1970 Jazz: Free, Avant-Garde and Experimental

In previous articles about jazz music recorded in 1970, we featured albums on major jazz labels including Atlantic, Impulse! and Blue Note, with some of the releases showcasing free and experimental jazz by artists such as Chick Corea’s Circle Quartet, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In this article we will review other recordings of the esoteric sides of jazz, all recorded in 1970 and released on various labels. We open with a free jazz royalty.

In April 1968, as a shareholder in a co-op that purchased an old seven-story factory at 131 Prince Street in Soho, just south of Greenwich Village in New York, Ornette Coleman became the owner of the street-level and third floors in the building. “I was just trying to find a place where I could go and make music at any time,” he said. The space soon became a hub for the free-thinking musicians community in the city. Drummer Rashied Ali remembers: “Ornette would give out the space to musicians. It wasn’t even about renting the space. He would give it to you for almost nothing. We would produce and perform our own concerts there. We were the producer, the performer, did all the leg work, the PR work and everything like that in order to get people to come.” A precursor to the loft-scene that thrived in NYC in the early 1970s, the building served as a home, rehearsal and performance space for musicians associated with Coleman. He later named it ‘Artist House’.

Ed Blackwell, Dewey Redman, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden at 131 Prince Street, May 1971. Photo: Val Wilmer

On Valentine’s Day in 1970, Ornette Coleman assembled a group of friends, neighbors and musicians to his loft to record a spontaneous performance in a community-gathering atmosphere. The resulting album was released on Bob Thiele’s newly-found label Flying Dutchman, aptly titled ‘Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street’.

The opening track is an oddity in Ornette Coleman catalog, featuring a funky beat and a chant performed by everyone who happened to be in the room:

Friends and neighbors / That’s where it’s at /

Friends and neighbors / That’s a fact /

Hand in hand / That’s the goal /

All the world / Soul, soul, soul.

A DownBeat review of the album in October 1970 was less than impressed by this track: “The first version has some lame lyrics sung by the studio audience. Maybe it gave them and the members of Coleman’s group a feeling of togetherness, but the singing is pretty awful.”

An instrumental version of the tune follows, with Coleman playing the violin: “On both the Friends and Neighbors tracks there is some weird simultaneous improvisation by Coleman on violin and Redman. Redman’s work is relaxed and easygoing, but Coleman saws away like a man possessed, producing some unusual tone colors and textures.”

Coleman is joined on this album by the fantastic rhythm section of his classic quartet from the early 1960s – bass player Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, plus tenor sax player Dewey Redman. The DownBeat review was much more complementary of their contributions: “Blackwell does a splendid job in the rhythm section. It’s a pleasure to listen to his dialogue with the soloists; he not only drives them but his playing is sometimes so sensitive and musical that he seems to be reading their minds. Haden also does a commendable job. He plays powerful and inventively yet unobtrusively, doing all sorts of interesting things behind the soloists but not drawing attention away from them.”

Ornette Coleman – alto saxophone, trumpet, violin

Dewey Redman – tenor saxophone, clarinet

Charlie Haden – bass

Ed Blackwell – drums

We move to an ensemble that was much newer on the scene in 1970. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was formed in Chicago in 1965 by Muhal Richard Abrams and others to promote concerts, teach music and history and offer guidance to youth in the city. In 1968 members of this organization formed the group Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC). In 1968 they moved to France and took residence in Paris for two years, where they recorded albums for various European labels such as BYG and Freedom. The ensemble thrived in Europe, where they were able to find ample occasions to play live. Trumpeter Lester Bowie recalls: “Paris really gave us the opportunity to develop the music in front of live audiences, whereas in the States we were working four times a year, but rehearsing maybe three hundred days out of that. After we went to Paris, we were working six nights a week, and we continued to work like that the whole time we were there.”

In 1970 they were contacted by French New Wave film director Moshe Mizrahi to perform music for his debut film, ‘Les Stances a Sophie’. They ended up also appearing in the film as performers. Photos from that scene are featured on the cover of the soundtrack album. The film premiered after the band was back in the US. The soundtrack album was out of print for a number of decades before it was reissued in 2000.

A DownBeat review from December 1971 gave the album the highest rating of five stars, opening with this statement: “The music on this record, the existence of this record itself, reinforces my faith in music, in all art, for it proves the indomitable spirit of creation.”

