Saturday, March 20, 2010

Top Ten Avant Garde Recordings

For several days I have been thinking about a top ten list of avant garde recordings.  No reason, that's just the kind of thing I do.  I have in mind recordings that are in some sense "foundational" and that get a lot of attention.  It was fairly easy to get started, but I stalled after about number seven.  

One obvious problem is that avant garde is a very vaguely defined term.  Like obscenity for the Supreme Court, we have to know it when we see (or hear) it.  My classically training (philosophy) leads me to look for a definition, and that's probably out of the question.  But there might be a platonic idea at the heart of the thing.  It has to do with a fundamental abstraction from traditional melody.  AG reverses the relationship between melody and improvisation, making the reassembly of abstract bits of melody the center of the music.  Okay, but even it that's right, it isn't always easy to test.  On the other hand, there are a lot of characteristic devices that seem to mark AG music.  Squealing, clown horn sound effects would be one.  

There is also a kind of relativity at work here.  I read somewhere that a good graduate student poem is one that undergraduates can't understand.  A good faculty poem is one that graduate students can't understand.  An immortal work of genius is a poem that no one, including the author, can make sense of.  Maybe hard bop is music that people who like Louis Armstrong can't make sense of at first hearing.  Avant garde is music that fans of 1956 Miles Davis find mystifying.  

Well, here is my list-in-progress.  
Cecil Taylor/Jazz Advance/1956
Ornette Coleman/The Shape of Jazz to Come/1959
Jackie McLean/Let Freedom Ring/1962
Archie Shepp/The New York Contemporary Five/1963
Andrew Hill/Point of Departure/1964
Eric Dolphy/Out to Lunch/1964
Albert Ayler/Spiritual Unity/1964
 John Coltrane/Ascension/1965
All of the above are clearly superb and belong in any basic jazz library.  The most obvious omission is Coltrane's Ascension.  I couldn't bring myself to list it, because I just can't bring myself to like it.  It would be easy enough to find recordings by Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or my hero Wayne Shorter that can pass as avant garde.  Shorter's The All Seeing Eye is certainly an example.  But I couldn't see any of their recordings as sticking out in the way that the above do. 

A couple of albums I was tempted to include were Sun Ra/Jazz in Silhouette, and Tony Williams/Life Time.  Williams fine album was recorded in 1964, which was obviously a critical year for AG.  Well, I invite suggestions.  Meanwhile here is a sample from the Williams recording.  
Tony Williams/Tomorrow Afternoon 
I have had a fine time tonight listening to cuts from these various albums.  If you don't own any of them, for heaven's sake get them. 

11 comments:

  1. Without John Coltrane's "Ascension" this list seems a bit uncomplete for me. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  2. For consideration,
    Meditations: John Coltrane
    Science Fiction, Ornette Coleman

    Is Jmac's LFR really AG?

    ReplyDelete
  3. MN: You're right. I added "Ascension". Given the impact, there is really no excuse not to.

    KL: "Let Freedom Ring" is certainly influenced by Coleman. It is McLean's push in the direction of later avant garde. The Penguin Guide describes it as "ruggedly individual post-bop." Elsewhere I have seen it in AG lists. Either way, it's magnificent.

    ReplyDelete
  4. ps. As to Coltrane's Meditations, I think it is a splendid album. I might be my favorite after A Love Supreme. I am not sure that it had nearly the impact of the other works on my list. Like Sun Ship, I am guessing that a lot of Trane travelers have never heard it.

    I don't know Coleman's science fiction, but I will keep a look out.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Out to Lunch. Great Album. Tony Williams at his early finest. Dolphy, Hutcherson, Richard Davis on Bass and Freddie Hubbard came together to make this disjointedly coherent masterpiece.

    I would consider Coltrane's final album "Expression" for this list. It was Trane's goodbye message. Perhaps the pinnacle of the Saxophone in that it can't be taken any further than that.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Out to Lunch. Great Album. Tony Williams at his early finest. Dolphy, Hutcherson, Richard Davis on Bass and Freddie Hubbard came together to make this disjointedly coherent masterpiece.

    I would consider Coltrane's final album "Expression" for this list. It was Trane's goodbye message. Perhaps the pinnacle of the Saxophone in that it can't be taken any further than that.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Robert: I don't know Trane's last album. I will have to get it. But in this list I was looking for albums that stand out, in the sense that they show up in Borders or on record club offerings and/or get a lot of critical attention. Except for Ascension, Trane's post-ALS work is pretty obscure in the literature.

    ReplyDelete
  8. OK, I'll suggest one more. Pharaoh Sanders, Karma (The Creator Has a Master Plan). Pharaoh, I believe, carried on the torch of the Avant Garde movement after Trane's death.

    Also, though I really don't know that much about them, I often read the the Art Ensemble of Chicago was an important part of the AG movement.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ken: Pharaoh Sander's 'The Creator Has a Master Plan' is a wonderful piece of epic jazz composition. As it happens, I first heard it on one of your shows. I can still remember the moment. I was driving from Aberdeen to the Twin Cities, going around a curve with a beautiful open landscape on my right (complete with impressionistic hay bales), when the melody opened up. It is very accessible music, with all the spiritual force that Sanders obviously intended.

    I have a box set by the Art Ensemble. It's a mixed bag, it seems to me. Most of the work is very challenging, even for someone fond of avant garde jazz. Thanks for the comment. I love these lengthy threads.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Watch Shirley Clarke’s documentary on Coleman, “Ornette: Made in America”, as a video on demand stream

    http://www.realeyz.tv/en/shirley-clarke-ornette-made-in-america_cont2029.html

    ReplyDelete
  11. i visit your site n i got more information then other visited last month
    was good enough then last what i had gone throught






    part time job

    "

    ReplyDelete