Common critical consensus has free jazz reaching the end of its ‘glory years’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
To be sure, the genre would never again be so closely implicated with social upheaval: between the civil rights movement, black nationalism, the black arts movement, protests against the Vietnam war, and the alternately revelatory and sinister sides of the “hippie dream,” free jazz’s supposed halcyon days reflected back onto the listener the turbulent, uncertain times they were living.
For some, the deaths of two of the music’s pioneers, John Coltrane (in July 1967, of liver cancer) and Albert Ayler (in November 1970, a suspected suicide) gave pause to the music’s most elemental, fiery stage. Certainly, support for the music dried up in the USA during this period, and many of the artists moved to Europe, often to France, where their music found greater support and acceptance (and in the BYG/Actuel label, an imprint that would help them realise their musical visions, at least for a short period of time).
But to say the music was over, and that the ‘70s was a largely fallow period for the music, now seems seriously misguided. Looking at the relative explosion of private press and artist label free jazz albums from across the ‘70s, coupled with the NYC loft jazz movement, the music was as strong as ever – still questing and still exploring. As both major and independent labels turned their backs on the music, the artists turned toward self-actualisation and DIY practices to get their music documented and out there. Of course, there were precursors for this – perhaps the most significant being Sun Ra and his Saturn label, where he released bucketloads of beguiling, sublime, fantastical Afrofuturist documents from his Arkestra.
If the loft jazz scene was contained in NYC, private press records were turning up from all over America – there are representatives in this list from Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and beyond. But somehow, loft jazz – a scene in NYC where performances of free jazz took place mostly in artist-run loft spaces – parallels the imperatives of the private press world, and you’ll find that a number of the albums detailed in this list are loft classics. (For a great overview of loft jazz, you could do little better than picking up a copy of Wildflowers: Loft Jazz New York 1976, a bumper collection of recordings from a series of performances at Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea.)
A note about the list, and the usual caveats: it’s been quite hard to scare up information on some of these releases, so any feedback or further information is, as always, most welcome; like many of these lists, it’s a work-in-progress. This list is also by no means definitive, and a mere shortlist of albums that, for whatever reason, just didn’t quite make the 20, would include:
Nature’s Consort – Nature’s Consort (Otic, 1968)
The Ghost Opera – The Ghost Opera Company (no label, 1970)
Abdul Al-Hannan – The Third World (Third World, 1971)
Blue Freedom’s New Art Transformation – Blue Freedom’s New Art Transformation (Shih Shih Wu Ai, 1972)
The Phill Musra Group – Creator Spaces (Intex Sound 1974)
Pygmy Unit – Signals From Earth (no label, 1974)
The Composers Collective – Poum! (Composers Collective, 1974)
The Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble – Improvisations (Being Free) (Shih Shih Wu Ai, 1975)
INTERface – INTERface (NY Composers Collective, 1976)
Abdullah Sami – Peace Of Time (no label, 1977)
Malik’s Emerging Art Force Trio – Time & Condition (EFAE, 1982)
The Freestyle Band – The Freestyle Band (Adeyeme, 1984)
But hopefully this chronological list will expose some readers to some previously unheard gems. A final note of thanks, too, to Clifford Allen, Tim Barnes and Adam Lore, whose assistance was invaluable.
Black Unity Trio
Al-Fatihah (Salaam, 1971)
A much-coveted and totally blasting set: it’s unsurprising to discover, for example, that Numero Group’s Rob Sevier listed Al-Fatihah as his dream reissue in an interview with Dusted Magazine. The Black Unity Trio were based in Oberlin, Ohio, and their line-up was Yusuf Mumin (aka Joe Phillips) on alto sax, Ron DeVaughn (aka Abdul Wadud) on cello and bass, and Haasan Al-Hut on percussion. Wadud went on to become one of the most significant cellists in free jazz (having made a number of appearances in this list) while Phillips only turns up alongside Norman Howard on Burn Baby Burn.
