Change of the Century

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.


3 Responses to “Change of the Century”

  1. mike barrie Says:

    Thank you! I downloaded Change of the Century and am now listening to it with considerable enjoyment as the temperature outside the boat has risen from -10 at 06.00 to -4 now (10.45). The sun is shining on Bugsworth Basin and the music is just right.
    Rather more to my taste than the Fado. Since coming to live on the narrowboat, I’ve transferred my music to a Brennan JB7. The size is just right for the boat and the sound is pretty good, though more for instruments than voices. Their advertising is quite right: you rediscover music you forgot you had. Not much modern jazz, really only a little Miles Davis – and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. So further tutorials will be very welcome.
    For my own blog I’ve been looking back over my musical year. Nigel Kennedy’s Shhh! with his Polish jazz band is high on the list, as is Thomas Adès’s Tempest. But rather surprisingly, my two favourite albums of the year have both been English folk: The Northern Road by Jack McNeill and Charlie Heys; and Gift by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson. Eliza’s (non air-brushed) singing on this is beautiful.

    • What is the problem with the JB7 with voices? I’ve been thinking about buying one since I saw the first ad in MOJO. However, the largest disk is 320 GB. With a 1-TB disk, I could put all the CDs I have (or ever will have) on it with no compression at all. The current situation means having to convert to MP3. Not being familiar with MP3, I don’t know what, if any, bit rate is indistinguishable (to me) for all types of music. Apparently, one can hook up an external disk, but in this case all the features aren’t available.

      The Gift is on my list of things to hear. I saw Eliza Carthy (and both her parents) a few times while I was working in England and also at the annual Cropredy festival. Definitely worth checking out.

  2. […] Coleman and Don Cherry during the late 50s and early 60s, including The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, both of which I’ve blogged about already. I thought I’d pay a little tribute to […]

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