Ornette Coleman: The Shape Of Jazz To Come
May 22, 1959: Atlantic LP 1317
Lonely Woman (4:59)
Focus On Sanity (6:50)
Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone
Don Cherry: cornet
Charlie Haden: bass
Billy Higgins: drums
In honour of the passing of my beloved saxophone teacher Ornette Coleman 698 days ago, I am revisiting his album The Shape of Jazz To Come, the recording that vaulted his reputation into the stratosphere (hell… maybe all the way out into the exosphere!!), both positively and negatively, depending on how attached one is to the ways and means of jazz tradition before 1959.
This recording would stand out as a classic free jazz album alone, if it were not already the most famous free jazz recording in history. It is also one of the four most famous jazz albums in history, three of which all came out in 1959 (The Shape of Jazz To Come, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out!); Coleman’s being extremely different from the rest.
Though recorded music with elements of freedom was made earlier by Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano, Jimmy Guiffre, and Ornette Coleman himself, The Shape of Jazz to Come could be called the definitive opening chapter in the contemplation, discussion and creation of free jazz as a genre. Adding to its notoriety was Coleman’s six month long engagement at the Five Spot Café in New York the year of the album’s release that added controversy and focused attention to Ornette’s work, both live and recorded. Most importantly, it was Coleman’s thematic/non-harmonically defined compositions that seemed to inspire the most praise or vitriol.
Compositions such as Lonely Woman, Congeniality, the frenetic Eventually and indeed the overwhelming majority of Coleman’s works since then, have no clearly defined harmonic framework, save what harmony one can create out of the melody, or what harmonic inclinations one imagines the melody to contain, based on musical/philosophical system of describing the music created by Coleman himself known as the Harmolodic Theory. But at this point in his career, Coleman’s discussions of his music were focused on the relationship between theme and emotional content. The liner notes to the original album are filled with descriptions of Ornette’s feelings, ideas about love, and high praise from composer Gunther Schuller, bassist Percy Heath, and pianist John Lewis. Most notably however, the album generated highly polarized reactions; one seemingly reacted with either wild enthusiasm at this new, unpredicted music, or one vehemently (almost violently) opposed this ‘assault on musical order and good taste.’ This seems odd upon listening to the album itself many decades later after Coleman’s innovations have become both influential and historically contextual. The album itself contains much more melodic and rhythmic order than one would assume from reading its criticisms alone. The compositions themselves are “through composed” but quite logical in their construction, with each section containing a diatonic logic unto itself, however momentary. And the soloing by all musicians is quite lyrical for music containing large amounts of bi- or pan-tonality.
The real star of this recording though is the ebullient Chronology, a staple in the set list of any/all serious jazz musicians. As Cherry and Coleman lay the melody out like a tapestry, Haden bounces and bubbles underneath, and Higgins’ hi-hat rhythm sounds like bacon sizzling in a nearby kitchen: the perfect scenario within which to leap into improvisation.
It is not only a joy to listen to but extremely fun to play as well. As a saxophonist it is a golden opportunity to bounce and swing while improvising your own chord changes to solo over. And as a drummer it is a really, really fun song to play: straight ahead, (slightly) up tempo swing with lots of space to accent and syncopate the beat in a rhythmic conversation with the other musicians, especially in the solo section. With a wonderfully careening melody and open format for soloing, it is both an easy and difficult song to perform: easy to learn the melody and rhythmic feel, but extraordinarily difficult to solo over.
This is because having no chord changes leaves the responsibility for any and all musical logic and intelligence in the soloing is 100% on the shoulders of the improviser and bassist. If anything excellent is to happen during the solo, it is exclusively the improviser’s responsibility to deliver it, ergo there is nothing/no one to blame for failing to deliver interesting music. In “regular” jazz one has a roadmap of chords and colours that provides a kind of self contained, pre-fab excellence… thus it is “safe” to play the music of Duke Ellington and hide behind/within its brilliance. But in the empty space of soloing in a Coleman song, the only logic is one’s own… you can wear Duke’s suit or learn how to make your own clothes on the spot in Ornette’s music (and there are a whole lotta “emperors” who think they are wearing clothes when they play Chronology). It is one of the nice things about Coleman’s music: it winnows out the fakers… really fast… and those who are left making music are a delight to listen to, a.k.a. musicians such as the ones Coleman hired to realize his musical vision.
But lest I get too negative, Ornette was not a negative man. He took anything and everything in stride, having been called both a genius and a musical charlatan (almost daily!) for decades. Thus was his profound effect on those supremely lucky enough to meet him. Any ordinary man would buckle under the weight of his legacy, but Ornette was a beam of light, no matter what.
He was a kind genius, and The Shape of Jazz To Come was the first of many love letters he wrote to the world… and becoming the best we can be as poets, musicians, and so on is the best way of writing love letters back.