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Birth of the New Thing

Avant Garde Recordings of the 60's & 70's


As a new era of "free jazz/improvised music/avant garde/noise/etc." is opening up to us, led by new artists like John Butcher, Joe Morris, Keiji Haino and Matthew Ship it is important to remember that this is not "new music" but a continuation of the long line of innovation that has taken place over this entire century. We as record/cd buyers have a wonderful chance to listen to the whole spectrum of the 20th century's musical revolution. From the first recordings of King Oliver through Louis Armstrong and Jabbo Smith back to Bunk Johnson on to Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie up to Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis next to Bill Dixon, Don Cherry and Wadada Leo Smith coming to rest with Dave Douglas today. This is just a subjective treatment of the trumpet; you can draw lines from the past to the future through all of the instruments (For the drums, for example: Baby Dodds-Zutty Singleton-Max Roach-Edward Blackwell-Sunny Murray-Hamid Drake).

But when you listen to this recorded history, the area with the largest missing pieces may well be the "new thing" era of the `60s. As jazz became less profitable for the major labels a number of smaller independents moved in to document the music. This is nothing new: small/fringe labels record a majority of what would be called "ground-breaking" music. Paramount preserved the best of the rural blues sound of the `20s, Dial took the first chance with Charlie Parker in the `40s, Contemporary first recorded Ornette Coleman in the `50s and so on. As the `60s dawned with a large number of artists following Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane into the latest wrinkle in the jazz universe many labels both in the US and Europe where there to package it for posterity and us.


After the big names (Coltrane, Monk, Coleman) the next major innovator "on the scene" was Albert Ayler (since this is such recent history many can and do argue about absolutes like this, which is half the fun.) with ESP Disk, a label releasing a steady supply of disks. All of his great recordings for this equally wonderful label are thankfully in print and available on cd. Along with the Ayler's (Spiritual Unity, Bells, N.Y. Eye and Ear Control etc.) ESP Disk recorded other greats of the `60s: Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Bob James (his only good record?) and Sun Ra along with important artists like Milford Graves, Giuseppi Logan, Frank Wright and Patty Waters to name a few.


As the `60s moved on other labels started recording the strange ""new sound" coming out of this country. In Chicago Bob Koester and Chuck Nessa helped preserve the first important "new musics" from the midwest. With a more open and spatial attack artists like Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton began a new branch of the jazz continuum for Koester and his Delmark label. Starting with Joseph Jarman's Song For, Abrams' Levels and Degrees of Light, Mitchell's Sound, Braxton's Three compositions of New Jazz (and his monumental solo alto double lp For Alto) Chicago was on the map. Nessa records came to life at this same period with a batch of recordings that have been collected into a wonderful 5 disk set: The Art Ensemble 1967/68. Also, two of the original disks (Mitchell's Old Quartet and Lester Bowie's Numbers 1&2) have just been reissued in Japan. Nessa was also there to help document a meeting of American trumpeter Bobby Bradford and John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble (from the UK) which are still available on 2 single lps.


A great number of American artists, like Bradford, left the US for Europe in the `60s and started recording for European labels. The first was the BYG label who recorded such expatriated artists as Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Jimmy Lyons and Paul Bley. The original BYG's are sadly out of print but a handful are still available on lp through the Affinity label and are well worth hunting out. As European and American artists started working live together they also started to record side by side. One of the first great collaborations actually took place in `64 when Eric Dolphy recorded The Last Date with future greats Han Bennink on drums and Misha Mengelberg on piano, both would go on to be major forces in "improvised music". You can also hear wonderful music from the Gunther Hampel group on his recording The 8th of July 1969 on Birth records, this group includes Anthony Braxton and fellow Chicagoan Steve McCall.

As the `70s came in European artists began to find a voice of there own. And there is great documentation of this even newer branch of "free jazz" on labels like Incus and EMANEM (both from the UK) and FMP (Germany). The first and most famous fruit of this new musical world may very be the Peter Brötzmann Octet's recording, for FMP, Machine Gun. This is a wonderfully in your face disk. Along side Brötzmann are future greats Willem Breuker (who is also on the Hampel disk) and Evan Parker on reeds, Peter Kowald on bass and Han Bennink (making the leap from swinging Eric Dolphy to supplying this juggernaut its drive in just 4 years).

A small aside: Brötzmann told me that he sent a master tape of this same group to ESP Disk to see if they would like to release it. No response and no returned tape, so an lp master of unreleased material is out there (I like to think it's still around and not in a landfill) by this musical freight train. If you find it give me a call.

This also brings us all the way around to the beginning, ESP to FMP.

Bruno Johnson runs the prolific Okkadisc jazz label and also works at the Jazz Record Mart.


These are must-listen albums from the early days of avant-garde.
All are available on CD unless otherwise noted.
To order any of these, call (800) 684-3480.

Albert Ayler Spiritual Unity ESP Disk 1002
Bells ESP Disk 1010
New York Eye and Ear Control ESP Disk 1016
Ornette Coleman Town Hall Concert 1962 ESP Disk 1006
Pharoah Sanders Pharoah's First ESP Disk 1003
Sun Ra Heliocentric Worlds Volume 1 ESP 1014
Volume 2 1017
Frank Wright Trio ESP Disk 1023
Steve Lacy The Forest And The Zoo ESP Disk 1060
Moon Affinity 23 (LP only)
Gunther Hampel Music From Europe ESP Disk 1042
The 8th Of July 1969 Birth 001
The Art Ensemble of Chicago 1967/68 Nessa 2500
Lester Bowie Numbers 1&2 Bomba imp.
Roscoe Mitchell Old Quartet Bomba imp.
Sound Delmark 408
Joseph Jarman Song For Delmark 410
Muhal Richard Abrams Level And Degrees Of Light Delmark 413
Anthony Braxton Three Compositions Of New Jazz Delmark 415
B-XO... Affinity 15 (LP only)
This Time Affinity 25 (LP only)
Bradford & The Spontaneous Music Ensemble Vol. 1 Nessa 17
Volume 2 Nessa 18 (LP only)
Sunny Murray Never Give A Sucker An Even Break Affinity 30 (LP)
Frank Wright One For John Affinity 33 (LP only)
Jimmy Lyons Other Afternoons Affinity 34 (LP only)
Paul Bley Ramblin' Affinity 37 (LP only)
Dewey Redman Tarik Affinity 42 (LP only)
Peter Brötzmann Machine Gun FMP CD 24