Discussion #3: Free Jazz – Modal and Fusion Sharing DNA?

Watch both the Coltrane video of Impressions and the Miles video of a live fusion jam (from 3:00 mark to the end), both found in the web links module. Using your knowledge of the Free Jazz Style Characteristics comment and discuss how both bands are approaching the use of melody, harmony, form, rhythm, and timbre. Highlight any comparisons. Site specific moments in each song to support your ideas, referencing either solos or, more importantly, timings (ei. at 2:30 the sax did x,y and z).

example 1 :Free jazz is a distinctive musical style that emerged during the 1950s as a crucial approach to jazz improvisation. In the 1960s, free jazz reached its peak and it continued to be a prominent form of jazz until today. John Coltrane’s “Impressions” is a typical free jazz piece, which incorporates the style characteristic into its performance. Coltrane began to explore the capability of other instruments in addition to the common instruments in jazz such as pianos, saxophone, and etc.. For example, there is a piece of impressive solo performed by the double bass that starts from the beginning of the song till 9:35 when other instruments join the song. There are apparently features of the free jazz shown in this solo. The musician just improvises at will without playing at a fixed tempo, messing up with the form of the song. The speed of the song is quite slow at the beginning. At 3:30, he uses the fiddlestick to play the double bass, and the tempo of the song started to slowly speed up. At 6:11, he abandons the fiddlestick and only uses his hands to play the double bass. During the solo, there is no certain melody or rhythm in it because he is loosely expressing what he feels during the performance. The melody basically utilizes the chromatic scale. At 9:34, the double bass’s solo comes to a climax with a fast tempo. The saxophone, piano, and drums play altogether at this time to accompany the double bass. At 10:01, the saxophone stops, and the piano becomes the main instrument to solo. In terms of harmony and form, the song does not follow the traditional chord structure or has a specific form while it improvises freely and explores the dissonance as we hear the contrasting sound of the instruments. Likewise, it improvises without a particular rhythm and has a very fast tempo. At 12:08, the saxophone picks up the solo which is both vertical and horizontal. Timbre can be heard at 15:00 as very low notes are played. Although the three solos do not have a chord structure, they do use mode and scale to make the song more melodic. The saxophone player sometimes jumped out of the modes and then back again to create a sense of tension and release. The beat the drummer provides in the background is flexible so that it can allow them to change tempos.

Miles Davis also produces a compelling jazz piece “Fusion Jams” by using melody, harmony, form, rhythm, and timbre but has a brand new feeling that is different from “Impressions”. Beginning at 3:00, we can first hear a short piece of solo performed by the piano sets the tone of the song. Then, the saxophone joins in and begins its solo at 3:19. Comparing to the solos in Coltrane’s “Impressions”, this piece of solo has a much slower tempo. The saxophone player seems to be trying to stretch each note as long as possible which creates a fluent flow. At 4:36, the trumpet begins its solo as it screeches highly and sets the timbre of the song. The improvisation varies from the different players because we can notice that the style of the saxophone solo is very different from that of the trumpet. The trumpet player plays shortly and would stop for seconds as he plays while the saxophone would play for a long time with almost no stops. At this time, the drummer and the pianist would keep playing and fill the breaks with their own improvisations. The tempo is faster in the trumpet solo as well. It is hard to find out the forms or rhythmic structures in the solo because the solo is fluid with its accompaniment instruments. At 8:10, the saxophone returns to solo again which is more melodic this time. The form is shown more and thus creates a jazzier feeling. The tempo of the solo would change from slow to fast, and then fast to slow as the player improvises. Overall, both “Impressions” and “Fusion Jam” have a “scatter time” for the drummers so that they can change the beat and react to any improvisations in the song. Both songs are modal in nature. Part of the songs is free from the traditional harmonic structure and the confines of form. “Impressions” would sound more compact, whereas “Fusion Jam” would have a wandering feel.

example 2: With the inception of free and modal jazz in the 1960s, jazz pioneers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane used their foundation formed from previous jazz subgenres in order to create a brand new form of jazz that does not constrain the creativity and technicality of the artform and acts upon impulse in an instance of controlled chaos. With Miles Davis’s 1971 live performance in Paris, the first instance of a free jazz DNA element starts with the piano at 3:15. Instead of jumping around to different notes on a scale, the piano player stairsteps through the chromatic scale, meaning that it progresses by the semitone, which is a commonality within free and modal jazz. Next at both 4:02 and 4:40, Davis whines away on the trumpet, which is a perfect example of manipulating timbre, meaning that he is distorting the quality and character of the sound. From 5:00 onwards, the band engages in collective improv, almost like they are fighting for dominance. This results in a varied and textured rhythm. Within the collective improv, the harmonic and melodic instruments play a game of hot potato as they trade off with several instances of call and response. These instances are sprinkled throughout the piece, adding some unique musical texture to the form of the piece. After the collective improv cools down, Davis takes over as the melodic powerhouse at 7:00 with his solo. While he is the main star, he still carries over the chaos from the collective improv section and also continues to manipulate timbre through his trumpet whines. At 9:25, the saxophone player takes over from Davis and continues those free and modal jazz techniques. Lastly with the harmony at 5:00, the drums emerges as the motor that keeps the collective improv going through the rest of the piece. Switching to John Coltrane’s live performance of Impressions, the bassist also utilizes the chromatic scale starting at 0:32 throughout his almost 9 minute long solo. He also utilizes timbre as he strums up and down the bass, creating unique and dissonant sounds as two different octaves are played at once. With the solo, he is the pure melodic force until John Coltrane takes over at around 9:45, where he also utilizes the chromatic scale. After Coltrane drops out of the song, the collective improv that was also present in Davis’s piece comes in with the harmony and melody dishing out for dominance, again creating a varied rhythm. The main duel within the improv is between the piano and drums, especially at 11:06 when the piano quickly switches to small bursts in which the drums almost mirrors that spastic rhythm, creating an instance of call and response that creates a unique sense of form just like in Davis’s piece. These compositions by Miles Davis and John Coltrane perfectly utilize the Jazz DNA elements in order to create a new subgenre that promotes true creative and technical freedom.

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