For anyone following Wadud’s thread, this is the significant starting point. But it’s also one of the more sublime free jazz records you’ll likely hear, cut from the same cloth as some of the more questing, spiritualized ESP titles, but with a fundamental rawness that gives cuts like ‘Birth, Life & Death’ and ‘In The Light Of Blackness’ a ferocious focus – the way the former opens the album with gentle, lyrical runs, before nose-diving into free playing particularly from Mumin/Phillips, comes across like an object lesson in how to do this kind of music right. Someone reissue this monster!
Nation Time (CjRecord Productions, 1971)
A key figure in the history of free jazz, Joe McPhee’s early batch of albums, on CjRecord Productions, cross varied terrain, from the duels with synthesizer player John Snyder on 1974’s Pieces Of Light, through the roaring opening salvo of the Joe McPhee Quartet’s 1969 set Underground Railroad. But Nation Time is both the best known of McPhee’s output from this era, and the best, partly for the way it manages to balance the free imperatives of McPhee’s playing – when he pushes his sax playing out during the side-long title track, he manages at once to move lyrically while peeling paint off the walls – and a rough-housing, instigative funk, particularly when McPhee’s quintet expand to, more or less, a double quartet (with percussionist Ernest Bostic’s team) for ‘Shakey Jake’. But it’s ‘Nation Time’ itself that you’ll keep returning to, from its Amiri Baraka-inspired audience call-and-response, to its terrifyingly propulsive groove.
Dogon A.D. (Mbari, 1972)
While many may know Dogon A.D. from its 1977 reissue on the Arista Freedom series, it originally emerged on Hemphill’s own Mbari imprint five years earlier. Born in Texas, Hemphill did time with Ike Turner before helping co-found the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis, Missouri. Dogon A.D. has always felt like his masterpiece, a deeply considered, breathtakingly potent set that shifts, often uneasily, between stasis and forward propulsion – the rhythm and groove of the opening title track sometimes feels like its stuck in mud, endlessly following its own tail, but cellist Abdul Wadud (from Black Unity Trio) scares the piece out of its self-reflection with blockish, noisy chord shapes. Other players on the album include the trumpet player Baikida Carroll, whose Orange Fish Tears, released 1974 on Jef Gilson’s Palm Records, is another must-have. The album’s other highlight is the side-long ‘The Painter’, where Hemphill picks up the flute and the quartet paints in a more stippled, mottled style.
Communications Network (Third World, 1972)
I’ve noticed this Clifford Thornton album receive short shrift from a number of quarters, which is quite odd once you’ve actually listened to the beast. Thornton may be better known for his higher-profile albums, like The Panther & The Lash on America, or Ketchaoua on French free jazz imprint BYG/Actuel, but Communications Network has a rough grace all of its own.
Part of the surprise comes from the appearance of L. Shankar (who was in Shakti with John McLaughlin) on the two parts of the opening title track, his violin laying down unexpected twists and turns for Thornton to explore the corners of the electric piano and cornet over, while two thirds of The Revolutionary Ensemble – Sirone and Jerome Cooper – drive away as a nuanced rhythm section amongst the backdrop. Flip the record and another, more extended line-up backs jazz poet Jayne Cortez (whose later Strata-East set, Celebrations & Solitudes, is a real joy) with a side-long exploration that’s equal parts liquid and fearsome. It’s true the recording quality is a little shabby, but that’s often part of the charm with albums like this, giving the album the ‘you-are-there’ feel of real-time documentation.
Rashied Ali & Frank Lowe
Duo Exchange (Survival, 1973)
The first release on Ali’s own label, which he set up roughly around the same time as opening his Ali’s Alley loft space in New York, Duo Exchange has the mercurial drummer, who’d held down the kit for John Coltrane (on the world-beating Meditations), Alice Coltrane and Marion Brown, going head-to-head with Lowe, who was behind possibly the most unrelenting album to be released on ESP Disk, Black Beings.
Their playing here is seriously simpatico, and the way they step aside to allow each other maximum space to stretch out, without trading in any of the intensity of the performances, is stunning: check, for example, when Lowe lets Ali roam free and solo about five minutes into ‘Exchange 1’ – the result is one of the more heightened sections for trap kit from its era. Lowe throws down admirably, trailing gruff runs of near-melody with playing that draws tart, strained tones from the sax.
