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Five Minutes That Will Make You Love Avant-Garde Jazz

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Vocalists are woefully underrated in the “avant-garde” or “free jazz” idiom, which tends to favor instrumental shredders in a not-so-subtly patriarchal way. The extremely powerful voice and artistry of Abbey Lincoln is ultra-marginalized, seldom mentioned unless in tandem with Max Roach per their romantic entanglement. Lincoln, who passed in 2010, is to me the definition of avant-garde, light years ahead of her time in her abstract, expressive and wordless vocalizations on the seminal civil rights-era suite “We Insist! Freedom Now” (1964), with Roach, Coleman Hawkins and Olatunji, among other proto-free jazz instrumentalists.

What I love about Lincoln is that she is not afraid to get dirty and ugly, to make the listener uncomfortable in a visceral way. She utilizes what is academically referred to as “extended technique” in her growls, screams and harsh vocalizations, a term I detest for its normative Eurocentric bias. Rather than “extending” the vocal instrument, I see Lincoln as mining its absolute essential and maximal emotional range, something only approximated in mimicry by horns and other instruments. She is especially potent and effective on “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” in conversation with Roach’s drums, yelping, hollering and screaming in pain, in a real-time response to those turbulent years of American racial violence and struggle. Lincoln was no supper-club singer, uninterested in light entertainment, and more concerned with shaking an audience into consciousness. We could use Lincoln’s voice and message now, too.

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When we talk about the beginnings of free- and avant-garde jazz, we often go to Ornette Coleman and start there. It makes sense, given the courage it took to title his 1959 album “The Shape of Jazz To Come,” then pepper it with challenging structures that were tough to wrangle. For me, though, I’ve always looked to Cecil Taylor as the foremost purveyor of the avant-garde, his rolling piano chords tucked between tidal waves of unrelenting drums and saxophone. Perhaps no song typifies this better than “Steps,” the opening song of his 1966 album, “Unit Structures.” I’ve always loved how precarious it feels, organized and chaotic at the same time. A complex tune with bright colors and vigorous sonic arrangements, “Steps” also confronts my sensibilities, making me a bit uneasy. But that’s why I appreciate it the most. It’s a reminder that jazz can soothe and agitate, that just because something is easy and relaxed doesn’t mean it’s better.

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Growing up as a preacher’s kid in Memphis, my world was filled with cognitive dissonance. In home-school, my father taught me the basics of music theory and songwriting. During this time I was solely allowed to study two genres: gospel and classical. Even though this felt like a daunting disadvantage, I now see how that rigid upbringing served as the foundation for my music career today.

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m sitting in my bedroom in Dallas. At the time, I was only experimenting with writing my own songs. I wanted to make music that was audiovisual and edifying to the soul. My art would be healing and palpable. In my search, I stumbled upon Pharoah Sanders’s “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” From the first second, I was captured by the roaring trumpet. Very different from my classical background; you could feel the musicians breathing together and freely channeling the “holy ghost,” as they say. Suddenly, the song transitions into a trancelike chant but no words are uttered. The melody is repetitive, like the prayer services I grew up in. Then a subtle solo vocalization splits the sea of sound, with “The Creator has a working plan …”

Warm tears rolled down my face, and I knew my search was over. This was the blueprint, and Pharoah was my guru. I knew from that moment on, my music would have to flow from the same channel and carry his message. I’m eternally grateful to Pharoah Sanders for my personal paradigm shift and pray everyone gets to experience that level of bliss.

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