Though generally not a fan of free jazz, I do enjoy the music I have purchased and heard from Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Sam Rivers. I also find John Coltrane’s forays into free jazz particularly appealing, but let’s face it, John Coltrane could have made interesting music just playing rising and falling whole tone scales.
There is also a spectrum of free jazz from semi-structured to complete chaos. Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch album is the kind of free jazz that I love the most — it has much in common with traditional jazz and it doesn’t sound chaotic or random, but unfolds logically and musically. I am generally a fan of Sun Ra and have no challenges setting aside time to listen to his explorations into free jazz.
As I music major, I listened to hours of the so-called avant-garde including Boulez, Stockhausen, Crumb, Xenakis, and many others. Truthfully, I like this type of music better than much of what is played today on the top 40 radio stations, but not by a lot. My interest in second-half twentieth century classical music gravitated towards composers like Oliver Messiaen or the minimalists, like Philip Glass.
However, listening to a wide range of music expands one’s appreciation for music in general and listening to the so-called avant-garde, aleatoric (music based on chance), or free-jazz expands one’s ability to listen fully and comprehensively. I once spent a little bit of time around John Cage in Europe, attending concerts and talking with him, and I learned much about how to listen to and appreciate music, organized sounds, random sounds, and the wide array of sensory input available to us. I do enjoy hearing the rain against the house, or the sounds of wind in a forest or the music of the ocean when out on the deck of a ship. And the beauty of music is not only determined from the labor and skill of the composer, but from the skill of each and every once of us to organize the sounds we perceive into a meaningful experience.
And so, though I prefer Anthony Braxton’s occasional excursions into standard jazz over his completely free jazz recordings, I still respect the talent and the skills he applies to free jazz, starting with his very first album as a leader, 3 Compositions of New Jazz, recorded in March and April 1968. And I still value the part I personally play in making a coherent, and hopefully, enjoyable or even uplifting experience, when listening to this or any other work of music.
And there is a lot of talent and skill that has gone into the three tracks on 3 Compositions of New Jazz. The variety (wide arrange of sounds, textures, and instruments employed by the four musicians) and the thoughtful quality of the music, makes this worthy of an initial listening, even if you then set it aside for a decade or more — or never pick it up again. What works best for me, is the second track on side two, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s “The Bell”, which I find attractive for its purity and beauty. And in general, I particularly like Leroy Jenkins violin and viola playing throughout this album.
Am I impressed by how Braxton and team abandon conventionality and move forward with bold freedom? Not so. Braxton was twenty-three when this was recorded, and such youthful musical courage is not unexpected. What is unexpected is the amount of variety, artfulness, and ability to make such unstructured music work and hold one’s attention.
Do I recommend this? Not necessarily. There are plenty of other jazz and even free-jazz albums I find more appealing. Is this of historic importance? Perhaps. It is noteworth for its place in the musical landscape of 1968 and its blend of what is very much a John Cage approach with jazz music, but I suspect the history of free jazz would have been much the same if Delmark had shelved this album and failed to release it until forty years later.
Music is never completely driven by chance, unless it is generated by chance and performed by a computer, and this music, even with the following of the simple diagrams provided to the musicians for the first two tracks, is less about chance and more about musical and spiritual expression without the confinements of a set sequences of chord changes, a verse and chorus or other melodic framework, or recurring rhythmic patterns. What is of interest here is just as engaging and potentially captivating as sitting outside of Penn Station in New York and watching hundreds of people a minute go on their way to work, listening to the birds sing in the forest, or listening to strangers’ conversations on a bus, subway, or in a restaurant. It’s certainly better than listening to most radio talk shows, watching most youtube videos, or being bombarded repeatedly by some of the popular music of today or even some of the lower-quality popular music played on AM radios fifty years ago.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
All tracks written by Anthony Braxton, except where noted.
||“(840m)-Realize-44M-44M (Composition 6 E)”
||“N-M488-44M-Z (Composition 6 D)”
||“The Bell” (Leo Smith)
*These first two tracks are graphically titled. This is an attempt to translate the title.
- Recorded at Sound Studios, Chicago, IL on March 27 (track 1) and April 10 (tracks 2 & 3), 1968
- Anthony Braxton – alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, oboe musette, accordion, bells, snare drum, mixer
- Leroy Jenkins – violin, viola, harmonica, bass drum, recorder, cymbals, slide whistle
- Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet, mellophone, xylophone, kazoo
- Muhal Richard Abrams – piano (track 2 & 3), cello, alto clarinet (track 3)