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Overblown : Reflections On The Old New Thing

Revenant’s recent release of Albert Ayler’s Holy Ghost (a gift-like box set that I’m guessing more people are happier to have than listen to—the sound quality is lousy) brings to mind some thoughts about the continuing relevance of the kind of free jazz that has been known to clear rooms and even start fights. The kind that screams, shrieks, shreds, and can even injure (both musicians and listeners). In the 60s, they used to call it Fire Music. It was and still is nearly impossible for some to separate the intensity of the music from the cultural and political intensity of the times. And let’s face it, a lot of that music hasn’t aged very well.

This isn’t true of Ayler’s music, or Coltrane’s Ascension, and even some recordings by Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. The best of their freest music transcended whatever social conditions may have contributed to its creation. The best of Albert Ayler, despite how it was received by many in its time, is far more inviting than challenging, and in its haunting melodiousness—the shifting sum of so many parts—it commands much more than it demands. His cries are complex.

But there are a lot of older and newer versions of this sort of free music that come off as little more than brutal balls-out blasting. I don’t find the rich paradoxes and inventiveness that Ekkehard Jost detailed so elegantly in his interpretations of Coltrane, Ayler, and Shepp to be present in the more volatile and raw recordings of Peter Brötzmann, Charles Gayle, or John Zorn.

Machine Gun, maybe the landmark recording of the European free jazz scene, is perhaps less abrasive now than it was when released in 1969, but it’s still a daunting listen. If music is indeed the organization of noise, than I have yet to glean or enjoy the raucous form of its bellows and wails, its staccato assault, and highest register distortions. Brötzmann still enjoys playing this way (though not always, as his recent Tales Out Of Time demonstrates) even though this bombastic and dense style has by now congealed into little more than a cliché. To so brazenly forgo subtlety as if it’s little more than sentimentalism, and subsume it with histrionic pyrotechnics, is far too easy a refuge. It’s low art blown big with hot air.

Zorn, who like Brötzmann, is capable of a great range of music and is also a founder of an important label, also likes to sound his barbaric yawp in a take-no-prisoners approach to freeing jazz from its harmonic complexities. Quite a lot of the music he plays in his band Masada is simply punishing. He likes to play around with tempo and fiddle in some Jewish folk melodies before bursting into a shrill furor, blowing his alto to its most painfully piercing. And of course, he likes this music amplified to ear-splitting levels.

Also like Brötzmann, Zorn’s playing at this level is a choice of visceral over intellectual intuition, and the improvisational results are often little more than coarse storms punctuated by relentlessly harsh eruptions of the look-how-hard-and-loud-I-can-blow variety. The overwhelming force of such music is impressive in its physicality rather than its skill. Not that the two aren’t very skilled musicians, but when they bombard us into surrendering, we’re not giving ourselves over to their passion; we’re fleeing with our hands over our ears. It obliterates rather than creates connections. It treats tradition as something to be teased and tortured.

Charles Gayle is a player whose music I’ve never found much respect for. Though he’s achieved a legend as a sort of holy fool (he’s been known to sermonize at his shows), whose tenaciousness and stamina have been much remarked on, he’s one of those musicians whose back-story (long periods living and playing on the streets) seems to be the reason for the attention he’s gotten over the past decade. His Touchin’ On Trane is considered a free jazz classic, and called a tour de force by all the guidebooks. But it’s a rather short, brutish tour, with few highlights other than a haul through heights of overblowing. Gayle still revels in this style of playing on his more recent recordings too.

Age doesn’t always bring wisdom and restraint. It’s odd to me that such high profile artists are still playing in this excessively overstated manner, and so questions arise about its relevance. It seems unlikely that Ayler and Coltrane would still be pursuing this raw, free approach. Ayler had already begun to move on before his early death, and Coltrane’s genius was too restless to imagine him being content with such a limited form of expression. What once seemed brash becomes simply tired and trite 35 years later, after it’s run its course.

When I hear Brötzmann still barking and biting, or the noisy ferocity of a younger player like Mats Gustafsson, I wonder what exactly it is they are trying to communicate? I’ve read some interviews where they spout off about the evil -isms such as materialism and imperialism, and so maybe we’re to conclude that this music can express everything, anything; just overblow your horn and bang the shit out of your kit and the listener should be able to gauge the misanthropic temperature of our anger and disgust.

And then what? What may be cathartic for a musician doesn’t always produce meaningful or lasting art for the listener. I know many fans of this high-energy music find it exhilarating, but for how long? When so much of the musical process comes off as little more than a series of hectic fulminations, the product is not only exhausting, it’s simplistic.