Black Artists Group
In Paris, Aries 1973 (BAG, 1973)
The Black Artists Group (BAG) was one of many examples of African-American artistic collectivism across the ‘60s and ‘70s – within music, think also of Chicago’s Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (AACM), and LA’s Union Of Gods Musicians & Arts Ascension (UGMAA) – and more generally, their approach had them in step with the Black Arts Movement, given BAG’s overarching interest in multiple artistic forms, such as dance, poetry, film and theatre. But it’s their musical ‘arm’ that has the strongest legacy it seems, despite the relative inaccessibility of a lot of the music they recorded.
In Paris, Aries 1973 has recently been reissued on LP by Rank & File, and it’s a scorching set, moving from relatively denuded passages for multiple percussion and snake-charming sax, though to more reflective, intimate improvisations like ‘Re-Cre-A-Tion’ (which also dips into more playful, ‘toy instrument’ territory), and the occasional gust of all-in peak blowing, as with ‘Something To Play On’. And the line-up is killer – Charles Bobo Shaw, Joseph Bowie (brother of Lester from Art Ensemble Of Chicago), Oliver Lake, Baikida Carroll and Floyd LeFlore. There’ll be more Black Artists Group material to come on Tim Barnes’ Quakebasket imprint – can’t wait.
The Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble
Drum Dance To The Motherland (Dogtown, 1973)
Based in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighbourhood, the players on The Khan Jamal Creative Arts Ensemble’s Drum Dance To The Motherland are recorded here live in October 1972, suspended in a moment of great and unique creativity. It may come across as hyperbolic, but one can’t help but agree with Ed Hazell when he states, in the liner notes for the 2006 reissue on Eremite, that “[t]here’s not another album on the planet that sounds even remotely like… Drum Dance To The Motherland”.
Part of that is due to the dub haze that envelops the album – instruments are regularly pushed through a maze of delays and echoes, such that the entire performance gets lost in itself, encircled by its own peculiarity. Jamal’s vibraphone and marimba lighten the air of the performances, which makes it all the more startling when the clarinets scream in, with acid tang, on the title track. It’s one of those heart-stopping moments that albums like these offer – the in-the-moment inspiration of live performance pushing the players to new intensities.
Peace In The World (Cosmic, 1974)
A beautiful, archetypal private press document – hand-written cover, each cover different – the late Michael Cosmic’s Peace In The World is another in the aforementioned trilogy of private press LPs from 1974. Cosmic, Phill Musra’s twin brother, is on piano for much of the album, alongside soprano sax and piccolo flute, and he’s joined by Ertunç, Musra, John Jamyll Jones, Leonard Brown and Eric Jackson for one of the most powerful, if under-appreciated, free jazz sets of the decade.
The reflective title track ends the set in pensive mode, descending piano runs reflecting in strained arco acoustic bass; it’s a good denouement for an album that features some particularly heavy lifting, such as the 20-minute ‘Arabia’, which shuttles from methodically plotted heads through to ecstatic jazz modes, see-sawing on Cosmic’s gorgeously concentrated piano playing, the dual percussion attack of Ertunç and Jackson filling in the shading behind and on the sides. If any album on this list demands immediate reissue, it’s Peace In The World; though I wouldn’t complain if Musra’s Creator Spaces returned to the land of the living either.
Hüseyin Ertunç Trio
Mûsikî (Intex Sound, 1974)
Turkish drummer Ertunç was part of a trio of free jazz players, alongside Michael Cosmic and Phill Musra, who released a trilogy of stunning albums in 1974 before largely dropping out of vinyl view, though the latter two did appear on John Jamyll Jones’ World’s Experience Orchestra’s excellent The Beginning Of A New Birth in 1975. That these albums have flown under the radar for so wrong is puzzling indeed, as they’re each of them singular documents, at once brutish and highly sophisticated, such that writer Clifford Allen, who has spent time researching these albums, correctly describes Mûsikî as having a “folksy unhinged-ness”.
