Free Jazz: Free Jazz, as the name implies, is all about freedom.http://www.thejazzpianosite.com/jazz-piano-lessons/modern-jazz-theory/free-jazz/
"The goal of Free Jazz is to allow greater freedom of expression through completely free improvisation. Each artist, naturally, expresses him or herself differently, and this is precisely why Free Jazz is a notoriously difficult genre to define. It’s not about any one particular characteristic or technique. Instead you can only define Free Jazz in the negative:
Free Jazz is the systematic rejection of musical norms and established rules in favour of personal expression.
The whole trend of Modern Jazz is towards greater freedom in improvisation. The way this was done was by reducing the importance of chords. This is because chords restrict your improvisation by forcing you to work within a given harmonic framework or chord progression. By reducing the importance of chords, you free up your ability to improvise.
Traditional (Tonal) Jazz
Uses functional harmony in a particular Major or minor key with a tonal centre
There is a strict chord progression which is inevitably leading towards the tonic chord
The goal of the soloist is simply to restate the chord changes by targeting Guide Tones and avoiding Avoid Notes
Uses non-functional harmony, with or without a tonal centre (though usually with) but is still based within a diatonic mode
This allowed the soloist greater freedom in improvisation because there are no more Guide Tones or Avoid Notes (though there are still Character Tones)
The goal of the improviser is to create an interesting melody within the given mode or scale
So while you have more freedom than in tonality, because you could disregard chord progression, you were still restricted to a particular mode (like D Dorian).
Is often atonal, with or without a tonal centre, and is NOT in any particular diatonic key (instead, you could say that it is ‘chromatic’)
This allows the soloist almost complete freedom in improvisation because you don’t have to worry about chords or keys or modes anymore
The soloist can use any of the 12 note in any order – and all notes are created equal!
Tonality Modality Free Jazz
Major & minor keys All modes No Key (Chromaticism)
Functional Harmony No Functional Harmony No Functional Harmony
With a Tonal Centre With or without a Tonal Centre With or without a Tonal Centre
Improvisation based on chords Improvisation based on scale/mode Free Improvisation
Different Free Jazz musicians approached this idea in different ways, and I’ll cover some of these below.
Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité
20th Century Classical music also made use of atonality. After a brief period of ‘free atonality’ in the early 1900’s, Classical composers like Schoenberg created a very rigid, structured, and academic way of playing atonally which was called 12 Tone Serialism. The goal was to create music which completely lacked any sense of tonality, where you use each of the 12 notes (or ‘pitch classes’) without repeating any, in such a way that no tonality is established.
Jazz is far less academic about atonality. The high degree of structure found in serialism is not found in Jazz. This is probably because it’s too difficult to improvise using such rigid and complex rules, and because it completely defeats the purpose of Free Jazz – which is to have more freedom to improvise. There’s no point breaking the old rules just to create new ones. In Free Jazz, you’re allowed to play both tonally and atonally, it’s up to you.
But of course, Free Jazz is about more than just playing ‘atonally’. As I stated at the beginning, Free Jazz is the systematic rejection of musical norms. And there are plenty of other musical norms to reject.
Traditional Music Free Jazz
Tonality Polytonality Atonality
Tempo Polytempic Atempic
Meter Polymeter Ameter
Strict Form Can be formless
Free Jazz Individuality
It’s worth discussing how various Free Jazz musicians approached atonality
John Coltrane Ornette Coleman Cecil Taylor
Modal Tonal Centers Tone Clusters
John Coltrane took non-functional chords (like in Modal Jazz) but improvised over them using a lot of chromaticism so that he wasn’t just playing in a single mode.
In fact, he played ‘outside’ the mode more than ‘inside’ the mode so that the whole modal framework collapsed.
The mode just functioned as a starting point from which to depart into atonality.
He also often created ‘noise’ rather than ‘sound’ by doing things like overblowing his saxophone.Ornette Coleman went one step further and simply got rid chords altogether.
By removing all the chords, the soloist was free to literally play anything because there was no harmony to adhere to. If there are no chords, then there is no underlying harmony and no key – so you are free to play whatever you like.
But interestingly, even though he got rid of chords, Coleman still retained a tonal centre – which was played as a pedal point by the bass. This ‘tonal centre’ or ‘focal tone’ acts like a ‘base from which to explore’ atonality.
He also came up with the theory of harmolodics – which is essentially the idea that all musical elements (harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrasing) are all equal and none should take precedence over any other.
Cecil Taylor is a Free Jazz pianist who abandoned the Modal Framework used by Coltrane and Tonal Centres used by Coleman and instead made wide use of Tone Clusters to avoid playing in any specific key or tonal centre.
A ‘Tone Cluster’ is simply playing 3 or more neighbouring notes at once (so mashing the keyboard)
Tone Clusters can be Chromatic, Diatonic or Pentatonic.
All tone clusters are classifiable as secundal chords—that is, chord built out of 2nds (minor, major, or augmented)
Tone Cluster Free Jazz
And this is what I meant when I said that Free Jazz was hard to classify. Three different Free Jazz musicians used three different approaches to free improvisation and atonality – modal, tonal centred, and tone clustered – and all are still classified as ‘Free Jazz’.
