Here's a primer on the far-out sounds of free jazz

You may think you don't "like" free jazz but perhaps you just don't have a "way in." The improvisational and avant-garde genre first emerged in the early 1960s and became an expansive fertile ground for musical experimentation in the following decade. Key players include Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and so many more. To help us navigate the free jazz scene, my pal David Katznelson—Grammy-nominated producer, music industry veteran, intrepid record collector, and author of The Signal newsletter—shared his favorite free jazz platters and asked a few fellow travelers to do the same. Turns out, the way in is the way out.

From The Signal:

Byron Coley: Writer, Record Collector, Feeding Tube Records


Tim Daly: Record Collector, Producer

  • Kingdom Come by Charles Gayle (Knitting Factory): I saw this one listed as #1 in the College Radio chart in the back of Rolling Stone magazine in 1994 or '95. Backed by legends William Parker and Sunny Murray, Gayle's playing is off the charts. Just when you think he's pushed it as far as he can, he manages to take it over the top again and again until it sounds like his head is about to pop off. RIP to a tenor titan.
  • Performance by Anthony Braxton (Quartet) 1979 (Hat Hut): One of my favorite Braxton recordings. His solo on the first track is a masterfully built exercise in restraint until he takes the horn to an exciting place he's never been, as he often does. You can't say that about a lot of players. Features an amazing chromatic composition to boot.
  • The Way by Steve Lacy (Hat Hut): Less like free jazz and more like a grid system in graphic design. When it comes to the solos though, everyone is inspired and goes out, out, out. Steve Potts is the perfect foil for Lacy and his symmetrical playing is particularly fabulous. Some of the most musical music you will ever hear.
  • 21st Century Texts by Raphe Malik 5tet (FMP): A monster of a recording helmed by the enigmatic Malik, a former trumpet player in the Cecil Taylor Unit. It is Glenn Spearman who steals the show though and his solo on the first track is worth the price of admission alone. Fiery tunes and great playing reminiscent of Noah Howard's Black Ark.
  • Children of the Forest by Milford Graves (Black Editions): I've always loved Arthur Doyle but his playing (tenor, bass clarinet, flute) on this is even more ferocious than anything else I've ever heard from him and Graves' playing is so open that Doyle can just blow fire. Let's hope that Graves' home recordings with Gayle and Parker see the light of day eventually.
  • Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) by Cecil Taylor Segments II (Orchestra of Two Continents) (Soul Note): The title says it all. This huge orchestra, featuring Frank Wright, John Tchichai as well as regulars Jimmy Lyons, Karen Borca and many others is like a magnificent beast taking flight. The tunes are as beautiful and melancholic as a cocaine comedown. In a world of great CT albums, this one is a standout. On a related note, I read about plans for a Cecil Taylor Sextet once featuring Cecil, Jimmy Lyons, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille. If I have any hope for AI, it's that someone (something?) can put together a recording that sounds legit.
  • Machine Gun by Peter Brötzmann Octet (FMP): Nothing needs to be said about this one really. The best improvisers in Europe, all swinging for the fences and hoping to change the world. They did. It just took longer than they expected.
  • Carpathes by Pilz / Kowald / Lovens (FMP): Some of my favorite playing often makes me wonder "is this guy a genius or is it the first time he's ever touched the instrument?" If Pilz's oblique playing on the first track makes you ask that question, it's surely answered by the time you move onto the second track. Kudos to Cien Fuegos for reissuing this one and RIP Jost Gerbers.
  • À Chateauvallon – No, No But It May Be by Michel Portal Unit (Le Chant du Monde): The second side of this opens with Portal playing two clarinets before moving on to contrabass clarinet. Slow, open-ended playing that sounds a bit like Performance (Quartet) 1979 but takes place 6 years before. Features French free jazz stalwarts Bernard Vitet, Pierre Favre and Beb Guerin.
  • Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy by Sun Ra And His Myth Science Arkestra (Saturn): My favorite Sun Ra from my favorite period. Lots of reverb throughout and I especially love the oboe and bass clarinet playing on this one. You can even hear a telephone ringing in the background at one point. Essential.

Gretchen Davidson Gonzales: Musician, Enthusiast, Infinite River

  1. Spiritual Unity by The Albert Ayler Trio
  2. Interstellar Low Ways by Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra
  3. (Willisau) 1991 Studio by Anthony Braxton Quartet
  4. Pharoah by Pharoah Sanders
  5. Sunny Murray by Sunny Murray
  6. Lover Come Back To Me by Kaoru Abe
  7. Journey in Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane
  8. Sound by Roscoe Mitchell Sextet
  9. The Giuseppi Logan Quartet by The Giuseppi Logan Quartet
  10. Coin Coin Chapter Five: In The Garden by Matana Roberts

Jordan Kurland: Brilliant Corners Management, Noise Pop Industries

It's narrowed to 11 so need to remove one :-) but instead here's 12…