Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come
Original Recordings Group ORGM-1081
Ornette Coleman, alto sax
Don Cherry, cornet
Charlie Haden, bass
Billy Higgins, drums
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Review by Mark Werlin - August 11, 2015
True to the manifesto of its title, Ornette Coleman's 1959 recording "The Shape of Jazz to Come" proposed to liberate his fellow musicians from the ingrained habits that had dominated jazz since the mid-1940s. The Original Recordings Group SACD vividly conveys the impact of a revolutionary music that once divided the jazz world.
The Ornette Coleman Quartet’s November 1959 engagement at the Five Spot Café in New York City sparked an acrimonious controversy about “free jazz” and the validity of Coleman's musical language (which he would later call "harmolodics"). At that time, the Texas-born saxophonist/composer was a 29 year-old outsider in a highly insular scene. He'd spent most of the previous decade living in Los Angeles, California, where he survived by doing low-wage labor by day and playing in garage rehearsals and after-hours clubs by night. Many of the musicians who attended the Five Spot sets bristled with resentment: Coleman hadn’t paid his dues in established bands, and his technique clearly wasn’t as accomplished as the premier alto players of his generation, such as Jackie McLean, Cannonball Adderley and Eric Dolphy.
"Harmolodics" is a term that steadfastly resists definition. In practice, there is no fixed set of chord changes; each member of the quartet is free to solo in any direction the improvisation takes him. What prevented these early quartet sessions from falling into cacophony was close listening among the players, a steady beat from drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden's almost telepathically consonant accompaniment to the horn soloists.
In his own writings and in interviews, Ornette employed language that unsympathetic critics and musicians alike could only find mystifying:
"[Harmolodics is] the use of the physical and the mental of one's own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group." [from Prime Time for Harmolodics. Down Beat, July 1983, pp. 54-55]
The scholar Masahi Sasaki proposes an ingenious interpretation of what Coleman was actually doing, based on transcriptions from recordings and some biographical detective work: when Ornette switched from tenor to alto sax (which are in different concert keys), he experimented by playing the same fingerings on the alto that he'd used soloing on tenor—without transposing to match the change of the instrument's key. This led to a realization that the "feeling" of the melody didn't have to be restricted by the dictates of Western harmony. [see Masahi Sasaki, "Two Types of Modulation in Ornette Coleman’s Music"]
Charlie Haden, Coleman's bassist from 1959-1960, was raised in Springfield, Missouri, where he sang gospel and country music with his parents' family band. His presence in the Los Angeles underground jazz scene in 1957 was fortuitous for Coleman. Haden was steeped in American folk and gospel practice; he could hear intuitively the traditional roots of Coleman's new concept. Haden described Coleman's harmolodic practice in a 1972 Down Beat interview:
"Technically speaking, it was a constant modulation in the improvising that was taken from the direction of the composition, and from the direction inside the musician, and from listening to each other."
If Ornette’s abandonment of chord changes was a radical provocation against existing performance norms, his subtraction of the piano from the two-horn quintet was not unprecedented: Sonny Rollins' 1957 recordings for the Contemporary label, including audiophile favorite Sonny Rollins: Way Out West, and his trio performances at the Village Vanguard demonstrated that horn players did not have to be subservient to the piano. Ironically, while Ornette was advancing the necessity to free himself from the tyranny of chord structure, his chief supporter was the classically-trained pianist and composer John Lewis, leader of The Modern Jazz Quartet. It was Lewis’ influence that landed Coleman a contract with Atlantic Records. When the Quartet played that two-week residency at the Five Spot, the first opportunity for most of their peers to hear the new music, they had already recorded two albums for a major record label.
Six months earlier, on May 22, engineer Bones Howe, a former jazz drummer, captured the quartet in a set of Coleman’s originals at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles, California. The stereo masters, transferred by Bernie Grundman, allow the music recorded that day to communicate vividly across the decades. Trumpeter Don Cherry (playing a smaller-sized ‘pocket trumpet’), bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins had mastered the peculiarities of Coleman’s harmolodics. That is not to suggest that this music resembles the kind of “free blowing” that would be more widely heard in subsequent years. Coleman and Cherry’s playing is rooted in the blues, and Haden locks down a strong tonic center that shifts logically in response to the horns’ melodic figures. Hearing the music from a remove of more than 50 years, it is hard to understand what all the fuss was about; it’s undoubtedly jazz, skillfully played.
Coleman's most famous tune "Lonely Woman" opens with an ostinato figure on the bass that is suggestive of an Indian raga. Haden repeatedly plucks an open string during his melodic introduction, thereby establishing a tonal center. The horns play the main theme twice, then a short bridge, followed by a final restatement of the theme. The mood is implicitly minor key, even in the absence of a fixed chord sequence.
There have been a number of reissues of this album over the years, including recent 24-bit transfers from WEA Japan on RBCD and SHM-CD. Not having heard those editions, I can only report that this SACD gives every indication of a straight-to-DSD transfer with no compression or EQ added. On the nine-minute tune “Peace”, you can practically hear the rosin on Charlie Haden’s bowed bass solo passages. Ornette’s squawky plastic alto and Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet are stereo left and right, with subtle room or perhaps minimal use of plate reverb filling out the ambience. Fidelity to live instrument sound is comparable to Roy DuNann’s legendary engineering for the Contemporary Records label. This disc provides a very special audio experience and for that reason alone should not be overlooked amidst the recent spate of SACD jazz reissues.
How influential was Coleman’s 1959 music? Within a year of “The Shape of Jazz to Come”, Charles Mingus recorded one of his most experimental sessions, “Mingus Presents Mingus”, a piano-less quartet with drummer Dannie Richmond, Eric Dolphy, and Ted Curson on trumpet – the same configuration as the Coleman Quartet, and John Coltrane led “The Avant-Garde”, featuring Cherry, Haden, and Ed Blackwell, Ornette's longtime friend and early collaborator, on the drum throne. Eric Dolphy’s masterpiece “Out to Lunch” dispensed with piano as did a number of other Blue Note sessions of the mid-1960s.
Ornette Coleman’s breakthrough abandonment of chord structure and adoption of shifting tonal centers left a lasting influence in the development of free improvisational music. His early masterpiece, "The Shape of Jazz to Come", documents the evolution of a unique musical voice.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net