It’s cold and rainy outside so I thought I’d indulge myself by posting a bit of music. When I was in Oxford last week I was treated to a glass or two of wine after my seminar and during the conversation I was mildy castigated by Pedro Ferreira for not posting enough “modern jazz”, and especially not enough Ornette Coleman. I explained that I always feel like I’m cheating when I just put up a bit of music without actually writing something about it at the same time, and I especially feel that way about pieces that some people might find a bit challenging.
Anyway, I went through my collection just now and found the pioneering album Change of the Century which is well represented on Youtube (and not cursed by the copyright mafia), so here we go…
Coleman’s music must have sounded strange and dissonant for listeners in the late 1950s but it was soon assimilated and became part of the language of jazz from the 1960s onwards. This album dates from 1959, right at the start of his acceptance as a major artist. This album is actually also one of his most listenable LPs and contains a number of tunes which are catchy and even singable. There are obvious overtones of Charlie Parker throughout, but Ornette is already introducing some novel features, especially the use of suspended rhythmic figures which Miles Davis was to call the “stopping and swinging” approach to improvisation.
The album also features Don Cherry on trumpet, Billy Higgins on drums and the superb Charlie Haden on bass so it’s by no means a solo vehicle for Ornette Coleman’s alto saxophone. Indeed, some of the most exciting moments in the album belong to the intricate alto-trumpet unison passages, which are so complicated but played with unbelievable accuracy by the musicians. The following track, simply called Free, provides good examples.
Ornette Coleman’s playing, though, is truly remarkable: agile, constantly moving and full of nervous energy, but also bursting away from the constraints of the bar lines and sometimes taking ideas over the boundary between one chorus and the next. In this respect he was fortunate to have Haden and Higgins playing behind him because they seem to be able to sense the direction of these spontaneous departures, giving the music a close-knit unity which sets it apart from so many other groups recorded at the same time.
If you’re interested in modern jazz you really should get this album. It’s consistently brilliant. As a taster, here’s the track called Free, which is my favourite.
Don Cherry and Billy Higgins are sadly no longer with us, but Ornette Coleman is still going strong. I hope to post some reflections on his later work in due course.