Ornette Coleman: The Shape Of Jazz To Come

theshapeofjazztocomeThere’s always a risk when I set about reviewing a jazz or classical (or hip-hop or …) album that I’m going to find myself way out of my depth. I generally chalk it up to me just not being proficient enough in the vocabulary of those genres, but still, I can have some very strong reactions to artists in each of them. For example, I didn’t have any trouble finding things to say about the Miles Davis or John Coltrane CDs I reviewed some years back.

But this seminal album by Ornette Coleman has me (mostly) stumped. And, yes, I did add it to my listening queue shortly after his death, recognizing him as a gap in my knowledge. So I guess the saddest part of this for me is that I’m still not sure I appreciate this jazz legend.

While Coleman would release an album titled Free Jazz one year after this album, this is regarded as one of the beginnings, if not the beginning, of the free jazz musical movement. The shape of this jazz is, if you will, not too markedly different from the be-bop which preceded it. There are still composed heads that the band plays together with solos in between. It’s just that the solos are a little…freer. They feature more spastic-ness, by which I mean they’re less connected with themselves in the seconds before and after the present notes. There’s also more of a tendency to leave behind the harmony and rhythm of the rest of the band and jag out on your own.

To my 2015 ears (and heck, to my 1991 ears), it’s not revolutionary. However, I can imagine that if you were just getting accustomed to what Miles Davis was doing in the late 50’s, this would have really blown your mind by defying all the expectations you’d built up. I don’t have those expectations, which I think makes it less disorienting but also doesn’t play with my mind in the same way since it doesn’t have the same walls of expectations to bounce off of. Another reason I may have trouble finding earholds in the music is that the traditional quartet lineup has been modified: instead of a piano there’s a second horn (a cornet).

Highlights for me are “Lonely Woman” and “Congeniality,” where the crazy bits seem obviously crazy to me given my understanding of music. The key feature of “Lonely Woman” is that the two horns play the same melodic line but one is very slightly delayed, leading to a palpable sense of disorientation. First your ear wants them to come together, then you’re a little bit freaked out when they refuse to come together, and then you start to really enjoy the experience. “Congeniality” really foreshadows some of the more brazen aspects of free jazz with a sax solo that’s almost twelve-tone in its bold, angrily-blown notes.

Unfortunately, even after listening to this on the order of 15 times, I still have to consider Coleman a gap in my musical knowledge. But I’ve at least taken and passed, even if barely, Coleman 101.

Really Like: “Lonely Woman,” “Congeniality”
Like: “Eventually,” “Peace,” “Focus On Sanity,” “Chronology”
Song Notes: After the jump

  1. Lonely Woman – weird (but cool) how the horns are just apart from each other
  2. Eventually – more spastic. Head is great.
  3. Peace – I like the head. 9:00
  4. Focus On Sanity – starts with a two-minute bass solo and ends with a drum solo and it still ends up as Like. I love how in the middle the two horns are in drastically different keys and tempi and then come together as one. Focusing on sanity, indeed.
  5. Congeniality – slow/fast. Slow part is almost 12-tone. Sax solo is sweet.
  6. Chronology –

One thought on “Ornette Coleman: The Shape Of Jazz To Come

  1. Pingback: Motörhead – Bad Magic | fatclown

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