That said, these albums also breathe measured breaths, Cosmic and Musra moving between a panoply of instruments while Ertunç holds down the kit with a uniquely twisty approach to moving beyond time. The magic really lies in the unexpected moments – a kalimba picking out a weaving melody before Cosmic’s organ rolls in, an abstruse bedrock for Musra’s tenor. This one turned up on CD a while ago and can still be found – it’s well worth it.
Conspiracy (Earthforms, 1975)
Jeanne Lee was a jazz vocalist from New York City who worked with a number of brilliant figures from free jazz circles – she appears on records by Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and was part of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra circles, appearing on the monolithic Carla Bley & Paul Haines piece, Escalator Over The Hill. She was also married to German jazz musician Gunter Hampel and was a central part of his long-running Galaxie Dream Band.
Hampel self-released many of the GDB albums on his own Birth Records, but Lee’s only solo release of the ‘70s, Conspiracy, appeared on her own Earthforms. It’s an absolute stunner, traversing wild terrain, from the solo vocal explorations of ‘Yeh Come T’ Be’ and ‘Angel Chile’, to the graceful, JCOA-esque melancholy of ‘Your Ballad’, and into the freer climes of ‘Jamaica’ and ‘Conspiracy’. It’s near consummate, an ideal introduction to the breadth of what Lee can do with her voice, and with her compositions. An excellent roll call of players, too, including Hampel, Perry Robinson, Steve McCall, Sam Rivers, and many more.
Charles Tyler Ensemble
Voyage From Jericho (AK-BA, 1975)
Voyage From Jericho was the first release on Tyler’s AK-BA imprint, a label probably best known for fully unleashing the late, great Arthur Doyle on an unsuspecting world, with his dynamite Alabama Feeling album from 1978. AK-BA also released a few sides with poet Barry Wallenstein, but some of the most potent music released on the label was Tyler’s own. Of course, he has significant prior form, appearing on some of Albert Ayler’s early sides as well as releasing a several records on ESP. But Voyage To Jericho solidifies much of what makes Tyler great, while moving back in time to embrace some almost bop aspects in the rhythmic undertow.
Tyler’s ensemble is full of sensitive, intelligent players – Earl Cross on trumpet, Sun Ra Arkestra bassist Ronnie Boykins (be sure to check out his mid ‘70s ESP side, The Will Come, Is Now) and Steve Reid on drums, and the great Arthur Blythe drops in on a few cuts as well. But the real joy is in Tyler’s playing, who’s questing spirit flows through in long, intricate lines, like the feats of logic that spill through ‘Just For Two’.
Bäbi (IPS, 1977)
An absolute stunner, recorded March 20, 1976 at WBAI-FM/Free Music Store in New York, this record has Milford Graves going head-to-head with Arthur Doyle and Hugh Glover on reeds. Doyle has already been mentioned in this piece and he’s on blaring form throughout Bäbi, but Glover I know less about, though I believe he did appear in a duo with Graves, around the same time, on a Folkways LP. Released on Graves’ Institute Of Percussive Studies (IPS) imprint, this is one of my go-to albums when people ask to hear the most seemingly ‘untamed’ end of free jazz.
I say ‘seemingly’ because there’s a great internal logic to these performances: it takes a good deal of control and power to play with this kind of abandon, a real understanding of and ability to trust in the fundamental spine of the music. Graves is sorely under-documented as a percussionist – and, for that matter, as a free-form vocalist, given the wildness of his interjections on Bäbi – and this is a record that really needs to see a reissue. Graves now works in music therapy and gives masterclasses. His more recent recordings, like Grand Unification for Tzadik, have still got it going on.
Luther Thomas Human Arts Ensemble
Funky Donkey Vol. 1 (Creative Consciousness, 1977)
More action associated with the Black Artists Group, Funky Donkey is one of the strongest of the ‘70s releases from this crew. Some readers might know Thomas from his tenure playing with no wave outfit James Chance & The Contortions, but the real meat is in his work with the Human Arts Ensemble. The line-up here includes both Bowie brothers (Lester and Joseph), the great drummer Charles Bobo Shaw, and J. D. Parran on reeds – Parran had just done time with The Band, appearing on their live album Rock Of Ages.