Prior to the recording of the soundtrack the band recruited drummer Don Moye, who became a lifelong member of the group. The album contains the track Theme de Yoyo, featuring an excellent groove by Moye plus vocals by legendary blues singer Fontella Bass (known for the 1965 hit ‘Rescue Me’), to whom Lester Bowie was married. The combination of the addictive bass and drum beat plus the vocals, make this track more accessible than the group’s other recordings at the time.

Art Ensemble of Chicago, 1976

DownBeat wrote about the track: “For one, Theme de Yoyo seems at first somewhat crazed, as if bizarre rhythm and blues, but proves more brilliant through every hearing. Mirth is all about, as is volatile energy, the wit and the passion most r&b artists manufacture more than evoke. As Moye and Favors shuffle and strum, the horns blow an almost standard riff routine, but then on the breaks all burst out frantically, crash, and fall back in— massive wailing that is both musically and theatrically exhilarating.”

The lyrics are priceless:

“Your fanny’s just like two sperm whales floating down the Seine…

Your love is like an oil well, dig it on the Champs Elysee”

Lester Bowie: trumpet, percussion instruments

Malachi Favors: bass, percussion instruments, vocals

Joseph Jarman: saxophones, clarinets, percussion instruments

Roscoe Mitchell: saxophones, clarinets, flute, percussion instruments

Don Moye: drums, percussion

Fontella Bass: vocals, piano

Our next artist recorded a number of live albums in 1970, and his orchestra has been described as a concoction of all these elements: “Count Basie’s swing riffs and the sounds of Duke Ellington’s sax section Fletcher Henderson’s voicings, traditional blues and black songs, African High-life dances and Egyptian marches and black percussion choirs from North, South, Central American and from Africa, Yoruba, Senegal and Congo, Voodoo rituals, trance and Black Mass and Black Myth.” The leader of the ensemble has been likened to “A sage African medicine man thousand years of age yet of the space age.” We are talking, of course, of Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Sun Ra

In 1970, owing to frequent spotlights on Voice of America by jazz disc jockey Willis Conover, Sun Ra was offered an opportunity to play concerts at the Fondation Maeght in the south of France. The venue, a small museum surrounded by sculpture gardens, was previously visited by the likes of John Cage and Pablo Picasso. Sun Ra’s performance in August 1970 was captured on tape and released later on the album Nuits de la Fondation Maeght.

John F. Szwed describes in his book ‘Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra’ the scene of the performance: “Musicians in red tunics, seated in a forest of instruments on stage, dancers in red dresses. On a screen behind them was projected a sky full of stars, then planets, children in Harlem, Indians on hunting trips, and newsreel footage of protests; a ball of magic fire rose slowly up to the ceiling; saxophonists began to battle like samurai, then came together like brothers; and in the still center of it all, Sun Ra sat behind the Moog, creating the sounds of gales, storms, and waves crashing.”

For most of the concert the crowd was dumbfounded by the sights and sounds coming off stage. Szwed continues: “An agitated woman stood up and cried out, ‘What is this?’ Afterwards she came up and insisted on seeing the written music. Europeans seemed to want to know whether there was music behind what they were hearing, as if it would assure them that this was rational activity. A man once blurted out that his ‘five-year-old daughter could play that!’ Sun Ra readily agreed: ‘She could play it, but could she write it?’”

Still, Sun Ra was able to gain the crowd’s respect with a piece called Friendly Galaxy No. 2, about which he wrote: “One of the things which most impressed listeners at the Fondation Maeght is the passage for six flutes ad lib, six flutes playing in harmony. I could say improvising in harmony. I’m inspired by it to do something else which would be totally different. I believe it’s a new way of using flutes. It’s at once both very melodic and harmonious and at the same time so distant, as if the music was heard in the distance through a sort of mist. It’s so ‘out of this world.’”

Sun Ra was invited back to Europe later in the year, this time for a lengthier tour, including a performance at the prestigious Donaueschingen Festival for New Music in Germany. The festival was usually dedicated to modern and avant-garde classical music, with figures such as Karlheinz Stockhausen invited to perform. Sun Ra also performed at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Performances of the shows in Germany were recorded and released on the album ‘It’s After the End of the World.’

Joachim Berendt, one of the organizers of the European tour, wrote in the sleeve notes for the album, describing a solo spot by Sun Ra during one of the shows: “Sun Ra alone stays back on stage, surrounded by his seven keyboards – organ, mini-Moog, piano, clavinet, roc-si-chord, electra, spacemaster – crouching like an astronaut in the cockpit of his spacecraft in the center of that entire electronic setup that no man alone is able to overlook, that needs many an hour to build up.”

