Music, Freedom, and Form

I read yesterday that Pharoah Sanders had died. By most accounts he was a kind and gentle man, though his music explored the limits of sonic tolerance. His work in the ‘60s with John Coltrane and Albert Ayler “helped pioneer a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.”

So says Marcus J. Moore in The Nation, then going on to render an appreciation of Sanders’ development in later years, pointedly with Promises in 2021, an album I haven’t heard in which Moore finds greatness. I do have a couple of albums wherein Sanders and Coltrane are apparently searching for Karma or God on their horns. They are hard to listen to today.

When I was music critic for The New Leader in the late ‘60s I went on a couple of rants about free jazz—how screeching and emotive self-indulgence had taken over the music. Since I’ve become old and crotchety I haven’t much changed my opinion about free jazz though I’ve mellowed a bit. It’s not popular anymore for a lot of reasons, but Pharoah was one of the few to try keeping it relevant, and we salute him for that.

Free jazz proponents talked a lot about freedom. Yet when jazz tends to anarchy it can sink into expressionistic bedlam. John Coltrane’s music in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a revelation to me. When he later focused on his intense spiritual quest I simply couldn’t follow him.

For me, music must have some form or purpose or content its listeners can relate to. Free jazz leaves most musical norms behind, and “all notes are created equal!” It began as protest music and, in my opinion, evolved to self-indulgence. There’s more to it than this, of course. Below is a very good, somewhat complicated explanation of how free jazz takes different forms. I’ve never heard a better one.

When forms like serialism in classical music die out, as free jazz mostly has, what comes next? Ornette Coleman, a unique kind of free jazz musician, showed us one way. Hear “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come, 1959:

The impulses—musical and social—that created free jazz were not always noble. Mingus and Miles used to say that these folks were jiving the public, trying to make money off black protest. Mingus was very vocal about this: “if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . .”

When Mingus or his band “played free,” as they often did in his later music, they never got lost in their explorations. There was always a tonal center or a melody or chords to come back to. Mingus was also a master of the many modes and moods of jazz. These traditions and roots were his stock in trade. I’ve always felt that the free jazz people never cared much for these things.

Chick’s Music Is Very Much Alive

Music is a crucial way in which we give voice to our emotions. For some of us, it’s the essential voice. Those who play music well empower our mental health.

So when Chick Corea, the peerless pianist of jazz, died last week at age 79 it felt like a breaking point for a music that has lost so many creators—and, as some think, lost its way. Then there was the pandemic and that unbelievable impeachment trial with its implications for a dreadful future. It seemed to me that the bottom was falling out of our culture.

Well, one alternative to the gloom was to sit down and listen to Chick’s music. Over the years I’ve collected a lot of it and continually marveled at the variety and depth of what he wrote and played.

The journey started for me in 1968 with one of his first trio albums, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes—all of it here plus outtakes).

I was writing a music column then and had never heard anything quite like it. Here’s part of what I wrote for The New Leader in March 1969:

Recently I have been listening to Chick Corea, a young jazz pianist of already wide experience who is now playing with the Miles Davis band. His earlier recordings never prepared me for what I heard on his latest, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State SS18039), which is easily one of the most beautiful and technically accomplished discs in the world of post-Bill Evans piano. Corea prefers a free-floating modal jazz, usually in bright tempos, with long and complex improvisatory lines.

That album made Chick’s reputation and changed the concept of trio jazz forever. He continued to explore all kinds of musical forms, making sense out of the nascent jazz-rock movement with his group Return to Forever (1975) and his many subsequent groups (the Chick Corea Elektric Band, the Akoustic Band and more). His progress into classical, Latin and Spanish music is traced in the Rolling Stone obit here.

In 2012 Bobby McFerrin and Chick gave a bright new twist to the latter’s most famous composition, “Spain”:

Chick never stopped exploring music. But, as the Guardian’s John Fordham notes, he always seemed to come back to a more traditional trio jazz, and that’s how I best remember him. One of his later albums, Trilogy (2013, with Christian McBride and Brian Blade) is a favorite of mine.

Here’s a 2007 trio with John Patitucci and Antonio Sanchez which shows the depth and expansiveness of Chick’s love of jazz. He had an absolutely unquenchable spirit.