Archive for Ornette Coleman

The Shape of Jazz to Come

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on February 8, 2014 by telescoper

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.

Faces and Places

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on September 12, 2012 by telescoper

Listening to this track from Ornette Coleman on my iPod on the way home today reminded me that I haven’t posted anywhere enough by the great man, so I decided to post this as a soon as I got home. Faces and Places was recorded live at the Golden Circle club in Stockholm  in 1965, and is part of a famous album that was proclaimed “Record of the Year” the following summer in Downbeat magazine. By the mid-60s Ornette Coleman had already established his reputation as leading light of avant-garde saxophonists and, in his own way, was as great an influence on jazz as Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane had been earlier.

It features a trio of Coleman on alto sax, David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffit on bass. It goes like the clappers right from the start, with some terrific work on the drums by Moffit, skittering along on the cymbals with interludes of powerful rapid-fire accents on the skins. Fantastic stuff.

Change of the Century

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 4, 2010 by telescoper

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.


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European Echoes

Posted in Art, Jazz with tags , , , on July 8, 2010 by telescoper

This is  something I found recently and couldn’t resist sharing. This track from Ornette Coleman has only been on Youtube a month or so and I just found it last night, but I’ve got it on a vinyl LP I bought about 30 years ago. I think the music is completely wonderful on its own, but the idea of accompanying it with examples of the art of Joan Miro was a brilliant one!

European Echoes was recorded live at the Golden Circle club in Stockholm  in 1965, and is part of a famous album that was proclaimed “Record of the Year” the following summer in Downbeat magazine. By the mid-60s Ornette Coleman had already established his reputation as leading light of avant-garde saxophonists and, in his own way, was as great an influence on jazz as Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane had been earlier.

The track features a trio of Coleman on alto sax, David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffit on bass. It starts in a deceptively simple manner, with Ornette’s little two-note statements over a fast waltzy 3/4 foundation provided by Izenzon and Moffitt. It then eases into  a passage marked by freer improvisations by Ornette, the meter changing at the same time to 4/4. Ornette plays for more than half the track, after which Izenzon and Moffitt take over for all but the final minute, at which point Izenzon drops out and Moffitt plays an intricate percussion solo.

Although most people I know recognize the virtuosity of modern jazz musicians they don’t really like the music very much. I fell in love with this track as soon as I heard it, partly because it begins simply enough for a beginning saxophonist to play along with, but also because it’s highly original without being  at all self-indulgent. In fact, at one level, everything Ornette Coleman  does on this track is quite simple; he plays the saxophone here like he’d just invented the instrument.  In fact, at least in his early years, he didn’t have much of a technique at all in the conventional sense but nevertheless managed to produce amazingly fresh sounds. This a view echoed by the great Charles Mingus in quote I got from another blog about Ornette Coleman

Now aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole notes—tied whole notes, a couple of bars apiece—in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when [the jazz dj] Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.

I did learn to enjoy and admire Ornette Coleman’s more “difficult” music later on, but this was the track that convinced me that Ornette Coleman was a genius.  I hope to get the time over the summer to write a few more posts in appreciation of my favourite jazz artists, but for the time being I’ll just let this piece speak for itself…

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