Like a number of records from this loosely knit ‘scene’ released in the late ‘70s, Funky Donkey hovers closer to a kind of febrile free-funk, but you can still hear the latitude offered by the ensemble’s grounding in free jazz, particularly in the looseness of the collective horn charts, and the way Thomas coasts the rhythm section’s grooves with playing that chafes at the rhythm’s strictures. This set was reissued in the noughties on Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series, accompanied by a second, unreleased volume: that disc’s well worth finding.
…Is Eternal Life (Reality Unit Concepts, 1977)
A singular figure in the free jazz ferment, William Hooker was one of the players who benefited most from the ‘indie rock’ underground’s sudden interest in free jazz in the ‘90s: he had albums out on labels like Homestead, and ended up collaborating quite extensively with Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, alongside other figures like DJ Olive, Jim O’Rourke, and Roger Miller of Mission Of Burma.
…Is Eternal Life was Hooker’s debut release, a double album on his own Reality Unit Concepts which uses each side of the vinyl to stretch his compositions/improvisations for maximum exploratory form and impact. It’s particularly worth checking out as one of the earliest recorded documents of the late tenor sax player David S. Ware – before this album, Ware had been playing with Andrew Cyrille & Maono and Cecil Taylor, as well as making his first vinyl appearance on another private press free jazz classic, Abdul Hannan’s The Third World. But the other players on …Is Eternal Life are no slouches either: David Murray appears, as do two Sun Ra associates, Hassan Dawkins and Les Goodson.
First Feeding (Muntu, 1977)
Named after the Janheinz Jahn book, Muntu: The New African Culture, which leader Jemeel Moondoc had discovered while studying under Cecil Taylor, Ensemble Muntu are a particularly potent example of the tail-end of the New York loft jazz scene (a movement eloquently detailed by jazz scholar Ed Hazell in the book accompanying No Business’ Muntu Recordings box set).
Given the authoritative, sage-like figure he cuts these days, it’s tempting to read Ensemble Muntu simply as one of the starting points for bassist William Parker’s illustrious career, but there’s so much more to the group than that: Mark Hennen cuts some particularly Cecil Taylor-esque swathes through these compositions on the piano; Rashid Bakr’s drums are by turns furious and sensitive, none more so than on the piece dedicated to one of his forebears, ‘Theme For Milford (Mr. Body & Soul)’, and Moondoc’s alto saxophone tangles beautifully with Arthur Williams’ trumpet, engaging in snaking, brash lines that scribble over the rhythm section with oblique force. Both Ensemble Muntu albums are glorious (and both appear in the No Business box) but First Feeding has the edge, just.
By Myself (Bisharra, 1977)
While free jazz often feels, predominantly, like a collective form, I have a particular soft spot for solo recordings from players, which really help to illuminate the particularities and peculiarities of each player and give them maximum space to focus on the logic that’s internal and intrinsic to their playing. By Myself is a case in point. Abdul Wadud turns up on this list a number of times – on Black Unity Trio’s Al-Fatihah and Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. – and he was also connected with the Black Artists Group and appeared with the Human Arts Ensemble (on 1978’s Concere Ntasiah), as well as recording with Arthur Blythe and James Newton. But By Myself still comes across as his finest moment, a series of plangent, melancholic pieces for solo cello. On the opening cut, ‘Oasis’, you can hear Wadud’s lyricism and quietly exploratory approach to the instrument, using both its melodic and resonant properties. I know of more than one label head on the search to reissue this monster, though Wadud seems hard to locate. A shame, as a record this stunning needs to reach new ears.
Sentiments (Ra, 1979)
A truly intriguing record and outfit. On their second album, Synthesis coalesced again around the core of Arthur Blythe (alto sax), Ken Hutson (bass), Rashaan (drums) and Olu Dara (piano, trumpet), but added tenor saxophonist David Murray, who had only relatively recently released a gorgeous solo album, 1976’s Flowers For Albert, on the India Navigation label (known also for supporting music by The Revolutionary Ensemble, Pharoah Sanders, Arnold Dreyblatt and Phill Niblock, among others).
