CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Chronology: How Gary Peacock Sparked the Avant-Garde

A look back at the bassist's contribution to jazz during its revolutionary years

Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock at the session for Tony Williams’ Life Time, 1964 (photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

Today, Gary Peacock is probably best known for his long association with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. He also has recorded many excellent albums as a leader. But when thinking about his contribution to jazz, it’s good to go back to the music’s revolutionary years. On key 1963-1965 albums from Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and Tony Williams, Peacock displays utter mastery in diverse avant-garde idioms.

Ornette Coleman showed Paul Bley the way to ditch rules and regulations. Bley called Ornette’s fast atonal utterances “erasure phrases.” One played something like Bird, then a blues lick in a different key, then an erasure phrase to move further into orbit. 

While Bley wasn’t going to be influenced by Bill Evans pianistically, the interactive trio style pioneered by Evans with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian was obviously worth developing. Bley’s previous bassists Charlie Haden and Steve Swallow were fabulous, but what about somebody to take LaFaro’s in-your-face virtuosity in an Ornette-ish direction? Eventually the rambunctious 1963 tape of Bley, Peacock, and Motian jamming together on standards would be purchased by Manfred Eicher for his new label, ECM. Bley was not always generous, but in this case he gave credit: The album was called Paul Bley with Gary Peacock

(Verve producer Creed Taylor didn’t like the way Peacock and Motian played on Bill Evans’ Trio 64, causing tension at the session. Evans biographer Peter Pettinger is similarly dismissive, calling the style of the LP “fragmentary.” I personally find Trio 64 to be Evans’ most exciting studio trio album.)

There were no standards or bebop in Albert Ayler’s mature concept. Rather, his original melodies seemed to be carved out of an old hymnal with a blunt instrument. This music was closer to the jarring marching bands in a Charles Ives symphony than anything in the jazz tradition. When Ayler improvised, great gusts of sound erupted from his preaching tenor saxophone. Traditionalists were horrified, but the smart set knew this was just what the era needed. Over the years, Ayler’s records have reached a wide audience and proved to be a major influence on noise-rock and punk.

In this molten context, the bassist needs to blanket the bottom with activity. Nobody did it better than Peacock, whose raw charisma and fiery temperament could almost match Ayler in songful intensity. The album they recorded in 1964 with roiling Sunny Murray for ESP, Spiritual Unity, has gone into the history books as one of the most important of all time. 

Up in Boston, Sam Rivers was interested in not just bebop and the blues but also Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He mentored Tony Williams, who later said the Boston Improvisational Ensemble, a group he played in with Rivers, were “doing things in the afternoons where they had cards and numbers and you’re playing to time, watches, and big clocks; playing behind poetry, all kinds of stuff.” After he moved to New York, Williams met Herbie Hancock, who had been figuring out how to apply Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition to jazz standards, and Wayne Shorter, who was consulting Vaughan Williams’ orchestral music and mastering Coltrane’s complex harmonic syntax. Right next door were Ron Carter, Richard Davis, and Bobby Hutcherson, all swinging professionals willing to use abstract gestures from modernist chamber music.

In 1964, at age 19, Williams made a wildly abstract leader debut for Blue Note with Rivers, Hancock, Hutcherson, Davis, Carter, and—of course—Peacock: Life Time. His LP from the following year, Spring, is even better, one of the finest examples of the European-influenced avant-garde style of that era. Rivers, Shorter, and Hancock all play at a high level, but Peacock may be the star of Spring, matching each idea suggested by the ensemble with spectacular counterpoint. The bassist has an extraordinary amount of responsibility in this sort of wonky free context, as he’s essentially the “composer” of the “song” at any given moment. Carter or Davis would have been great here too, but Peacock brings something else. I’ve never heard another Blue Note LP where the bass is this hot in the mix: Rudy Van Gelder was right to make Spring almost a concerto for Gary Peacock.

Further Listening

  • Gary’s former wife Annette Peacock is a great composer; the Paul Bley LP Mr. Joy (Limelight, 1968) with Gary and Billy Elgart is a stunning set featuring themes by Annette. Much later, Marilyn Crispell recorded a lovely album with Gary and Paul Motian, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock (ECM, 1997).
  • A tape of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Peacock, and Tony Williams at the Village Vanguard in the mid-’60s playing “Just in Time” is one of the most prized jazz bootlegs. 
  • One of Peacock’s most strikingly successful leader dates is the 1987 ECM studio session Guamba, a collection of memorable original compositions played to the hilt by Jan Garbarek, Palle Mikkelborg, and Peter Erskine.

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.