Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch!
So it’s called Out to Lunch! You know — out, way out, outside the lines, off its rocker, not of any earthly pattern that we know of. Eric Dolphy’s landmark 1964 album didn’t just set the standard for avant garde jazz, it expanded the parameters and chipped away significantly at its boundaries. In essence, it divided jazz into two eras — that which came before Out to Lunch! and that which came after. You could certainly make the argument that Ornette Coleman had already made great strides into some truly bizarre jazz fuckery by this time, but if Dolphy was following anyone’s example — and it’s pretty difficult to say he was — it wasn’t necessary Coleman’s. Just listen to how weirdly intense “Hat and Beard” is — Richard Davis bows his bass like horror movie strings, Tony Williams kicks his bass drum like he has a grudge against it, Bobby Hutcherson smacks his vibes to the point that they sound bruised, and Dolphy himself does things with a bass clarinet that just plain don’t sound possible. This isn’t free jazz as we know it — there’s entirely too much swing for that to be the case. But it’s definitely unbound by rules or expectations. Genius makes its own rules. – JT
Jackie McLean – Destination Out!
Listening to “Love and Hate,” the first track on Jackie McLean’s 1964 album Destination Out!, you almost get the impression that it’s an ambient record. It’s so moody and hushed, weird in its own pleasantly tense way. A lot of that has to do with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson (one of a few recurring MVPs on this entire list), whose instrument lends the track a ghostly quality that pushes it outside the familiar realms of jazz and into some vaguely familiar, yet still far-off place. In other words: Out! Indeed, McLean & Co. take the listener outside of more comfortable and expected surroundings, so much so that this isn’t even really post-bop, more like post-punk-bop. But Destination Out! warms up as it goes on, right on up to closing track “Riff Raff,” a melodic, deeply grooving cap on an infectiously weird, and accessibly innovative jazz standout. – JT
Grachan Moncur III – Evolution
Look up any of the artists on this list on WhoSampled, and you’ll pretty much find that Blue Note has been a deep well for hip-hop sample flips. And the progressive tendencies of the original artists will almost certainly dictate the vibe of the artist that’s sampling them. For instance, Digable Planets plucked from Bobbi Humphrey on their funky, ’70s-leaning Blowout Comb. Madlib has cut and spliced Herbie Hancock into some of his work as alter ego Quasimoto. And the far weirder and more abstract sounds of trombonist Grachan Moncur III have been pulled apart and reconstructed by Shabazz Palaces on 2011′s Black Up. On Evolution, Moncur didn’t play jazz so much as any of us know it. It’s very rarely performed with blues progressions or in any kind of -bop style. It’s somewhere between ambient, free jazz, modern classical and a film score. It’s music with a dark and heavy sense of mood, but moves slowly and with grace. A lot of that can be attributed to the chilling vibraphone of Bobby Hutcherson, but some of that is just the compositions themselves, which creep and crawl, rather than strut. And sinister and alien as much of it sounds, it’s also uniformly captivating and quite gorgeous. In today’s vernacular, this is some next level shit. – JT
Andrew Hill – Point of Departure
The seven years Andrew Hill spent on Blue Note represent perhaps the seven most significant years of the innovative pianist’s career, beginning with his post-bop approach on 1964′s Black Fire, percussion heavy free-jazz on 1967′s Compulsion, and eventual experiments with choral sounds on 1970′s Lift Every Voice. But Point of Departure is where he hits the sweet spot, diving right into the sounds of the avant garde, still hewing toward a melodic approach, but one rife with experimentation and complexities. The personnel alone — Eric Dolphy, Tony Williams, Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson — would be enough to make this at least a noteworthy recording, but not only is each player on their game, they’ve got some incredible material to work with, thanks to Hill himself, who composed all five pieces. The 12-minute opener “Refuge” is the real show-stopper, navigating a channel between post-bop’s cool and free jazz weirdness, whereas “New Monastery”‘s instruments seemingly amble over each other in a slow foot race toward the finish line. It’s jazz with the elegance and refinement of modern classical, but with the unstoppable swing of blues, and an altogether intangible quality that sets it apart from even the strangest of jazz’s avant garde. – JT
Bobby Hutcherson – Dialogue
The complex counter-melodies and polyrhythms on Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue can be disorienting upon first listen. But repeat listens lead to appreciation for Hutcherson’s experimental take on the hard bop dynamic. The mesmerizing rhythms parallel the jazzy funk of Afro-beat, and Hutcherson’s vibraphone accents round off each composition with a mesmerizing shine. It’s not a stretch to site works like Dialogue as predecessors to later experimental acts like Sigur Rós or even Boredoms. The album’s ability to reference hard bop while breaking so many technical ‘rules’ of the genre leads to a blissful sort of chaos in particular moments, especially in tracks like “Les Noirs Marchant,” which features a variety of moody breakdowns and dissolves. As such, the energy and dynamic on this record are truly timeless and influential. – AK
Cecil Taylor – Unit Structures
Free jazz is tough on a first-timer. It can and often does sound like an endless string of random notes — a foreign text for which there is no Rosetta Stone. Only that’s not really true, not exactly. The “free” in free jazz does indeed denote free improvisation, and in some of the genre’s most out recordings (like Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun), attempting to follow what the musicians are doing is almost futile — maddening, even (in a good way, but yeah). So Cecil Taylor would surely have to be a wiseguy to be calling a free jazz album Unit Structures, right? Not exactly; Unit Structures is best looked at as half 20th Century classical music and half free jazz. When Taylor and his ensemble start to cook, they really go all out. But there are quieter, avant garde sounds at play, like on “Enter Evening,” or the sinister creep of “Tales (8 Wisps).” Unit Structures is neither contained within structures nor entirely free. It walks a thin, extremely volatile line. – JT