ORNETTE COLEMAN The Shape Of Jazz To Come (Atlantic)
Originally released in 1960 during what was a frighteningly prolific period for the alto saxophonist, "The Shape Of Jazz To Come" is one of a clutch of recordings that established the concept of free jazz, music freed of the constrictions of melody and harmony, powered more by visceral emotion. During his early career Coleman was regularly discharged from carnival and rhythm and blues bands for 'playing something the leader didn't like', and session musicians frequently told him that he didn't understand harmony and was out of tune. Surrounded, finally, by a band that understood what he was driving at (including Don Cherry, father of Neneh, on cornet), "The Shape Of Jazz To Come" rather suggests that those who complained that he was out of tune weren't considering the bigger picture.
To get to the root of Ornette Coleman's philosophy about music, listen to the opening track of the six self-penned compositions here: all it takes is a quick spin around the gravity-defying, leapfrogging melodic ascent of the tangled sax and cornet lines on "Lonely Woman". There's a kind of greater logic at work here, something that can't neatly be pinned down in terms of traditional theory. The obvious parallel is with the music of Captain Beefheart, an artist whose own avant-blues has often been compared with that of Coleman's: try to listen to albums such as "Trout Mask Replica" in a conventional fashion and you're likely to become unglued and leave baffled, distressed even. Relax a little, and the gradual enormity of the melodic lines will gradually impress itself upon you: the key is to not look for the obvious short, sharp hooks and riffs from which most contemporary popular music is constructed, because they're not here.
Is this album as important as its titular pronouncement suggests? Ask a jazz buff. The only music I've heard that builds on Coleman's convention-trashing achievements is that of the aforementioned good Captain and some of Miles Davis' mid-60s work, such as "Nefertiti", when he was effectively playing awkward, jerky, electric jazz with an acoustic group - the dragging, distorted melody of that album's title track, in particular, seems to owe a great deal to "The Shape Of Jazz To Come". Nevertheless, if you're attempting to piece together a representative collection of jazz excellence, as a path to any one of a number of possible futures it earns its place.
ORNETTE COLEMAN Change Of The Century (Atlantic)
Never known to undersell his work through its titles, this 1960 release is parked between the albums “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” and “This Is Our Music” in the saxophonist’s discography. Similarly, Coleman’s crazy rhythms - “group improvisation”, he calls it - are neatly encapsulated by track titles such as “Ramblin’” and “Free”. Nevertheless, the album’s not quite as fearsomely difficult as the artist’s reputation might suggest, often restricting itself to relatively regular rhythms and comprehensible melodies.
“Ramblin’” is an almost bouncy, mischievous piece, propelled by the sonorous, elastic twang of Charlie Haden’s bass. “Free” is a tougher sell, jittery and fidgety, strafed with squeals from Coleman’s plastic saxophone and flumes of notes from Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet. As the title suggests, “The Face Of The Bass” is primarily a showcase for Haden’s virtuosity, playing his overgrown cello like a lead instrument. The four tracks on the album’s second side settle for a kind of happy rhythmic and melodic chaos that’s far less of a trial to listen to than that description might suggest.
The current vinyl edition of “Change Of The Century” is a Scorpio pressing, meaning that it’s lazily cut from an undisclosed source and features that company’s almost mandatory snatches of unpleasant, distracting distortion. Even so, I’ve heard worse from that concern, and even though this is an album that deserves to be treated better until some enterprising reissue firm does so this will have to do.
THE ORNETTE COLEMAN DOUBLE QUARTET Free Jazz (Atlantic)
Like Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica”, Ornette Coleman’s sixth long player, originally released in 1961, is one of those albums that demands a totally new way of hearing from its listeners. Far our even by Coleman’s distant standards, it would be too easy to dismiss the album as forty minutes of unbridled cacophony. Eight musicians, staged as a quartet on each channel (so presumably audiophiles with a balance control on their amplifiers and free time on their hands could separate the album into two entirely separate mono performances) lunge enthusiastically towards the unknown, yet there are moments when, as if by psychic communion, everything and everybody comes together in brief but ecstatic harmony. The octet is bursting with talent: besides regular Coleman collaborators Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, it includes Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard and Scott LaFaro, the later a sonic universe away from the gently lapping musicality of his work with Bill Evans. In fact, LaFaro and Haden engage in a long sequence of sonorous but sinister bass duelling that sounds like it was recorded in an octopus’ garden. The music is aptly illustrated by Jackson Pollock’s cover painting: both have clearly defined boundaries that they go crazy within.
The current vinyl pressing of “Free Jazz” is a Scorpio, and so is almost inevitably going to sound rough as old boots, which it certainly does. This music is never going to sound pretty, though, but it might be interesting to hear whether a release with audiophile pretensions can do anything to untangle these dense thickets of tightly interwoven sound.
ORNETTE COLEMAN Science Fiction (Columbia)
For about two seconds “Science Fiction”, originally released in 1972, sounds like the (a)typical usual Ornette Coleman music-as-chaos, familiar (if that’s the right word) from albums such as “The Shape Of Jazz To Come”. That’s the point at which Asha Puthali’s vocals begin to bind the joyful noise of opening track “What Reason Could I Give” into something marginally more structured. It would be pushing the definition to call it a tune, but as she soars and swoops above and around the disassembled ensemble it sounds like the melodic and lyrical constraints she imposes are hemming them in to constructive effect.
Left to their own devices elsewhere the band – varying from quartet to septet in the space of the album’s eight tracks - resort to their usual outright blare, which of course is not necessarily a bad thing. “Civilization Day” tightens up the rhythmic ratchet as Coleman on alto and Don Cherry’s trumpet cartwheel above Charlie Haden’s elastic bass lines, Billy Higgins’ percussive salvos holding the centre. Haden’s solo during “Street Woman” is chunky like Lego, and on the title track the band cede the spotlight to poet David Henderson’s stilted, treated recitation and a baby’s wail. On “Rock The Clock” an uncredited somebody seems to be playing some kind of wah wah guitar which, alongside Coleman’s skysawing violin, almost suggests a derangement of Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats”. Asha contributes again to “All My Life”, which, finding the album at its most relaxed, could almost be mistaken for the work of a wigged-out Cassandra Wilson, if it weren’t for the percussive tumult going on below – at least until the massed, braying horns turn up.
The currently available vinyl pressing of “Science Fiction” is a Scorpio, actually one of their better ones. That isn’t to suggest that anybody involved in its issue actually cared about the sonics of the end result, more that through dumb luck it’s somehow managed to escape the most egregious pitfalls of the breed, some noticeable pre-echo aside. It still generates thick, wodgy clumps of sound rather than a passable imitation of a group of musicians playing together in a room, but they’ve done worse.