Structure & Motion
Now, getting rid of tonality and chords creates two problems – you lose the underlying ‘structure & form’ of the song and the ‘sense of motion’ that chords provide.
Structure & Form
Despite the rejection of ‘musical forms’ & chord, Free Jazz is not completely ‘formless’. All music, in order to be music rather than just noise, requires some kind of structure. So Free Jazz musicians created new ways of structuring music.
Free Jazz removed ‘chords’ in order to focus on ‘melody’, so it makes sense that they structured songs around melody. This idea can be called ‘thematic development’ or ‘motivic development’ or ‘motivic chain association’.
You take a motif, then change it, and then change it again, then play a different motif, and change that one, then go back to your first motif, and change it again, and so on…
A → A’ → B → A’’ → B’ → C → C’ → B’’ → A’’’ → etc.
So improvisations, despite being free, were often quite structured. By rejecting harmonic structure, Free Jazz musicians instead used melodic structure as the basis of form in their songs.
Sense of Motion
Functional harmony is what creates a sense of forward motion & movement (towards the tonic). Without it, the music feels like it’s not going anywhere. This is fine – many modal songs just float around. But if you want to create a sense of forward motion, in place of functional harmony, you need to employ other techniques. An idea used by some Free Jazz musicians to create that sense movement is that of ‘energy’.
Increase energy by – playing louder (dynamics), playing faster (tempo), playing higher (register), playing staccato (touch & timbre), playing more notes (density).
Moving from low energy to high energy and then back again creates a sense of motion.
It’s easy to play while ignoring all chords and rules of harmony, but it will sound terrible – like you’re making mistakes. What then, is the difference between Free Jazz & a cat walking across the piano? They do actually sound quite similar. The answer is that Free Jazz has:
Non-harmonic structure (melodic structure and energy – as above)
Conviction and Emotion – you need something strong and convincing to replace chords, you have to play confidently and emotively.
Free Jazz songs often try capture an emotion (Expressionism) or a scene (Impressionism), which is generally stated in the title of the song – such as Peace or Lonely Woman. And songs sound different depending on what mood or emotion or picture you’re trying to paint – Free Jazz improvisation over a song called ‘Sadness’ should sound different to Free Jazz improvisation over a song called ‘Energetic Puppies!’Free Jazz Techniques
Some of the techniques & ideas underlying & characterising Free Jazz are:
Rejection of a strict chord progressions or even chords
Rejection of Formalism & embrace of Expressionism and Impressionism
Melody/Timbre > Harmony;
Content (Emotion) > Form
Tone Clusters ~ Taylor
Harmolodics ~ Coleman
New sounds from instruments – overblowing, microtones, multiphonics
Create noise rather than sound
Use of unusual instruments
Jazz returning to its ‘roots’ of ‘uneducated/out of tune folk music’, with the ‘call & response’ and raw emotion of Blues and early Jazz – before it was made academic and commercial and ‘Europeanised’ with notation and formal harmony and playing in ‘keys’
Everyone in the band improvising at the same time with no set key or tempo or harmony. Free Jazz made extensive use of collective improvisation – which, again, was a throwback to early Dixieland Jazz which also used collective improvisation (though in a particular key).
Complete freedom of expression through improvisation above all else
Context & Contention:
Free Jazz arose in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement, so as African-American people were fighting for freedom on the streets, they were also fighting for freedom in music. So even the name ‘Free Jazz’ is a politically loaded term.
Some people doubt whether true atonality can really exist – because if you listen hard enough you can always hear some kind of tonal centre or frequent modulations. But that’s a matter of contention.
Some say Ornette Coleman does NOT play ‘atonally’ at all, but rather plays Bebop and Blues with a constantly modulating tonal centre. At a certain point this becomes academic. Is atonality really possible? Or is every single note it’s own tonal centre and therefore if you play all 12 notes in a row, you’ve simply played from 12 different tonal centres?
Freedom in Chains
The ultimate goal of Free Jazz is ‘freedom of expression through free improvisation’ – this was achieved by breaking musical ‘rules’. Interestingly, Free Jazz is not completely free – Free Jazz musicians still employed tonal centres, or thematic development in order to impose some structure onto their song and improvisation. So perhaps complete freedom is undesirable. As I’ve said in previous lessons: Music without structure is noise.
Free Jazz is not easy to listen to, and it’s not supposed to be. You have to know what to listen to. Free Jazz is like conceptual art – the idea behind it is just as important as the music itself. It’s not like a Mozart song, which innately sounds pleasant. You have to really understand what you’re listening to in order to appreciate it. And sometimes it’ll sound like a cat walking across a piano. But other times it will sound very powerful and emotive.
Have a Listen to
Listen to the following albums:
Impressions ~ John Coltrne
Ascension ~ John Coltrne
Meditations ~ John Coltrne
The Shape of Jazz to Come ~ Ornette Coleman
Change of the Century ~ Ornette Coleman
Free Jazz ~ Ornette Coleman
Indent ~ Cecil Taylor
Looking Ahead ~ Cecil Taylor