This statement is attributed to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and is part of Islam’s general disapproval of the concept of bid’ah, or innovation. The prohibition of innovation refers specifically to new theological ideas — Allah tells the Muslims in the Qur’an that he has perfected their religion for them (5:3), and that’s that.
But all the frowning on theological innovation has fostered a general cultural attitude against innovation of any kind — which is one reason why Islamic states are not generally leaders in technological development or scientific exploration. In the West, by contrast, we generally respect and reward innovation when it leads to new insights and greater efficiency — and are the beneficiaries of a musical tradition that has celebrated innovators from Bach to Beethoven to Louis Armstrong. And there are many others, drastically unsung, who deserve a hearing.
Musical innovation is a tricky thing; one man’s startling and fascinating new musical development is another man’s noise. That’s why musical innovators have implored their hearers to listen without prejudice long before George Michael appropriated the term. And of course what may not appeal to someone at first may get through at some other point; I vividly remember the day when I became so completely absorbed in Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which had never much mattered to me before that, and came down from the mountain dazed and dazzled, not interested in hearing any other music ever again, ever.
The exaltation wore off, of course, as it always does, but the respect for musical innovation, and the resolve to listen without prejudice, remained. And so here are five jazz innovators whose work is usually classified as “avant garde,” which for most people is a synonym for “unlistenable.” I beg to differ. Listen without prejudice.
1. Ornette Coleman, “Lonely Woman” and “Free Jazz”
It is perhaps an exaggerated sense of victimhood that would lead one to classify Ornette Coleman, now over 80 and laden with honors, as unsung and underappreciated, but even though it is now over fifty years since he was the butt of jokes on New York’s jazz scene (a blind man took his date to hear Ornette at his celebrated Five Spot gig; a waiter dropped a plate of dishes and the blind man said, “Listen, honey, Ornette’s playing our song”), he has never entirely lived down his reputation as an out-of-control musical anarchist.
Yet in reality, Ornette Coleman has a wonderful ear for melody, and the melodies just keep coming from him, even as he disregards conventional improvisational strictures. “Lonely Woman” – the beauty of it is indisputable, and listen for how Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry comment musically on each other’s solos in mid-flight. Then there is “Free Jazz,” the huge slab of free improvisation that set the jazz world on its ear when it appeared in 1961. Some have argued that it set in motion a revolution that ultimately killed jazz, leading some to take refuge in rock and roll (Miles Davis) and others to move so far beyond the bounds of conventional harmony as to lead some to question whether what they were producing was music at all (John Coltrane). Without commenting on whether “Free Jazz” was a dead end, I believe it was certainly a supernova, flaming out with a light more brilliant than what had come before.
2. Steve Lacy, “The Man I Love” and “Morning Joy”
In the early 1960s, the premier soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy dived into the “free jazz” movement of utterly free improvisation, unconstrained by chord structures or melody or anything else that had hitherto guided jazz improvisation. Ultimately he returned to more traditional forms of improvisation, but not without incorporating what he had found on his journey outside. His relation to Anthony Braxton (below), with whom he was friendly, was rather like that which Ezra Pound explained to T. S. Eliot: “You let me throw the bricks through the front window. You go in at the back door and take the swag.”
Braxton is the brick-thrower; Lacy the swag-taker. His playing is dry, querulous, extremely witty, and extraordinarily harmonically sophisticated. He used a soft reed at a time when saxophonists used the hardest possible reeds to show off their prowess and power, so that he could get the maximum range of expression out of the horn. And he did. Here he tackles a jazz standard, “The Man I Love,” with simultaneous sharpness and delicacy, and one of his own tunes, “Morning Joy.” The latter is a raucous, high-spirited dialogue, race, quarrel, embrace between Lacy and his longtime partner, fellow saxophonist Steve Potts. Raucous? Sure.
3. Anthony Braxton, “Brilliant Corners” and “Composition 40B”
“Brilliant Corners” is another Thelonious Monk composition that is so full of tricky time shifts and requirements for a virtuosity above and beyond the ordinary level of competence even of top professional musicians that Monk himself, recording with the world’s challenging tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was unable to complete a successful single take of the song. The master take is spliced together from two different run-throughs — a virtually unheard-of practice in jazz recording in those days.
Braxton, however, rips through it with gleeful aplomb, making short work of the tricky shifts and contributing a searching and imaginative solo. This recording gives just a hint of Braxton’s taste for angular, highly abstract music — a taste that is abundantly indulged in his own compositions. Here is a stellar example — not for the faint of heart, as they say, but that’s what adventure is all about: Anthony Braxton, Composition 40B.
This music isn’t for everyone. No music is. But even if you don’t dig it, its creators deserve the respect that all genuine innovators deserve. Coleman, Lacy and Braxton blazed new trails, a process that can and does lead to dead ends at least some of the time. But they also all made some glorious music, and if you listen without prejudice, you will not — contrary to Muhammad’s dictum — be led astray.
image courtesy shutterstock / fluke samed