Sentiments was recorded in NYC in ’76 and is another great exemplar of the loft jazz era. Each of the compositions is sturdy but allows for plenty of space for Blythe and Murray to roam, and their take on Murray’s ‘Flowers For Albert’ is gorgeous and pointillistic, Dara’s piano chords plunging into the maw of the piece while Murray and Blythe etch and weave through the air, alternately blasting in staccato, or singing out long lines. Blythe is currently fighting Parkinson’s – find out about the Arthur Blythe Parkinson’s Fund by visiting this website.
Artistry (Of The Cosmos, 1979)
Sirone, aka Norris Jones, was one of the most distinctive of free jazz bassists, and he played on a number of exceptional sides, like Pharoah Sanders’ Izipho Zam, and Cecil Taylor’s One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye and Spring Of Two Blue-J’s, as well as being one third of The Revolutionary Ensemble alongside Jerome Cooper and Leroy Jenkins. Artistry was Sirone’s first album as leader, though, and it’s a beautiful set, with James Newton’s flute giving the quartet performances a breathy lilt, while the interaction between Sirone on bass and Muneer Bernard Fennell (who also appears on Abdullah’s wonderful Life Force from 1979) on cello is lovely, particularly when Sirone is playing arco: parts of ‘Circumstances’ feel like they’re levitating on lambent strings.
Famoudou Don Moye (of The Art Ensemble Of Chicago) is a sympathetic, apposite percussionist too. Yet perhaps the most potent moment on the album comes when Sirone is playing solo, singing out from and stretching the parameters of the instrument, running rivulets of melody down the instrument’s spine on ‘Breath Of Life’. The closing ‘Libido’ ends things on a graceful, melancholic note, the strings and flute harmonising across gentle phrases.
Through Acceptance Of The Mystery Peace (Centering, 1981)
One of the most startling things about Through Acceptance Of The Mystery Peace, Parker’s debut set as a leader, is the sheer heft of the musicians that appear on it. With players like Toshinori Kondo (alto horn), Denis Charles (drums), Daniel Carter (alto and tenor sax, flute, trumpet), and Billy Bang (violin) on the album, there’s plenty of testament here to Parker’s status within free jazz circles already. Parker had already appeared on some classics – check him out on Frank Lowe’s Black Beings (ESP, 1973), Universal Jazz Symphonette’s Sound Craft ’75 Fantasia For Orchestra (Anima, 1975) and the bogglingly mysterious self-titled Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai album (self-released, 1975) – but Through Acceptance Of The Mystery Peace, named after a line from Kenneth Patchen’s poetry, is an assured, brilliantly articulated album.
While it starts out in octet mode, with flanks of brass and winds scoring Parker’s charts while the man himself unspools an inspired, walking bass run, it pretty quickly moves into far more mysterious territory, as befits the album title. The flip-side is particularly gorgeous, with Parker undertaking two spacious, drift-work trios: ‘Commitment’ with John Hagen (tenor sax) and Arthur Williams (trumpet), and the recitation ‘Face Still Hands Folded’, where Parker reels off poetics while Bang and Ramsey Ameen shadow him on dual violins, elevating the room on striated strings.
Kins (Black & White, 1982)
While he did receive some attention in the later years of his career – thanks to some great records on Qbico, an ongoing collaboration with Northwood Improvisers, and appearances with His Name Is Alive – Griot Galaxy founder Faruq Z Bey never really got his dues. It’s a shame, as besides being a gifted saxophonist, he was also a heavy thinker and writer, having published two books of poetry and a book of music theory, Towards A “Ratio”nal Aesthetic. His music remained steadfastly heady throughout his life; he began playing free improv in Detroit with the First African Primal Rhythm Orchestra and subsequently formed Griot Galaxy.
Kins is their debut album, though they’d existed for almost a decade beforehand, and as such it captures a group with a powerful logic on lockdown. From the moment the snare tattoos erupt on ‘Xy-Moch (1)’, Kins advances assuredly, switching between tight compositions and bleary improvisations – ‘Zychron’, perhaps their finest recorded moment, moving between both with equal ease, particularly its seasick coda for lumbering brass and weeping, tragic arco work. There are some weird funk entreaties as well, and an odd predilection for wah-wah bass – someone had to do it.