John Coltrane: Ascension

Rating: 8.8/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status: Genre Classic
Released: 1966
Recorded: 1965
Specific Genre: Free Jazz, Spiritual Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz, Avant-Garde Jazz
Undertones
: Experimental Big Band
Label: Impulse!

1 Ascension (Edition II)
Bonus Tracks: 2 Ascension (Edition I)

Like a seagull thrown around by the tides

This is Coltrane’s „free jazz“-album which might alienate people who mainly go for his 1950s hard bop and ballads. Up to this point, Coltrane already had been flirting and entangled with avant-garde here and there, but this is the wedding announcement. If you listen to free jazz at all, I’d say this is the second record you should pick up (you can figure out the first for yourself). And, to exactly no one’s surprise, it’s great. The energy is amazing, makes you feel like a seagull thrown around by the tides, waves and winds, and I regularly find myself having gone through these 40 minutes without really noticing in the best way – this record sort of suspends my sense of time.

While free jazz shouldn’t make you „tune out“ mentally, you really don’t have a lot of listening „work“ to do here: The sheer, frenzied soul displayed by the very unusual set-up just carries you right through the piece. The performance of the (large) collective is so good it makes your brain forget that this is, at least supposedly, „cerebral“ music. It is also a very different approach compared to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz: While that album was more of a thoroughly collective effort, Ascension follows a pretty tight structure that has ensemble and soloists alternating every few minutes in a specific order (everyone involved gets one solo, except Garrison and Davis on the double-basses get a duet). That’s not better or worse than Coleman’s stress on collective dynamics of development, but it does give you slightly more to hold on to structurally when you’re starting out in the genre. As the record that announced Coltrane‘s complete take-off into the stratosphere, it’s pretty bold and astounding in terms of full realisation – no „transitional“ aspects here.

Sun Ra: Disco 3000

Rating: 6.6/10
Rated as
: Album / Live
Album Status
: for Fans
Released: 1978
Recorded: 1978
Specific Genre: Free Jazz
Main Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz, Jazz
Undertones
: Free Improvisation, Jazz Fusion
Label: Saturn

1 Disco 3000 2 Third Planet 3 Friendly Galaxy 4 Dance of the Cosmo-Aliens

A straight line through a Pollock-painting

A live album by the Sun Ra quartet, taken from a reportedly busy time in Italy 1978 – there are more complete versions out there, but this LP (with a side-long jam and three shorter freak-outs) was the initial form of its release. It is not an essential release, but that doesn’t mean it’s not thoroughly entertaining for people drenched in carefree free jazz.

There is a brittle trumpet dominating the first part of the jam, sound volume shifts up and down (intentionally, I think, it sounds as if Sun Ra phases his keyboards in and out as an effect) and although there are some grooves and soloing, this is not the kind of free jazz that sounds as if its creators are constantly inspired and incessantly hit by epiphanies – this is more like a bored toddler rummaging around the attic, finding a million little things to keep her entertained for a moment, only to shift attention the next second. With Sun Ra, this approach works. In true improv-manner, Sun Ra messes with the then brand-new Crumar DS-2 synthesizer which could produce programmed rhythms – he turns those beats on and off, each of them like a straight line through a Pollock-painting. They give you the illusion you can groove for a second – but then they’re gone! Begone, structure! Sun Ra wants to chant „Space Is the Place“! (some point after the five-minute mark…)

The second side is a bit more groove-oriented, with some tribal stuff and recognisable patterns – there even is something like a song, since ‚melody prop‘ of the weird and fun jungle groove that is „Dance of the Cosmo-Aliens“ is based on „Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child“. This becomes obvious about four minutes into the track. Also, check this out if you’re looking for stuff that heavily influenced Jimi Tenor.