In a DownBeat article from July 1970, Sun Ra discussed his views on playing electronic instruments: “Just as in all other fields of music, the electronic instrument will have its naturals, those who are adept in every way for the electronic natural approach. I never consider any instrument in the category of no value in the composer’s world of creation; it is all according to the time, the place, the performer, the particular need of the composition, and the circumstances involved. Electronic instruments are no exception to that code. The main point concerning the synthesizer is the same as in all other instruments, that is, its capacity for the projection of feeling. This will be determined in a large degree not just by the instrument itself, but as always in music, by the musician who plays the instrument.”

June Tyson, Richard Wilkinson, Marshall Allen, Eloe Omoe, Sun Ra between Paris and Donaueschingen, 1970. Photograph by Jacques Bisceglia

Album credits:

Sun Ra – Farfisa organ, Hohner clavinet, piano, Rocksichord, Spacemaster organ, Minimoog, Hohner electra, vocals

Kwame Hadi – trumpet

Akh Tal Ebah – mellophone, trumpet

John Gilmore – tenor saxophone, percussion

Marshall Allen – alto saxophone, flute, oboe, piccolo, percussion

Pat Patrick – baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, drum

Danny Davis – alto saxophone, flute, clarinet

Abshalom Ben Shlomo – alto saxophone, flute, clarinet

Danny Ray Thompson – baritone saxophone, alto saxophone, flute

Leroy Taylor – oboe, bass clarinet

Robert Cummings – bass clarinet

Augustus Browning – English horn

Alan Silva – violin, viola, cello, bass

Alejandro Blake Fearon – bass

Lex Humphries – drums

James Jackson – percussion, oboe, flute

Nimrod Hunt – hand drums

Hazoume – fireeater, dance, African percussion

Math Samba, Ife Tayo – dance, percussion

June Tyson – vocals

Richard Wilkinson – stereo light-sound coordination

Our next artist, while not usually mentioned alongside free jazz artists like the ones discussed so far in this article, had consistently released albums with his ensemble, featuring complex and experimental arrangements and rhythms. Don Ellis immersed himself in the New York avant-garde scene in the early 1960s, playing with the likes of Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and George Russell. He was then involved in the Third Stream movement and later formed The Hindustani Jazz Sextet, a group that fused jazz and Indian music. This rich background in non-traditional music paved the way to forming the Don Ellis Orchestra, which performed at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival. That unique ensemble could be considered a big band, but was as far stylistically from swing big bands as you can get. They incorporated various ethnic influences such as Latin, Indian, Greek and Bulgarian, and the music from these regions led to experimentation with odd time meters.

Don Ellis

In a DownBeat article from April 1970, Don Ellis talked about his fascination with complex time signatures: “I’ve developed odd meters further than anyone else. The Brubeck and Max Roach combos had always been fooling around with unconventional times. Kenton tried it somewhat with his band—remember Cuban Fire, in seven? But I was the first to really go into it in depth. Of course, classically, Bartok and Stravinsky were constantly changing time signatures in their pieces, but ad-libbing in odd meters, well that’s a different world.”

Ellis’s ensemble became so well known for its odd time meters, that Charlie Haden’s jokingly said “The only thing Don plays in 4/4 is Take Five.” During live performances Ellis would give “announcement lectures”, clarifying the metrical subdivisions of 19/4 or 11/8. Very few in the audience got what he was rumbling about, but it was a successful gimmick. The audience loved the music.

In a 1968 interview, Don Ellis was quite excited about his focus on integrating complex meters into his music: “I hope that the new rhythms will become a general part of the scene. To me, this is one of the most exciting things: I love to hear something swing—to have a good beat, but I think it’s got to be more than what’s been happening up to now—mostly four–four and a little bit of three–four. I would love to see new meters come in and new exciting complexities. Playing and swinging in 9/ 8, 11/ 8, 17/ 8, 19/ 8 (or even in 85/ 8, which my band does!) is not difficult when you know how to count and feel these meters. It’s only a question of getting used to it.”

