The other night I was listening to the Ornette Coleman album The Shape of Jazz to Come and decided that I really should write something about it on here. Released in 1959, this was Ornette Coleman’s third album but it was the first to issue a fully coherent statement of his musical intentions and it was from this work that his influence began to spread. The prophetic title proved to be extremely accurate; what remains astonishing is that such a radical album was recorded as long ago as 1959, in what I consider to be a Golden Age of musical innovation.
What Coleman did in this album was truly revolutionary. The fundamental change involved was a complete rejection of conventional harmonic progression, i.e. the sequences of chords which underpinned and connected earlier jazz improvisations with a repeating cycle that imposed not only its own order but also its own formal restrictions. By rejecting these, Coleman gave his music complete freedom of melodic movement. His intentions are signalled even by the choice of band members. Consisting Coleman on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, the quartet did not involve any chord-playing instruments at all. With the wider latitude allowed by this approach the melodic patterns are bolder and less predictable than in earlier forms of Jazz. The thematic phrases do not conform to the traditional 4 or 8-bar norms involved in traditional tunes. Freed of the necessity of catching up the next chord as it comes up in the accompaniment, improvisation can range further, crossing bar-lines at will. The resulting music was considered almost shocking in 1959, but although unconventional by the standards of the time, it can be heard to carry its own force and logic, respecting the fundamental laws of jazz improvisation while at the same time calling into question many of the assumptions on which these laws had been thought to rest.The rejection of harmonic dominance also altered other aspects of the music. Coleman’s melodic inventiveness was even enhanced by a (partial) rejection of equal-temperament tuning.
None of these changes was made just for the sake of it, and in many fundamental respects the music isn’t radical at all. The horns open and close each performance in fairly conventional style and they play clearly delineated solos. Billy Higgins keeps a steady beat going throughout, and Haden plays in between that beat and the trumpet and saxophone. But that disguises some important differences in responsibility, especially for the bass player, Charlie Haden. Instead of following a chord sequence and knowing roughly what his line would be throughout the piece, he has to listen to the soloist and improvise a line to fit. As always, increased freedom brings increased responsibility.
All four men are generous with their talents on this album, which is a feast of beauty and originality as well as skill and daring. It would be wrong to single out any particular track, which is why I’ve linked to the whole album, but I’d have to mention Peace, which is a lovely performance emerging from a statement of mood rather than a chord sequence; Don Cherry’s trumpet solo on that track is really remarkable. In an entirely different vein there’s Congeniality, which was the first in a long line of superbly swinging up-tempo numbers hitting a groove that Coleman was to make his own in subsequent years. There’s also Lonely Woman, which is the one tune on this album that became a Jazz standard.
An album of extraordinary genius that was (and probably still is) way ahead of its time, The Shape of Jazz to Come is a must-have album for any serious Jazz enthusiast.Follow @telescoper