There is no universally accepted definition of free jazz, and any proposed definition is complicated by many musicians in other styles drawing on free jazz, or free jazz sometimes blending with other genres. Many musicians also tend to reject efforts at classification, regarding them as useless or unduly limiting.
Free jazz uses jazz idioms, and like jazz it places an aesthetic premium on expressing the "voice" or "sound" of the musician, as opposed to the classical tradition in which the performer is seen more as expressing the thoughts of the composer. Many free jazz musicians, notably Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane, use harsh overblowing techniques or otherwise elicit unconventional sounds from their instruments. Earlier jazz styles typically were built on a framework of song forms, such as the twelve-bar blues or the 32-bar AABA popular song form, with a set framework of chord changes. In free jazz, the dependence on a fixed and pre-established form is eliminated, and the role of improvisation is correspondingly increased. As guitarist Marc Ribot has remarked, free jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, "although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition."
Typically this kind of music is played by small groups of musicians, but some has more. For example, John Coltrane's 1965 album Ascension, uses eleven musicians. Many critics, particularly at the music's inception, suspected that the abandonment of familiar elements of jazz pointed to a lack of technique on the part of the musicians. Today such views are more marginal, and the music has built up a tradition and a body of accompanying critical writing. It remains less commercially popular than most other forms of jazz.
Other forms of jazz use clear regular meters and strongly-pulsed rhythms, usually in 4/4 or (less often) 3/4. Free jazz normally retains a general pulsation and often swings but without regular meter, and often with frequent accelerando and ritardando, giving an impression of the rhythm moving in waves. Despite all of this, it is still very often possible to tap one's foot to a free jazz performance; meter is more freely variable but has not disappeared entirely.
Non-free jazz forms used harmonic structures (usually cycles of diatonic chords). Improvisers played solos using notes based on the notes in the chords. Free jazz almost by definition dispenses with such structures, but also by definition (it is, after all, "jazz" as much as it is "free") it retains much of the language of earlier jazz playing. It is therefore very common to hear diatonic, altered dominant and blues phrases in this music.
This breakdown of form and rhythmic structure may be due to the free jazz musicians’ use of elements from non-Western music, especially African, Arabic, and Indian. The atonality of free jazz is often credited by historians and jazz performers to a return to non-tonal music of the nineteenth century, including field hollers, street cries, and jubilees (part of the “return to the roots” element of free jazz). This suggests that perhaps the movement away from tonality was not a conscious effort to devise a formal atonal system, but rather a reflection of the concepts surrounding free jazz. Eventually, jazz became totally “free” by removing all dependence on chord progressions and instead using polytempic and polyrhythmic structures.
Finally, some forms use composed melodies as the basis for group performance and improvisation. Free jazz practitioners sometimes use such material, and sometimes do not. In some music which is called "free jazz", other compositional structures are employed, some of them very detailed and complex; the music of Anthony Braxton furnishes many examples. It would perhaps be best to call this modern or avant-garde jazz, reserving the term "free jazz" for music with few or no pre-composed elements.
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