When Ornette Coleman introduced his adventurous approach to music, it was the jazz equivalent of the controversial premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring. Yet, in retrospect, the emergence of the “Free Jazz” movement seems inevitable, in light of the concurrent rise of post-modernism. Soloists were liberated from strict allegiance to chords, rhythm, and melody, but the jazz audience did not necessarily follow. Tom Surgal chronicles the defining artists and music of the classic 1960s and 1970s Free Jazz era in Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz, which opens Friday at Film Forum.
Fire Music starts with Ornette Coleman, which makes sense, even though Cecil Taylor’s first free recording predated his by two years. However, moderately adventurous contemporary listeners might find it hard to understand how Coleman’s now classic “Lonely Woman” could inspire such outrage. It is definitely plaintive, but there is a clear sense of composition and an inherent bluesiness to it.
From there, Surgal largely proceeds chronologically, covering Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus’s more avant-garde experiments, the founding of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Black Artists Group, Sam Rivers’ leadership of the loft scene, and John Coltrane’s conversion to the movement, before his untimely death. The film concludes with Sun Ra, who was leading his Arkestra long before many of the free artists came on the scene, but it is hard to follow a man who (convincingly) claimed to hail from the planet Saturn.
As a step-by-step history of free jazz (or whatever else you might prefer to call it), Fire Music covers just about all the important touchstones. Outwardly-inclined artists, like Archie Shepp, Sonny Simmons, Prince Lasha, Carla Bley, Evan Parker, and Arkestra members like Marshall Allen get to have their say in talking head segments. Of course, we would have liked to hear a little bit from dearly departed Eddie Gale, who played with Taylor and Sun Ra, before recording his radical “Ghetto Music” records for Francis Wolff at Blue Note. Figures like Andrew Hill, who played with one foot outside and one foot (or sometimes just a few toes) inside go unmentioned, but you can’t cover everyone.
However, Surgal uncritically incorporates all the rhetoric that argues free jazz is the true sound of the future that was unfairly suppressed by the Young Lions of the 1980s. Yet, the truth is free jazz now sounds just as much an expression of an era past as swing or the Hot Chicago-Style. Likewise, Marsalis and his proteges perfectly represented the tenor of their 80s heyday. The real question is defining what came next. Some remarkably gifted artists like Greg Osby and Jason Moran have tried to build on the avant-garde’s legacy, in a constructive and progressive way, but their music has yet to be codified into a school of its own. For over fifty years, free jazz exponents have proclaimed it the sound of the future, but it is older today than big band swing was when Coleman released Fee Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.
Nels Cline from Wilco (who also has some adventurous jazz sessions to his credit) were on-board as producers.
John Litweiler’s book The Freedom Principle does a nice job covering the development of free jazz in greater detail, but Surgal’s film provides a handy overview. The music heard throughout perfectly represents the evolution of the free-oriented style, from the Coleman’s now relatively accessible music to the more strident and free-form recordings of European adherents. Even jazz listeners who are not enthralled with its freer manifestations should be interested in Surgal’s history of the movement. Highly recommended for those who respect the Free aesthetic, Fire Music opens this Friday (9/10) in New York.