Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!
Craft Recordings CR00395
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Review by Mark Werlin - January 7, 2023
The career path of Ornette Coleman took the saxophonist-composer along a hazardous route, from the violence-ridden venues of his hometown, Ft. Worth, the degradation of performing in an itinerant minstrel show, a brutal beating by angry patrons after a gig in Baton Rouge, and years of scorn, hostility and dismissal by fellow jazz musicians during his residence in Los Angeles. A musician who was technically capable of playing according the conventions of his time, but constitutionally incapable of restricting his imagination to those constraints, Coleman stubbornly persisted in developing a framework for playing the music in his head and heart.
“Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure” by historian Maria Golia, details the dire circumstances that led to Coleman’s departure from Texas, and the years of hardship at the economic and musical margins in Los Angeles during the mid-1950s. The candid interviews with Coleman recorded in 1965 by author A.B. Spellman that comprise one section of his book “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” (retitled “Four Jazz Lives” in its current edition) reveal the anger and bitterness that Coleman felt toward the institutions of the jazz business, record labels and nightclubs, after years of struggling to make a living wage.
Like Charles Mingus, Coleman sought to establish his own publishing company and record label, and like Mingus, he failed. Coleman opened a loft in a rundown New York City neighborhood to promote new, evolutionary music, only to be driven out by gentrification and rising property values. Coleman’s music was rooted in the blues and folk forms of his youth in the American Southwest, but his strongest support came from European audiences.
Before he became a figurehead for “free” jazz, Ornette Coleman had to find a way to get his music heard. “Something Else!!!!”, the first of two albums on Contemporary, captures the state of Coleman’s art in 1958, a year prior to his arrival and controversial debut in New York.
During his stay in Los Angeles, Coleman developed a creative partnership with a close friend and fellow Texas émigré, the drummer Ed Blackwell. The soft-spoken, long-haired, bearded, saxophonist had begun to acquire a reputation as much for his unusual demeanor as for his musical ability. In 1956, a rising young L.A. trumpet player named Don Cherry was introduced to Ornette by Coleman’s wife Jayne Cortez, a poet and theater director. Two years of rehearsals with Blackwell, Cherry, trumpet player Bobby Bradford, and a handful of other broad-minded musicians led to an audition for Lester Koenig, the owner of Contemporary Records.
Koenig agreed to record an album of Coleman’s original compositions, but hemmed in the session with accomplished professional players: Walter Norris, a pianist steeped in bebop, and bassist Don Payne, who later became a prominent studio musician. Ed Blackwell was working in New Orleans, earning a wage on the bandstand after years of privation, but he and Coleman had tutored a young local drummer, Billy Higgins, to accompany Coleman, though Higgins lacked Blackwell’s deep sympathetic resonance to Coleman’s music.
Over three sessions in February and March 1958, engineer Roy DuNann recorded nine Coleman originals, several of which achieved ‘standard’ status in subsequent years, notably “When Will the Blues Leave?” Though most of the tunes are in standard 32-bar form, the album is book-ended by pieces that are less conventional. The opening track, “Invisible”, follows 32-bar form, but the progression is elusive; a sequence of chromatic transitions that seems to lead away from, rather than towards, harmonic resolution. The closer, “The Sphinx”, starts with a conventional theme but unexpectedly shifts into a passage in half time that flows into an even slower bridge; reminiscent of the melancholic 1940s film music themes that Charles Mingus incorporated into his compositions on "East Coasting". The offbeat intro is repeated at the end, leaving the listener with a lingering sense of non-resolution.
The balance of the album consists of conventional bebop tunes, expertly supported by Norris and Payne, with enthusiastic Kenny Clark-style drumming by Billy Higgins. Most of the tunes are played at fast tempos, and with their tricky head melodies played in unison by Coleman and Cherry, followed by solos and ending with head restatements, they resemble and evoke the early bebop of Parker and Gillespie.
Don Cherry’s solos never stray far from convention, and listening to him here, it’s possible to imagine that he could have had a conventional jazz career like his contemporaries Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard instead of decamping to Europe and experimenting with non-Western music. But Coleman is already playing ‘outside’; his solos leap over the boundaries of the chord progressions, and though Norris and Payne stick to the letter of the charts, Coleman leaves the chords behind and plays what he feels.
John Litweiler ably describes Ornette’s solo style:
“His broken irregular phrasing suggests the contours of early Parker. In every solo, Coleman plays phrases that turn around the beat, or accents fall asymmetrically, or phrases are spaced so that they begin irregularly within bars.” (The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958, Da Capo 1984, p.35.)
As in many sessions Roy DuNann engineered for Contemporary, the players were grouped and recorded in separate channels on DuNann’s two-channel deck. Bernie Grundman’s transfer to DSD from the original master tape preserves that discrete L-R separation, with Coleman and Cherry hard left, and the rhythm section hard right. But this poses a problem: the extreme separation exaggerates the stylistic disconnect between Coleman and the piano and bass.
For purposes of writing this review, I ran the Craft Recordings 24/192 download version of “Something Else!!!!” through sample rate conversion software that has options to blend stereo sources into mono and remodulate hi-res PCM to high-rate DSD. While listening, I switched between the SACD and DSD128 files in mono.
In my opinion, the album sounds more coherent in mono, and one’s attention isn’t constantly shifting back and forth between the two separated instrument groupings. In mono, the album sounds more like the Charlie Parker recordings that Coleman sought to emulate—and to exorcise.
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