This article is a basic introduction to these idioms, and explains the distinction between free jazz and free improvisation.
Free Jazz, also called “The New Thing,” “Avant-Jazz,” or “Nu-Jazz,” refers to a style of music in which some traditional elements of jazz, such as swing, chord changes, and formal structure, are often intentionally disregarded.
Saxophonist Ornette Coleman was one of the first musicians who played with this style, and his early recordings provide a helpful introduction. It was his 1961 album called Free Jazz (Atlantic Records) whose title was adapted to refer to the musical approach itself.
Before the term “free jazz” became the indicator for an entire musical process, Ornette Coleman stirred up the jazz world with his album “The Shape of Jazz To Come” (Atlantic 1959). The album, which is a member of this site’s list of “Ten Classic Jazz Recordings,” features improvisations that depart from the forms laid out in the melodies. On each track, the melody is merely a suggestion for improvisation, and the musicians don’t adhere to the harmonies, rhythmic underpinnings, or formal structure associated with it. Each player is limited only by his imagination.
On The Shape of Jazz to Come, swing is retained, giving the album a jazz character even though many other elements associated with jazz are stripped away. Both Coleman and cornetist Don Cherry affect vocal-like timbres, intentionally playing with less-than-precise pitch. Through this technique, they expand on the concept of individualism, a bedrock element of jazz. On Free Jazz, Coleman discards even unison melodies in favor of a long, free-form improvisation with no single tempo, harmonic framework or repeating form. In so doing, he departs even further from jazz, and more towards another musical development: Free improvisation.
Free improvisation differs from free jazz because it generally avoids any elements that are typically associated with jazz. Though many musicians working in this area play traditional jazz instruments, the idea is to create music without the standard sounds of music from any genre. Free improvisation allows even for the musicians to jettison conventional playing techniques, and sometimes even conventional instruments themselves.
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, one of the most notable pioneers and current practitioners of free improvisation, provides a helpful example of this music with his ground-breaking 1969 album For Alto (Delmark Records), on which Braxton improvises sans accompaniment on pieces such as “For Composer John Cage.” The album draws from the music of the American Experimentalist composers – of whom John Cage is perhaps the most well known – than it does from any jazz style. However, unlike Cage’s music, it is fully improvised, and therefore, like jazz, the integrity and individualism of the improvisation is the highest priority.
Many musicians from all kinds of backgrounds incorporate elements of free jazz and free improvisation into works that could be categorized as jazz, and this has become a common feature of many jazz performances. In fact, it is one of the things that makes it so much harder to classify styles, and draw genre distinctions these days. Musicians interested in these styles are concerned with constant discovery in music, and so they often try to avoid giving it any label at all. Though there are some “pure” examples of these idioms, like The Shape of Jazz To Come and For Alto, but it’s better to not worry too much about which category a piece of music falls into. Just do what musicians do: listen without making judgments about what is “jazz” and what isn’t.
Recommended reading: Anthony Braxton’s original liner notes for For Alto.