The ‘Free Jazz’ Book: A Consumer’s Guide

Book Review

By Eric K. Williams

New York – This work is a labor of love. Robert Fleming’s new book, ‘Free Jazz: Creative Originality, Controlled Surprise,’ is a beautifully displayed work. A work that would be unfair to categorize as just another ‘coffee table top’ short read, stacked alongside over-stuffed magazines. It is an unusual book about Jazz music for several reasons, mostly in that it dates from the mid-1950’s, up until 2013. A short glance, some critics will likely argue, into the vast history of the music. That glance is indeed short, when one considers the already existing body of work that chronicles a genre that continues to evolve. Author Robert Fleming has created a quick guide to the modern movements here, with a carefully selected series of albums traditionalists may well scoff at.

A taste of what is inside.

A taste of what is inside.

The new musical direction of the so-called ‘Free Jazz movement,’ followed that of Be-Bop, and is also known by several names. Those names would include ‘The Avante Garde,‘ Free Style, ‘The New Sound,‘ or simply, ‘The New Thing.’ It came to be a force, historically, right after the death of Saxophone icon, Charlie Parker. This new musical movement likely would have started anyway, even if Parker had lived, Fleming argues. Unlike the Be-Bop movement of the 1940’s, this new direction in the mid-1950’s was led by two Saxophonists of note. The two men driving this movement were, according to Fleming, Ornette Coleman and, John Coltrane, along with pianist, Cecil Taylor. All three were relative new comers to the Jazz scene. Yet, there were other notable musicians who later joined these mavericks who were not confined to the saxophone or piano.

Flemings words here are short, terse, and to the point. Absent are the paragraph-sized sentences too often used by academics, critics, and other musical historians, re-telling a sea change in both musical and cultural statements. Indeed, the musicians and their recordings made a statement by discarding the rigid confines of what was then standard in much of contemporary Jazz at the time. They took a different approach in creating new art to what Fleming describes here as “transforming the elements of harmony, melody, rhythm, and structure,” that excited, but had also led to consternation among the so-called ‘gatekeepers’ of Jazz.

As to whoever those industry ‘gatekeepers’ may have been, they remained unnamed here. The naysayers of the day, such as, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie are named, and who are framed as being among those important musicians that were ‘enlisted’ to take pot shots at the new music by these unnamed forces. What is refreshing is Fleming’s use of quotes by the musicians making the music at the time, that include not only the aforementioned Coleman, Taylor and Coltrane, but by others who were a part of the new direction. Bolstering his argument Fleming selected noteworthy Jazz voices such as bassist, Charlie Mingus, including Oliver Lake, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, and Miles Davis.

Fleming keeps it simple by selecting just four categories he maintains are key to accessing this music. Those categories are: Experimental, Cultural, Political, and Spiritual. There is very little rambling here, as Fleming’s words cover a total of just 21 pages out of the 109 pages of the book’s entirety. But the best is yet to come, with beautifully recreated album covers presented here to the reader that act as an easy guide. This presentation is a stunning addition of color that splashes across each page, and draws the reader in, creating a kind of curiosity that would otherwise be absent if left only to the written word in the naming of the noted recordings of the day. It is nothing short of a brilliant stroke.

The bulk of the recordings Fleming cites, of course, cover the important decades of the 1950’s and ’60’s. He also points out how the tradition of Free Jazz was carried-over well into the rest of 20th Century, and into the first two decades of the 21st with the beautiful album cover layout that keeps the music contemporary.

Robert Fleming’s ‘Free Jazz: Creative Originality, Controlled Surprise,’ is sure to create a stir in Jazz circles, yet again. Mainly because there will certainly be those critics who will disagree with his inclusion of such important record labels as Flying Dutchman, ENJA, Delmark, and the Europe-based ECM as part of the key distributors of the genre. This reviewer is not among those critics. The handful of independent labels took a risk in bringing new music to the public that many would say was ‘untouchable.’ Wynton Marsalis is one among many of the critics who scoffs at labels such as ECM as being too esoteric. Yet, The Spritual Side of Wynton Marsalis, a 2013 release, is among the handful of recordings Fleming cites in this book as noteworthy 21st century Free Jazz statements.

Fleming’s book has received advanced praise from such noteworthy experts as Art Nixon, of the Black Arts Movement, and DeQuaye Williams, of Jazz on Jazz, for work on this project. Noted collector and Cleveland, Ohio-based musicologist, K Kelly McElroy, wrote the introduction, saying that Fleming’s work is a kind of eye opener even for him. He calls it “the most concisely logical explanation of this evolutionary musical process” he has ever read on the Free Jazz movement.

For anyone interested in the evolution of modern American Jazz, even those with a modest record or CD collection this book is a must have. Like any good story teller, whether in the form of a film, theater, or a book, Fleming leaves you wanting and asking for more.


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