Although the term avant-garde refers to the leading edge of any endeavor, the techniques of making music in ways that are outside of the mainstream is nothing new in the world of music. The year 1912 witnessed revolutions in harmony, rhythm and form with works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Debussy. In jazz, the experimentation at Minton’s Playhouse from the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s by Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz and brought jazz not only into the modernist world but also into the realm as art music. In the jazz world so called avant garde and free jazz techniques have been around since at least the late 1950’s when Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden unleashed their "new thing" on New York City jazz aficionados at the Five Spot.
To this listener, avant-garde jazz is much like experiencing abstract art. An abstract artwork is perhaps less about line, perspective, or an easily recognizable portrait, landscape or seascape than the exploitation of the interaction of colors and inconsequential shapes and texture. Perhaps it is no accident that Ornette Coleman selected a sample of work of by abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack to serve as cover art for his 1960 album Free Jazz
. Like Pollack’s "pour, drip and splatter" approach emphasizing color and texture of paint on canvas, so does avant-garde jazz perhaps place more emphasis on the interaction of timbres and musical textures than on memorable melodies.
An initial listening to The Fred Hess Quartet The Long and Short of It
drew comparisons to Coleman’s late 1950’s early 1960’s work. Perhaps it was merely the clean sound of a piano-less quartet (although Hess plays tenor exclusively on this recording and Coleman primarily played alto). Hess’ melodic invention and the quartet’s musical vision that also brought to mind the music of Coleman’s quartets. Something else present in Hess’ music is a sense of tongue and cheek fun. The best examples of Hess’s humor are the title cut on The Long and Short of It
, the composition "Gear Tips" and the surrealistic programmatic work "The Clef’s Go to the Big City." "The Long and Short of It" is entitled as such because it ". . . contains various articulation values, some long, some short, . . . ." "Gear Tips" has drummer Matt Wilson performing on power drill rather than his usual drum set, and the surrealistic programmatic work, "The Clef’s Go to the Big City," is replete with the group creating the verbal atmosphere of a coffee shop where the protagonists of this bizarre story go to discuss their most recent adventure. For all the brass players in the audience, during his solo on the composition "Skippin’ In," trumpet player Ron Miles quotes from a familiar piece for brass quintet by Wilke Renwick.
An overall highlight of The Long and Short of It
is that Hess’ compositions hold the listener’s attention. This perhaps occurs for no other reason than that many of the compositions unfold like a patchwork and keep the listener on edge wondering where the music is going next. The other delight to this listener was that among all the inventive and free collective improvisation, the quartet still injects reminders from time to time that they know how to swing. The Long and Short of It
will not be to every jazz listener’s tastes. For those listeners with an "open mind and ear" and who delight in whimsy, The Long and Short of It
is highly recommended as a fun addition to one’s CD collection.