In June of 1970 the band recorded its performance at Fillmore West, a venue usually reserved for rock and popular acts. The recording was released on the double-LP album Don Ellis at Fillmore. DownBeat magazine was very complementary in its review of the album: “This double album, recorded live at Fillmore West, offers 86:37 of music, effects, and avant garde showmanship—most of it good, some of it humorous, but none of it dull. The band occasionally indulges in pie-in-the-face musical burlesqueries, but most of what’s here is valid, genuinely creative, and above all, well played.”

Don Ellis at Fillmore back cover

A favorite track on the album is Rock Odyssey, which DownBeat magazine singled out, describing it as “a most interesting work, employs multiple time signatures and features excellent work by Humphrey.” The album liner notes included a few paragraphs about each of the tracks. This is what Don Ellis wrote about Rock Odyssey:

“Hank Levy was one of the first outside writers to contribute scores to our library. He caught on to the unusual meters amazingly fast, and now conducts college stage bands in Baltimore, Maryland, concentrating on the new rhythms. All the band agrees that this is one of his most beautiful charts. The first part is in a slow 7/4 and the middle section is in 12/8 divided 2-2-3, 2-3. Listen especially to the exciting cross rhythms our drummer, Ralph Humphrey, gets going.”

Indeed, drummer Ralph Humphrey, who joined Don Ellis in 1968, was a master of odd-time meters. A few years later he would join Frank Zappa’s band, showcasing his unique drumming on a number of classic albums by that group.

Don Ellis summarized the Fillmore West album in the liner notes: “I believe this album marks a milestone in the development of the band. Not only is it the most free within the concepts with which we are working, but I also believe it is the best band I ever had.”

Don Ellis – trumpet, drums

John Klemmer – tenor saxophone

Jay Graydon – guitar

John Rosenberg, Stuart Blumberg, Glenn Stuart, Jack Coan – trumpets

Ernie Carlson, Glenn Ferris – trombone

Don Switzer – bass trombone

Lonnie Shetter, Fred Selden, Jon Clarke, Sam Falzone – woodwinds

Doug Bixby – contrabass trombone, tuba

Tom Garvin – piano

Dennis F. Parker – bass

Ralph Humphrey – drums

Ron Dunn – drums

Lee Pastora – congas

Our last artist for this review is again not one you would associate with experimental music, but the album she released that year is as unique as any of the albums listed so far. Dorothy Ashby was never your run of the mill jazz player, being a female jazz solo harpist. She started as a pianist and switched to the harp in the early 1950s. Her trio toured regularly and in 1962 Ashby won DownBeat magazine’s critics’ and readers’ awards for best jazz performers.

In 1968 she was signed to Cadet Records, the jazz subsidiary of Chess Records. Bassist, composer and arranger Richard Evans, who acted as house producer for the label, worked with her on a series of wonderful albums including Afro-Harping and Dorothy’s Harp. In 1970 Ashby concluded her contract with Cadet by releasing the masterful album The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, inspired by the writings of Persian scholar and poet Omar Khayyam.

The album finds Dorothy Ashby singing and playing the Japanese koto and harp on ten tracks she composed and backed by an interesting combination of instruments such as kalimba, violin, oboe and vibraphone. The music is accompanied by orchestral arrangements courtesy of Richard Evans.

In a 1983 interview Dorothy Ashby talked about the complexity inherent to playing jazz on the harp: “I think it is probably the most difficult instrument to improvise on. In creating things spontaneously you have to be thinking in several directions because the harp doesn’t have any way to make chromatics, and jazz is a rather chromatic way of playing.” The scarcity of harp players in the jazz idiom provided no common canon of performances on the instrument that a harp player can rely on for inspiration: “A lot of piano things transfer very easily to the harp, but in jazz you have to create and design your own solos because nobody out there is playing solos that you can just pick up in sheet music and read for the harp.”

Dorothy Ashby

The physics and structure of the harp are not easy to master in any genre, as she described: “Your pedals have to be set before you get there. It’s similar to having a piano minus the black keys. On the harp, all that the black keys represent tonally are made with floor pedals. Each pedal has three positions and you have seven pedals. The number of possible combinations goes into several thousand.”

Album credits:

Dorothy Ashby – harp, koto, vocals

Lenny Druss – flute, oboe, piccolo flute

Cliff Davis – alto saxophone

Stu Katz – vibraphone

Cash McCall – guitar

Fred Katz – kalimba

Ed Green – violin

Orchestra arranged and conducted by Richard Evans

For farther reading about Sun Ra, I recommend the excellent book Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra, by John F. Szwed

Categories: A Year in Music

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