A Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz

Instead of our usual posts of rare and out-of-print tracks, this week Destination: Out is offering up our Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz – featuring some of the most fun and friendly entry points to this music. It’s our humble attempt to make Free Jazz (aka Avant Garde Jazz aka Adventurous Jazz aka That Horrible Racket) more understandable to folks who don’t normally listen to much jazz at all.

To clarifiy: This is a companion piece to a special Free Jazz Day we’ve written for novelist Dennis Cooper’s great blog. These are the songs that accompany the text that can be found there. So be sure to check out that site for:

–An Introduction to Free Jazz Day
–A short essay on Common Misconceptions About Free Jazz
–A collection of interesting lists, articles, and links
–A list of some key books and DVDs
–A gallery of cool album covers
–Killer YouTube links with Ornette, Cecil, Miles, and Zorn live performances

(Some of this was adapted from an earlier Marathon Packs post; check that out, too.)

If you’re already familiar with these tracks, spread the word to some of your friends who may be curious about free jazz. There’s no better time to take the plunge, or at least dip your toe in the waters. So without any more preamble:


Art Ensemble of Chicago
“Theme de Yoyo

It doesn’t get much funkier than this sexy rave-up sung by Fontella Bass. The Art Ensemble motto was “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future,” which meant they used everything from free-noise freakouts to swinging blues and funk. On this track, they use it all at the same time. Available on Les Stances A Sophie. [buy


Herbie Hancock
“Rain Dance”

Before he went pop with Headhunters and “Rockit,” Herbie Hancock created the most radical and electronic-based grooves of the 1970s. Ignored by jazz, this futuristic music later influenced a generation of artists like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Mouse on Mars. Available on Sextant. [buy]


Sonny Sharrock
“Dick Dogs”

Sonny Sharrock is the avatar of shredding noise guitar. He led crack bands throughout the 80s that laid down heavy and punishing grooves, but the real attraction was his seismic and sublime guitar tantrums. Just listen to the solos on this tune. Available on Seize the Rainbow. [buy]


Don Cherry
“Brown Rice”

This track sounds amazingly similar to the best work of Can. Trumpeter and world music traveler Don Cherry combines an armada of keyboards, tamboura, chanting vocals, propulsive rhythms, and even electrified bongos to create this masterpiece of hypnotic funk. Available on Brown Rice. [buy]


Alice Coltrane
“Journey in Satchidananda”

Alice Coltrane (John’s widow) was scoffed at for her bold fusion of modal jazz and Indian influences. But she’s had the last laugh because her exquisite work now enjoys a surging reputation and has gone on to influence folks like Radiohead. Available on Journey in Satchidananda. [buy]

Miles Davis
“Rated X”

Think you know Miles? Well, this ain’t no Kind of Blue shit. Here he drops the horn to play organ, conjuring one of the nastiest slabs of pure noise drone. It’s underpinned by stop-start breakbeat rhythms. It’s jungle meets punk, 30 years ahead of the curve. Available on Get Up With It. [buy]


Joe Zawinul
“Arrival in New York”

This brief piece wouldn’t sound out of place on Brian Eno’s On Land. Using tape speed manipulation and keyboard smears, it evokes New York harbor on a foggy morning, 4:30 am when only the Seaport is stirring, tugboats signaling one another with their horns. Available on Zawinul. [buy]


Patty Waters
“Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”

This track was a major influence on both Diamanda Galas and Japanese pysch rock legends Ghost. A 13-minute workout, it begins with Waters sighing and softly intoning lyrics against a harp-sounding prepared piano. The song builds to an insane vocal freakout, before invoking a hushed calm again. Available on Patty Waters Sings. [buy]


Sun Ra
“Angels and Demons at Play”

Sun Ra’s music has been described as Duke Ellington from Mars. But the leader of the 30-piece Arkestra also loved Martin Denny and Esquivel. You can hear those influences burbling through in the percussion on his early work, along with his own otherwordly aesthetic. Available on Angels and Demons at Play/Nubians of Plutonia. [buy]


Archie Shepp

A wonderfully moody blues vamp by saxophonist Shepp. “Vocalist Jeanne Lee delivers a soliloquy on sexual politics that sounds as ball-shredding now as it must have then, and the use of twinned harmonicas is particularly mind-blowing in this context.” – Thurston Moore & Byron Coley. Available on Blase. [buy]


John Zorn/Naked City
“Osaka Bondage”

Zorn’s Naked City outfit jammed countless genres through their blender – surf, thrash, funk, bebop, lounge, grindcore. This 1:15 blast, featuring Yamatsuka Eye and Bill Frisell, answers the nagging question of what The Boredoms and Steely Dan might sound like on the same stage. Hold on tight. And check the YouTube section on Dennis Cooper’s site for more Naked City action. Zorn recently received a MacArthur “genius grant.” Available on Black Box. [buy]


Matthew Shipp
“Orbit 2″

A solo piano piece whose stately meanderings, crystalline musings, and ingenious variations on a simple theme evoke chamber works from Satie and Debussy, among others. The jagged edges are pure Shipp. Available on New Orbit. [buy]

Hope you enjoy these tracks. We’ll be back next Monday with our regular twice a week postings of rare tracks. Along with a few surprises.

