Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!

This past week Jayne Cortez, who was Ornette Coleman's wife from 1954 to 1964, passed away. She was also a well-known poet and artist who had roots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, but spent her later years in New York, where she collaborated in spoken word and musical projects with her son by Coleman, Denardo, who has been a drummer for his father since he was just about ten years old.

It seems opportune, then, to have Ornette's first album be highlighted in this post, both because it was his debut recording and because one of the pieces was named for his then-wife. While his New York debut in Fall 1959 just before his first album for Atlantic, The Shape of Jazz to Come, which has been featured here, is legendary for its revolutionary reaction, negative and positive, in the jazz world, the recording of this record on the small Contemporary label in Los Angeles in February and March 1958 proves to be an important precursor to the splash later made in the world's jazz capital.

Coleman had been pursuing his unique and utterly "out" vision of music for several years and in almost complete obscurity in Los Angeles.  He was regarded as highly eccentric for his long hair and beard and his clothing style in addition to his music, which many musicians thought was a joke or a reflection of someone incapable of playing jazz as it had become standardized in the bop world; that is, according to the chord changes that guided the genre.

Though gigs were highly infrequent and often regarded with blatant hostility, there were a few musicians who were keyed in with what this visionary was doing.  Chief among these was his main foil, trumpeter Don Cherry, as well as drummer Billy Higgins, though there was also bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, who would later join Coleman's group.

Bass player Red Mitchell, though certainly not an "outside" player, was impressed with Coleman's compositions and got him an appointment with Contemporary's chief, Lester Koenig, to demonstrate his songwriting, not his playing.  But, Coleman's works proved to be too difficult for others to play, so the alto sax player, who used a plastic instrument because he didn't have the money for a standard sax, but kept the instrument even when he could afford the other because he liked the sound, auditioned the pieces himself.
To Koenig's everlasting credit, he signed Coleman for two albums, with the second recording being Tomorrow is the Question.  Koenig, who used excellent recording equipment for the era, had such names on his label as drummer Shelly Manne (whose LA jazz club, the Manne Hole, was a major venue for quite a period of time in the 60s and 70s), Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, the latter being as revolutionary as Coleman.
On the debut, there is a tension between Coleman's desire to break free of chordal restrictions, regulated time signatures and other conventions and his use of bassist Don Payne and pianist Walter Norris who, while playing well, were also performing in a bop style that clashed with the freer ideas of the other band members.  In fact, the piano was insisted upon by Koenig, who produced the album.  The instrument, which normally is so chordally oriented as to force other musicians to play the standard changes of the day, unless the pianist was Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor, was not featured on a Coleman recording again until his Sound Museum dual albums with the great Geri Allen.  There are some songs, like "Chippie" and "The Disguise" where identifiable signatures are definitely present and indicative of the transitional nature of the album.
Still, this is an excellent record, with tunes like "The Blessing" and the aforementioned "Jayne," revealing a fresh approach to the blues underpinnings of jazz that combined Coleman's Texas roots and long professional experience in blues and R & B settings in gigs played throughout the South in the later 1940s with his radical ideas that developed after coming to Los Angeles in the early 1950s.  One track is titled "When Will the Blues Leave?" and it is a tongue-in-cheek one, presumably, because they never have! 
Accounting for the conventional, but solid playing of Payne and Norris, with the pianist wisely keeping himself in a low profile, the telepathic melodic and harmonic interplay between Coleman and Cherry, which matured and blossomed over the next few years, was well advanced and Higgins proved to be an ideal drummer, who could discard standard time, but still provide the swing that makes this album work so well.
To this untrained and unschooled listener, Coleman's melodic bent has always created a feeling of playful inventiveness, rather than the powerful intensity of John Coltrane, who was a great admirer of the altoist.  In fact, when Coltrane recorded an Atlantic album with Coleman's sidemen (Cherry, Haden and Higgins) in 1960, it is notable that most of the tunes were from these early Contemporary Records, perhaps because they were not as free as what came later.
It would be a mistake to avoid these first two albums, thinking that the revolutionary nature of Ornette Coleman's music only began with his Atlantic recordings in late 1959.  To these ears, which were, indeed, first exposed to Coleman's music in 1990 with the album of Atlantic outtakes issued as The Art of the Improvsiers, starting with Something Else!!! and Tomorrow is the Question!! and then moving to the Atlantic albums is a great way to see the work-in-progress of Coleman's remarkable ideas. 
Let's hope that the 82-year old Coleman still has many more years of music and life in him--he is truly a living master of American music.
The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!
1.  Invisible  4:11
2.  The Blessing  4:45
3.  Jayne  7:17
4.  Chippie  5:37
5.  The Disguise  2:46
6.  Angel Voice  4:19
7.  Alpha  4:09
8.  When Will the Blues Leave?  4:58
9.  The Sphinx  4:13

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