Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century

There is a generation of jazz musicians that we are rapidly losing and yesterday another giant passed on.  Bassist Charlie Haden, whose work with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett and his own Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West projects among many others put him at the forefront of so-called "avant garde" or "new jazz" playing, died at age 76 in Los Angeles after a long illness.

Haden, who came to Los Angeles to study music and met Coleman in the mid-1950s, first came to attention in the legendary Coleman quartet that made a splash at the Five Spot Café in New York in 1959 and in subsequent classic recordings for Atlantic Records.  The first, The Shape of Jazz to Come, has been featured here and is one of the great jazz records of all time.

The second album, recorded in Los Angeles in October 1959, is Change of the Century and its assertive, provocative title, as with its predecessor, is more than apt and delivers fully on its promise.  Coleman was hitting on all cylinders with his unusual composition and arranging method, as well as his emotive and innovative playing and his telepathic harmonizing with Don Cherry, on pocket trumpet, continues to astound.  Billy Higgins, an always-versatile drummer who could play as easily with the freest of players as well as the most traditional, is relentlessly swinging even as he adapts his playing to match the unusual structures established by the leader.

Then there's Haden, whose supple, flexible, creative and spot-on tone works in tandem with Higgins to keep those free rhythms with enough organization to allow the soloists to work without hindrance and provide the listener endless enjoyment—provided that the listener appreciates the yeoman work that a bassist provides.

This album is filled with great pieces, from the opening "Ramblin'" to the self-evidently titled "Free," the Higgins-showcase "Forerunner," which also has an excellent blistering Coleman solo and the sublime "Una Muy Bonita," which starts with Haden's low, simple but powerful underpinning riff and Coleman and Cherry's great melodic harmonizing to start a great piece of music.  "Bird Food" has a melody that is, of course, highly evocative of Charlie Parker, showing the importance of tradition expressed in new ways.  Cherry also gets an extended solo here.  Finally, "Change of the Century" features a head arrangement of great complexity and speed with that Coleman/Cherry interplay that may well have peaked on this album and its title track.  Coleman's solo work is also something to behold here.

Again, Haden's consistency, inventiveness and dependability in holding down the bottom is nothing short of remarkable on each of these tunes.  He does get to put his playing more in the forefront on "The Face of the Bass" but it is not one he uses to show off, but instead displays his technique in more subtle ways which make his understated playing all the more remarkable.  Sadly, as was too often the case in the jazz world, a heroin addiction led to Haden's departure from the Coleman quartet in August 1960.
But, as noted above, Haden went on to other impressive work, but his years with Coleman are likely the most memorable and it's hard to top the fabulous Change of the Century, which had the unusual distinction of being a sophomore release (well, in this case, a major-label followup--two albums on the Los Angeles-based Contemporary label predate the Atlantic albums) that was every bit as good as its forerunner.
30 years later, as part of the Los Angeles Festival, a reunion of the Coleman Quartet was scheduled at the beautiful old Orpheum Theatre in downtown.  The September 1990 performance, however, became a late-hour trio when Don Cherry came down sick after a dental appointment.  This listener, just starting to become exposed to jazz in a big way, happened to have great orchestra-level seats near the center of the former movie palace and listened with enthusiastic amateur wonder as Coleman, Higgins and Haden performed two hours of magical music.
It was an unforgettable experience and, pondering the death of Charlie Haden, it is one that came immediately to mind when the news was read.  Long may his music be heard and appreciated!

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