Hildegard lernt fliegen: …vom fernen Kern der Sache

Rating: 8.7/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status
: Genre Contender
Released: 2009
Specific Genre: Avant-Garde Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Chamber Jazz
Label: Unit Records

1 Lanjusto 2 The Arrival of Lee Pershn Sirgal 3 A Tale from the Forest 4 Vom fernen Kern der Sache 5 Knock Code 3 6 Seldom Was Covered with Snow and Old Oak 7 The Angry Man 8 Sad Lily

There is too much water in the sea

While the debut Hildegard lernt fliegen (2007) of Andreas Schaerer’s brainchild already impressed with originality and freshness through jester-like flirtation with the ridiculous in a chamberesque avant-jazz context, its follow-up is the six piece avant-combo’s fully realised form. The composition are as unpredictable yet easy to follow, there’s a larger amplitude of moods – compare the histrionic showtune extravaganza of „The Arrival Of Lee Pershn Sirgal“ with the almost Ellingtonian melancholy of the double-bass-reliant piece „Sad Lily“ – and, yet again, outrageous vocalist Schaerer is in full flight: his voice cajoles, careens, scats, doubles as a trombone and does all the silly tricks you would expect from a vocal acrobat. The difference is, though, that it doesn’t come off as a pure joke, his voice is implemented as an additional instrument.

The compositions, though having an earnest bend towards Mingus and avant-prog, owe a larger part to Zappa’s big band experiments (don’t pay too close attention to the lyrics though, they are pretty clearly just syllables meant to match up a former scat in dadaist/Eno-manner). While Schaerer is the brain and heart of the project, one should listen very, very carefully to the band – whipped into shape with the precision of a workaholic, they still all find little niches, cracks and alcoves to make the whole affair conversational instead of stubborn, open-ended instead of constructed (when a featured typewriter provides the beat, you hardly notice for how naturally it fits in). Probably the band’s masterpiece, as Hildegard goes flying like a weird, boney, flapping and yapping wayward mechanism through some Dali-painting’s sky. Be sure to pick this one up if you’re interested in the theatrical side of contemporary avant-jazz, where Zappa’s shadow stops looming and things turn bright again.

Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi

Rating: 7.4/10
Rated as: Album
Album Status: Genre Contender
Released: 1971
Specific Genre: Jazz Fusion, Avant-Garde Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones: Jazz-Funk, Spiritual Jazz
Label: Warner Bros.

1 Ostinati (Suite for Angela) 2 You’ll Know When You Get There 3 Wandering Spirit Song

From funkified electric grooves to pure introspective meditations to free form

As the first record on which Hancock consequently combined the electric, free-floating approach taken from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and his already heavy funk leanings, Mwandishi is the essential starting point for what Hancock would be doing the larger part of the remaining decade. While its follow-up Sextant is more manic and spaced-out, and Head Hunters is a lot funkier, Mwandishi holds its own quality against these two. Only the first track cooks heavy in its own relentless groove, while the second and third track (the latter taking up the whole of side B) explore a much looser, more cautious and introspective „inner space“ sound, not unsimilar to what Chick Corea’s Return to Forever would be doing in their quieter, relatively ostinati-free moments.

The sound of these latter two thirds of the record is at times so meditative and relaxing it becomes almost elusive (in a good sense). Just a tingle of the percussion there, some tentative electric keys thrown in there, then the louder riff of the horn section, full stop – and back to searching, echoing keyboard strokes. The „Wandering Spirit Song“ taking up Side B goes from that ‚inner space’ calmness with just a little groove to complete free form halfway through. But even the free jazz section doesn’t sound wild or unrestrained, but rather poised – this isn’t the kind of gloriously chaotic, outrageous free jazz Sun Ra would be doing those years. It’s, so to speak, ‚Apollonian’ free jazz, used for dramaturgical and deliberate reasons. And brilliantly so: The different steps on the whole album, from funkified electric grooves to pure introspective meditations to free form – and right back to calm weather after having stirred the ocean a bit works perfectly, like different acts guiding the listener through the experience.

Having said that, it isn’t a personal favourite as it is ultimately less extreme than other works by Hancock. It is nonetheless essential for anyone interested in Hancock’s musical development as well as in the greater 1970s context of jazz and fusion. Besides paving the way for his future output, it stands as a testimonial witnessing that in those years, there was no one else who could pick up the vanguard sounds of the era quite like Hancock and channel them into something that could serve as the perfect introduction for the uninitiated to exactly that vanguard.