Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come

If John Coltrane's 1965 album A Love Supreme was the ultimate in spiritual expression in jazz, then The Shape of Jazz to Come, the 1959 recording from Ornette Coleman was perhaps the ultimate in establishing the freedom of expression that many other musicians and listeners followed, while others turned away in disdain and despair.

We're inured much more more than a half-century later to unorthodox sounds, but when Coleman, who initially played a plastic alto sax for financial reasons and found he loved the sound so much that he continued to use it, and his quartet (Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass and drummer Billy Higgins) first made waves in an engagement at the Five Spot club in New York, the reactions were visceral and largely polarized.

The Shape of Jazz to Come was boldly titled and played.  There was nothing like it before and Coleman's music became totally distinctive, both for those who loved and hated it, when the album was unleashed in October 1959.

While detractors made many claims (he couldn't play, was "jiving", etc.), the opening track clearly shows Coleman's true gift for melody and composition.  "Lonely Woman" is simply one of the most beautiful, haunting tracks in music and the harmony between Coleman and Cherry is remarkable as is Haden's incredible strumming on the bass.  In fact, on "Focus on Sanity," which seems an ironic remark, Haden's confident and and supple performance heralds a new way of playing an instrument generally relegated to rhythmic support.  And, Higgins provides the support for the freedom of the others while being able to demonstrate his own plastic sense of time and rhythm.  "Just for You" has another awfully pretty melody for someone that some critics thought was ruining jazz, while "Eventually" shows a supremely-tight (and, yet, loose) ensemble at a frenetic pace with colors and tones that were light years ahead of most (though not all) of what was being done at the time.

Actually, for this basically untutored listener, it seems like there is a lot of tradition in The Shape of Jazz to Come.  There is a pronounced bluesy feel (Coleman was from Fort Worth, Texas and had much exposure to blues and R & B playing his his earlier days) to much of the soloing and the ensemble playing does seem to hearken back (without just reproducing) the feeling of the New Orleans roots of the music. 

The signature "harmolodics" of Coleman's approach relative to jazz's origins and development just doesn't seem to be that much of a stretch (at least not to some of our jaded 21st-century ears), even if, as Cherry once said, what could start as a harmonic device would develop into a melody and vice-versa.  In a way, wasn't what Coleman was doing was taking elements of "the tradition" and establishing a new sense of freedom for the players, who, after all, weren't "jiving," but were genuinely engaging in the time-honored jazz fundamental basis of experimenting with improvisation?

It's probably best to quote Coleman here.  For example, his statement that "you can't intellectualize music" and that "pure emotion" in reaction to the sounds is what matters.  Or, "there is a law in what I'm playing," but, "when you get tired of it you can change it." Finally, the epitome of explaining what he was doing is reflected in his observation that there was Dixieland's ensemble playing, swing's riff-based soloing, and bop's progressive approach to melody and harmony.  Concluded Coleman, "now we are blending all three together to create and give more freedom to the player and more pleasure to the listener."

Freedom for the musician and pleasure for the listener--at least for this listener, The Shape of Jazz to Come is one of the best examples in all of jazz of the two in harmony--or harmolodically!

The Shape of Jazz to Come

1.  Lonely Woman
2.  Eventually
3.  Peace
4.  Focus on Sanity
5.  Congeniality
6.  Chronology

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