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28 Responses to A Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz

  1. Wow! What a great post!

  2. Wonderful post. Can’t wait for the “intermediate” guide to Free Jazz.

  3. Just for the reference, Thurston Moore’s list from the past:

    Great list!

    Hopefully there will be â??intermediateâ? guide also one day. Good job!

  4. Beautiful. Fun and friendly aren’t words normally associated with free jazz. But they should be.

  5. Simply awesome tunes! Thanks so much. One of my faves from the Hancock era you mentioned, was a track called “butterfly”. Really nice to hear “raindance”. This is one of the better posts I’ve run across, anywhere, anytime. Thanks again.

  6. ridiculous
    if u have to dumb it down to this level why bother?
    should we expect a free jazz for dummies tome to follow

    to consider brown rice
    which is one of don cherrys
    most produced and arranged pieces as free jazz!

    b4its over birdland will be free jazz


  7. ugh
    You are a pompous twat

  8. yeah… he is being a bit pompous… bit, um, well…. lots of heads are, you get me? all tunes upped here are very nice. i don’t think sextant is very free. but then, we all gots our own definitions of free don’t we? introductions are all very well but if someone says they don’t reckon it’s free enough then that’s their liberty… no need for namecalling… -x-
    p.s. i like sextant a lot. i just wouldn’t call it free. but this post is great all the same, love the arrangement of “if you like….” – nice work! great site too :)

  9. This is a sweet, sweet post, thanks again youse guyz. My entry to so-called free jazz was via regular old straight ahead jazz. There’s several individual careers (‘Trane, Miles, even Cecil to some degree, Ornette, Steve Lacy, probably a lot more I’m forgetting) you can follow from beginning to “end” (for Miles that’s 1975 in regard to this thread) that give you a sense of the evolution of music with less conventional structures.

    On the other hand, there are some musicians for whom there may not be a “gentle” introduction (Ayler, for example). Well, actually, I was recently talking to a jazz traditionalist friend of mine and I pointed out that Ayler is closer to Ben Webster than he is ‘Trane. Friend has gained an appreciation since then for Ayler.

    Seems odd to call the above list a form of “dumbing down.” I mean, I got to hear Sunny Murray and Milford Graves because when I was 10-12 years old I got Buddy Rich and Krupa and Max Roach first. How dumb is that?

  10. The first Ayler I ever heard was on a “history of the saxophone” compilation. I think the tune was a version of “Ghosts” with no honking and screaming – just folkish counterpoint between the sax and trumpet with the usual rubato rhythm section – quite pleasant, actually.

    I while back, I got into a discussion with squashed over at the Motel de Moka mp3 group blog in which he brought up his desire for a “jazz for beginners” blog. One of the criteria he brought up was “periodicity.” if I remember the word right, i.e. every Monday, say, could be “beginner’s day” (squash’s also has the Bricolage Fantasy blog, mostly indie rock with a little indie jazz e.g. Vijay Iyer, Nels Cline etc., and is tentatively starting a new, more jazz-oriented group blog called Square Disk, in case anybody’s interested).

    I remember a while back Mwanji linked to a list of jazz records for, I believe, rock fans. I remember Blythe’s Lennox Avenue Breakdown was at or near the top. Can’t seem to find it now…

  11. Utmost respect! Probably the greatest blog post I’ve ever read.

    Was going to forward this to all my friends, but am sorely tempted to buy all the tracks and pass off the greatest mix tape of all time as my own work.

    Brown Rice!

    PS Surely the category ‘Hard Bop Jazz Fan’ is missing though? My choice would be ‘Ramblin’ by Ornette; worked for me.

  12. Music cannot free itself from time or timbre or motion
    When it’s no good, free jazz itself replicates like bathroom mould
    Repeat an accident until it becomes a motif
    It’s quick and non-uniform but it still dull
    The good stuff fans out as fire on August brush
    It can fret a melody into bits of thread
    Until there are only limp curls left
    Or knots

    May I add to the free jazz roll call: Sabu Toyozumi (truly free, curls and knots), Philip Cohran (always curls), Hideto Kannai (a facilliatator of freedom), Masayuki Takayanagi (primarily knots), Otomo Yoshide (knots, especially Core Anode and Consume Red), Guiseppe Logan (knots), Shoji Hano (knots, clots), Masahiko Togashi (curls), Akira Sakata (sheets, curls, knots).

