My taste buds for jazz listening have become considerably spoiled. A classic bop composition no longer excites me in the way it used to. Too many chords. Too much rhythmic structure. The prettier the composition, the less it appeals, strangely enough.
More interestingly, this only applies to jazz. While I have a taste for progressive, even experimental rock, orchestral and electronic music, I appreciate plain, beautiful compositions with traditional structure and changes I can anticipate among these musical genres. But a jazz standard sounds too sour.
With jazz, I seek something different. Fortunately, the period from the 1960s to the mid 70s offered this among the avant-garde and fusion trends.
First, a few words about avant-garde. The movement developed in the circle of musicians exhausted with traditional harmonies and chord changes characteristic of bop. The musicians started to experiment with anything from advanced structures to entirely free improvisation, much of it too advanced for the mass appeal of the time. These musicians catered mostly to narrower circles.
Lately, I found myself much in the mood for Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, This is Our Music, and the revival album Science Fiction. The latter incorporates vocals, which I’m generally indifferent to in jazz, in no way I’ve previously experienced. Coleman’s music hypnotizes me. And delivers. Here’s a performer notorious for avoiding standards in his repertoire. I never know where his alto saxophone will take me.
If you haven’t heard Coleman’s Free Jazz, it’s worth at least a one-time listening attempt. Two simultaneous quartets perform collective improvisations for one continuous 37-minute set, featuring Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry in one, and in the other, the avant-gardist Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and the trumpeter Freedie Hubbard.
Alternatively, I listen to the John Coltrane recordings from early to mid-60s. Anything prior, and I feel the lacking of Coltrane’s independent voice. Anything post Ascension, and the repertoire becomes too spicy for my tastes even. The albums Crescent, A Love Supreme, Impressions and Ole Coltrane fit right along my palate. McCoy Tyner’s piano harmonics counteract well with Coltrane’s intense soprano/tenor sax. In fact, Tyner’s recordings are worth exploring in their own right.
The Miles Davis post-bop recordings beginning with his second quartet and through the electric period, represent likely the first to extend my boundaries for jazz listening. One could argue that everything he produced post 1969 no longer constitutes jazz. Others classify this period as jazz fusion, characteristic for assimilating elements of initially rock and later funk, Latin, and African influences. I’m perfectly content with this title.
Some key figures present in various Miles Davis ensembles of this 1966-1974 period feature Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, and John McLaughlin.
The first part of the post-bop period still respected certain traditional jazz forms, but with an increasing tendency to emphasize minimalist few-chord compositions and more opportunity for exploratory improvisation. As the electric period gained full momentum, many Davis compositions anchored on as little as a single chord in the rhythm section.
Bitches Brew, the quintessential electric Miles album, offers me something new with each listen. It’s a double album featuring long compositions radical for the time (both in length and content). Music like this didn’t exist until Miles Davis and his army of musicians simply improvised over long, endless studio sessions, while the producer Teo Macero transformed the chaos into the provocative compositions we know, prophetic for the time period. I can listen to Bitches Brew on long walks, during concentrated work, as I write, or in focused isolated effort. But it took time to appreciate. Nowadays, the introductory phrases of the 20-minute opening track Pharaoh’s Dance stimulate an immediate dopamine reaction, but there was a time when the multitude of wind, keyboard and percussion instruments, simultaneously improvising, reminded me of an orchestral tuning session. The composition fades in as arbitrarily as it fades out, like a half-forgotten dream.
Those unable to digest Bitches Brew would unlikely appreciate any of the proceeding albums of this time period. I lost count how many times I must have abandoned the heavily funk-oriented single-chord compositions of On the Corner before enduring the introductory percussion measures and learning to appreciate the album. The compilation album Big Fun, another of my favorites, would probably sound more palatable to an ear uninitiated in the electric period.
These recordings deviate far from In the Silent Way, the one that preceded Bitches Brew and prophesized the upcoming trend in jazz fusion. I seldom return to this album as I now find it too much on the pleasant side. I found it immediately enjoyable, which didn’t work in favor of longevity. However, it’s a viable starting point in jazz fusion listening. In the past, I used to listen to it in those moments of drifting between consciousness and sleep, be it on planes or public transit. It provokes a soothing effect similar to a lot of atmospheric music.
That summarizes my listening preferences in jazz. Much focus on avant-garde, fusion, and heavy improvisation. Perhaps it reflects my present state of mind?