. We did one performance once with the British jazz bassist called Chris Lawrence - wonderful bass player - who straddled the fields between classical music and jazz. So he was in a classical orchestra - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, or something - I can’t remember, but he played it arco and it just sounded magnificent.
Then eventually various people get to improvise on it. I think the string quartet plays the scale and then I play a bit on the piano. Then the string quartet plays the other scale and I do a bit. Then I combine them and then the string quartet plays its 6 bar lick. Once the improvisation gets going - I think there’s a section for piano and bass clarinet and then another section later on where all 4 members
of the jazz quartet are playing together: the bass, the drums, the bass clarinet and the piano. I don’t think it’s in time. I think it’s just completely free but using those notes from those scales. The role of the string quartet is to play their 6 bar lick whenever they feel like it. The leader will make a decision and then they’ll play it. There’s a word for this is classical music - I’m not sure what it is, something like alleoric - it means that this section can play their contribution when they feel it’s appropriate. That again is slightly unusual, but it’s something that may give you some ideas.
As I say, when it comes to playing free jazz yourself, you really have to do it. I can’t say much about it. I can say how sometimes it influences what I do. When you’re playing straight ahead jazz and you put free jazz elements into it, it’s often known as “playing out” or “taking the music out”. Just a small example, I might be playing a blues in F and getting a bit fed up with playing lots of choruses in F, so I will, for example, play a whole chorus, or more, in F sharp while the bass player still stays in F. You get this kind of astringency, then obviously you get resolution when you eventually go back to F.
That’s a kind of example of a free jazz element.

We discuss Free Jazz and, in particular, the importance of Ornette Coleman. The transcription of his composition “Focus on Sanity” and a list of all his compositions are attached at the bottom of the step. We also consider elements of Section V of my suite “Four By Four” which has free elements in it and a supporting chart is also attached at the bottom of the step.

This article is from the free online

Learn Jazz Piano: Final Topics and Two Concerts

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now