  13. Another thought…creative improvised music when done well most often wins people over in live performance. Many times I’ve dragged friends and girlfriends to so-called “free jazz” concerts and they have absolutely loved the experience. If I had played the same music on a stereo they would not have.


  14. Yeah, I also tend to enjoy it more live. My tastes in recorded music are probably more conservative than my tastes in live music.

  15. A most useful for jazz lovers. Gives an appetite to listen.
    Let me add one from Israel – Albert Beggr – Evolving Silence.
    Keep on writing.

  16. Links have been deleted ! I apologize for that…

    marvin rouge

  17. Hi all, Hi godoggo.

    Thanks for spreading the words. Yes. MdM/BF are going to open a small blog for Jazz. At the moment it is proceeding slowly since MdM is also trying to float an new indie act blog. But the Jazz blog will be primarily a “hub” type of blog instead of stand alone. It is intended to connect regular MdM audiance to more knowledgable Jazz blogs. We find out a lot of poeple like Jazz when we post it, but we really only know jazz casually. So if we can just direct people by providing a stage where people in the know can talk and link, everybody will be a lot better.

    The MdM/BF project will be a group blog that post standard Playlist/show track + blurb + links (on top of other free form article.)

    I’ll try to set up and start posting in the next two weeks. If anybody interested joining the group blog, drop me a message.



  18. I managed to find that list I mentioned before (the one that Mwanji linked to). Good list and article.


  19. hey

    great post…yes maybe not free jazz, but then all of the great free jazz artists wouldn’t give a lick for names and genres. what does ornette say? “there is no bad music, only bad performances” well, something like that. i have to say i bought two cd’s based on this post and dragged out three lp’s to spin. i love that don cherry record (another one hardly bound by genres). many different vibes on the lp but all very cherry. when i was a younger man genres seems to collide (at least in down town NYC). funk, punk, hip-hop, free jazz, folk, neo-psych, chinese opera, whatever all shared the same stages.

    that was what i called FREE.

    names can by useful, but are most useful for marketing.

    great site. thanks.

  20. One more, then done, ’cause I finally got around to listening to the music:

    Thank you especially for the Shepp track. I heard something from the album on the radio many years ago and loved it, but I could never remember who the singer was or which album it was from. Now I know.

  21. Happy to hear you found something here, godoggo. And thanks for the link, above. I printed that article out when I first saw it — to what end I’m no longer sure. But I also found it a really strong attempt at building bridges.

  22. I am trying to find out the artist for a “scat” type jazz song on an old old christmas collection (“voices of christmas” in the “voices of Walter Schumann” series). The song is entitled, “Christmas Gift” and the guy’s voice sounds familiar; I’m sure it’s someone fairly famous for his time. Anyway no year listed on the album, but it is marked “RCA Victor LPM 1141″ and on the ablum it says the song was composed by “jester hairston, well-known negro choral director and arranger”. the album is likely from the 40’s or 50’s (it used ‘new orthphonic high fidelity recording’)Anyway, can you help me in terms of how to fin out who the performer was on this song for this album?

  23. Nobody’s there. It’s only me. So I’ll proceed. I forgot about ths great post until this evening. I work in an arts centre and sometimes jack my mp3 player into the rigidly controlled coffee shop music system. Tonight that Miles Davis track came up during a very busy show interval. The atmosphere amid chattering, successful 30-somethings became so palpably tense and hostile as I cleared tables that I was compelled to return and change to Rock/ Pop 80’s instead. Still. Thanks! It was a funny situation.

  24. This post has been helpful to me time and time again. Thanks!

  25. A very impressive selection of free jazz classics.

    Joe Harriott, Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy
    should’ve been in there as well but after seeing this list, who cares ?

    Try to check out Charles Gayle’s “Touchin’ On
    Trane”. A true classic.

  26. Décrire » Le tout petit guide du jazz

  27. Free Jazz: What are some great free jazz albums? - Quora

  28. As someone who has just started their journey this post has been a godsend. Trying to get a grasp of the depth and breadth of the work available is incredibly daunting. I love how each track is linked to a musical style which has served as a foothold for choosing and listening to this music.

    I don’t really care whether people think this is true ‘free-jazz’ or whatever. Introductions are all about opening doors, which this post does magnificently.