Monday, June 20, 2022

Reassessing some free jazz drummers

There was a period of about five years where I was listening to a lot of early free jazz— Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp. Ornette (and his circle) is the only one I still listen to with any regularity. As an aesthetic and way of playing free music is still very much with me— a lot of it has been assimilated into mainstream modern jazz— but it's just one thing I do, and I don't listen to a lot of real out music. 

Here I want to revisit some players I listened to in that period, and decide if there's anything there that's for me, now. I'm only making judgments for myself. I'm looking for people who do this kind of playing effectively, in the traditional sense, and who have some kind of musical personality that is appealing to me, and who have something special to say on the drums. I'm not an avant-gardist— I don't listen to music for the purpose of processing my negative feelings about it, I don't accept absolutely anything as legitimate art. 

Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins
The first players to do what was termed free jazz, with Ornette Coleman. Both solid mainstream bebop players doing real gigs outside the avant-garde— they're almost not even thought of as avant-garde. I don't think Blackwell ever really breaks away from being a groove player. Higgins may be the most humane voice in drumming— he always sounds like pure music. I talk about them both amply elsewhere on the site.   

Ornette Coleman - Art of the Improvisors / This is Our Music / Change of the Century

Sunny Murray
Sunny is a strange case— I feel like there's some kind of personality disorder at work. He's the originator of that no-time white noise approach to free playing. There's some warmth there, I get a feeling of Baby Dodds around some of his later playing. See the record I posted yesterday.

Albert Ayler - Spiritual Unity
Cecil Taylor - Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come  

Andrew Cyrille
A great presence as an artist and creative percussionist. I've mainly listened to his old records with Cecil Taylor and a few newer things, and seen him play in person, but I don't have a real good idea of what he sounds like. It's strange. He's done a ton of creative music and I need to listen to him more. Cecil Taylor's Conquistador! is a free jazz classic. 

Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures, Conquistador! 


Milford Graves
Uses the tom toms a lot, with a strong African, polyrhythmic feeling— that's a feeling you can actually try to copy, and I do. 

Paul Bley - Barrage
David Murray - Real Deal 

Playing here with John Zorn in front of a painting by Jackson Pollock:

Rashied Ali

In the early 90s I was in a hip hop group with his son in LA briefly. I feel I only know him as a vibe— that's the way it is with a lot of these players, with Rashied, for me, it's a general rolling kind of vibe. He sounds capable and not obnoxious. Rakalam Bob Moses idolizes him, and I should listen to him more.

John Coltrane - Interstellar Space
Alice Coltrane - A Monastic Trio 

There aren't too many free jazz epics, but he played on one of them: 

Beaver Harris 
He plays on a lot of records I listened to, but he seems lacking in power, in playing charisma. He fills the drummer chair and makes appropriate sounds, but it feels non-specific. I don't hear any kind of sophistication— without that it's just a lot of drum noise.  

Albert Ayler - In Greenwich Village
Archie Shepp - The Magic of Juju

Ronald Shannon Jackson
Love him with Albert Ayler, love him with Cecil Taylor, and love what he developed in the 80s, composing and leading his own groups. Plays with a lot of power, sense of groove, a deep concept of the drums. And a very humane musical personality. I need humanizing players around Cecil to be able to listen to him— see also that record with Elvin Jones and Dewey Redman. 

Cecil Taylor - Live in the Black Forest
Albert Ayler - At Slug's Saloon

J.C. Moses
He's on several records I used to listen to, mainly by Archie Shepp, and he mostly doesn't make it for me now. He sounds noisy. Here's a good example— he's uniformly annoying all the way through this. I read an interview where someone was talking about needing to get him to listen, and I believe it. I guess you could make up a critical justification for that, invent a new aesthetic based on annoying everyone. I can't help but feel like he's bullshitting.  

Archie Shepp - Further Fire Music
New York Contemporary Five - Vol. 1-2
Eric Dolphy - Iron Man

Denis Charles
I mainly heard him on the early Cecil Taylor records with Buell Neidlinger, when they were still playing regular time, and I wasn't wild about the way he did that— I felt his cymbal beat was weak. But he played for another 30 years after that, and I've heard plenty of things I like later on. His later playing has a nice crusty artist personality to it. He doesn't sound like somebody who does many regular gigs.

Cecil Taylor - Love For Sale / The World of Cecil Taylor 

Famoudou Don Moye
Lester Bowie pronounced it FAmadoo. My favorite jazz drummers have some kind of R&B background, and you can really hear that with Moye, especially when he gets into playing backbeats. He sounds like a working drummer.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Nice Guys / The Third Decade

I haven't by any means listened to all of these players output, so feel free to mention any favorite recordings in the comments. 

And there are some other people who did this type of playing later— Paul Motian, Billy Mintz, Barry Altschul, Rakalam Bob Moses, Billy Elgart— maybe we'll talk about some of them soon.  


Anonymous said...

You may want to listen to Han Bennik with Sonny Rollins “Rollins in Holland” from 1967

Todd Bishop said...

In the next round!

Vinavoehr said...

I like J.C. Moses with Eric Dolphy on "The Illinois Concert", though that's not a free record at all.

stumbleandfall said...

Interesting write-up! I have a soft spot for some of these drummers but there were definitely a few 'bullshitters' among them. That clip of J.C Moses with Ted Curson is painful to watch. I also recall an interview with Joe Chambers where he was pretty dismissive of Milford Graves and the idea he had any facility with the timbales (which the interviewer was suggesting).

Denis Charles is an interesting one. I love his playing with Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd on 'School Days', but he does sound very idiosyncratic and untutored with Cecil. His career never really took off due in part to his heroin addiction. But his later recordings ('Queen Mary' on Silkheart, 'Capatain of the Deep', his work with Billy Bang and Jemel Moondoc) is phenomenal to me, a real and substantial continuation of the Blackwell-style

Todd Bishop said...

Vinavoehr-- I'll listen to the rest of that album. There was another Blue Note record he's on where he sounded OK-- Kenny Dorham/Matador.

stumbleandfall-- I'll look into Denis Charles some more--

I found that interview where Chambers talks about Milford-- he's skeptical that he was any kind of Latin percussionist.

Anonymous said...

Was hoping to see Tony Oxley on here.

Todd Bishop said...

I actually never listened to him much. I like what he does, I just rarely saw his name on anything in my usual record stores.