Jazz 101: The New Thing
by Seth Colter Walls | May 9, 2014
Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.
The avant-garde in jazz has many fathers (and mothers). In fact, the entire story of jazz is one of constant revolution and re-invention. In the late 1950s, Sun Ra was beginning to mount an overthrow of traditional big-band technique over in Chicago. (See early sides like "Velvet," and compare with his later opuses like "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" and Space Is the Place.)
But by the early 1960s, there was a codification of style that earned the permanent reputation of the "avant-garde" or "the new thing." Many of its frontline members were saxophonists who seemed to blow with such power that they were splitting the wooden reeds in their mouths. But those weren't their only distinguishing characteristics: Rahsaan Roland Kirk played multiple horns at once and harmonized with them inexhaustibly, using circular breathing (see his multiple personalities on "Pedal Up" or the burning stamina in the solo of "Many Blessings," as well as the tunes from his all-by-himself album Natural Black Inventions). Meanwhile, Archie Shepp brought New Orleans frontline stomp ("Mama Too Tight") and more modern R&B textures into his blowout pieces.
As for Eric Dolphy, who played with Coltrane and Mingus and the Third Stream crew, he was in such control of his instrument that he could pivot from wide interval leaps and overblown squawks to tender playing in the same solo (see "Hat and Beard"). Albert Ayler had a similar, spiritual intensity that came to cement the East Coast "energy" trend of harsh textures and blowing -- though his signature tune, "Ghosts," can sound rather gorgeous, too.
Another exemplar of that intense-but-lovely approach was Pharoah Sanders, who -- both in his collaborations with Coltrane and on his solo albums for Impulse! -- blew with extraordinary force over side-long, meditative tunes. Committed hard-boppers chafed at many of these experiments at the time, but even many of today's post-boppers are able to credit the expanded language that these artists began to articulate. Some already established talents, like Andrew Hill, found compositional inspiration in the new sounds of the experimentalists (see his "Refuge"). And several waves of avant-garde later, all the tunes in the appended playlist just look like stone-cold classics. (The album-length jams are at the end: The final five tracks add up to two hours of material.) But their exalted status doesn't mean they still can't blow your hair back -- as with Coltrane's massive large-ensemble statement, "Ascension." Enjoy.