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June 11th 2015 was one of those momentous days in jazz history that can truly be said to signal the end of an erait was the day Ornette Coleman died. It is a mark of his stature that, on the day in question, when jazz fans told each other, "Ornette is dead" no-one ever asked, "Ornette who?" As with Elvis or Miles, one name was sufficient. There have been other Colemans, but there was only ever one Ornette...
During his lifetime, a piece like this about Ornette never seemed appropriate. Throughout his long recording career (well over fifty years, from 1957), he sprang surprises right to the very end, so it would have been presumptuous to try and sum it up. But now he is no longer with us, it would not be fitting to omit him from Building a Jazz Library. Anyone seeking to build a decent jazz collection cannot afford to ignore Ornette or to neglect the huge influence he had on jazz. The unmistakable sound and style of his alto saxophone playing remained remarkably constant over his career, but his influence extended far beyond that.
He never aspired to lead a revolution but, from the late fifties onward, Ornette introduced innovations that had dramatic and far-reaching effects on jazz, freeing it from the rules of rhythm and harmony"time & changes"that had prevailed for decades. Although there are recordings of Ornette performing Irving Berlin's "How Deep is the Ocean" and Gershwin's "Embraceable You" (the latter, ironically, on the Atlantic album This Is Our Music!) he also freed jazz from its reliance on the American songbook, that canon which even icons such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins frequently fell back on.
Introducing such dramatic change was not without its cost. Along the way, as has happened to so many other revolutionaries and iconoclasts, Ornette was frequently on the receiving end of unjustified criticism, mockery and even physical abuse from some music critics, fans and fellow musicians who were reluctant to change. But, despite financial and critical lean periods during his career, Ornette ultimately gained the recognition he was due, receiving countless honours and awards including election to the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame by readers in 1969, receiving the keys to his birthplace, Fort Worth, in 1983, a MacArthur Fellowship (genius grant) in 1994, the Pulitzer Prize for music and a Grammy lifetime achievement award, both in 2007.
Despite featuring on some ninety albums during his long recording career, many of Ornette's best, most influential recordings came early on, notably the nine albums of material he recorded with various groupings for Atlantic between May 22nd 1959 and March 27th 1961an awe-inspiring feat! Although only three of those Atlantic albums are included in the list below, the six-disc set Beauty is a Rare Thing (Rhino, 1993), which compiled all of the Atlantic recordings chronologically, is unreservedly recommended in its own right as the best introduction to Ornette. Alongside Ornette, the members of his quartets played important roles in those Atlantic recordings, notably trumpeters Don Cherry (1936-1995) and Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008), bassists Charlie Haden (1937-2014) and Scott LaFaro (1936-1961), drummers Billy Higgins (1936-2001) and Ed Blackwell (1929-1992), plus fellow reedsman Eric Dolphy (1928-1964). Yes, as the dates emphasise, June 11th 2015 was the end of an era.
The list below is intended to give an overview of Ornette's recorded output by highlighting key recordings, from across the decades, which throw light on different aspects of his music. As always with an artist of Ornette's standing, such a list can only scratch the surfaceso, apologies to any Ornette aficionado whose personal favourite has been omitted. Most of all, anyone embarking on a discovery (or rediscovery) of this music is guaranteed an enviable treat...
The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959) The first album featuring Ornette's music was actually Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (Contemporary, 1958) but that is mainly of historical interest, and not the best place to start appreciating his music. It does make a useful point of comparison to The Shape of Jazz to Come as it emphasises just how revolutionary this first Ornette Atlantic album was. On that Contemporary album, Ornette, Cherry and Higgins were joined in a quintet by pianist Walter Norris and bassist Dan Payne but on The Shape of Jazz to Come they had gone, to be replaced by Haden; those changes (particularly Haden's arrival) brought about a metamorphosis that led to the music being transformed. On the earlier album, Ornette often sounded as hemmed in as a caged tiger, but here he seems liberated, able to roam free and let his music sing. This album contains Ornette classics such as "Lonely Woman" and "Peace" which display his playing at its most poignant and lyricala long long way from the freak that some doubters tried to label him. For decades, The Shape of Jazz to Come has rightly appeared high in lists of best ever jazz albums.
Change of the Century (Atlantic, 1960) Another well-deserved, prophetic title for another stunning album. The quartet was on a roll by now, with the four seeming to think and act as one. Each member was in top form and the music is peppered with countless flashes of individual brilliance. From the opening bass riff of "Una Muy Bonita" through to the final fanfare of the barnstorming "Ramblin,'" there is not a wasted note or phrase to be heard. Along the way, the interplay between Ornette and Cherry has to be heard to be believed and explains why one of the albums of Atlantic outtakes was entitled Twins! The two sound as if they were separated at birth... In short, a classic.
Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1961) Free Jazz is exceptional among Ornette's Atlantic albums because it does not feature just one quartet but two, both playing simultaneously. The two quartets (Ornette/Cherry/LaFaro/Higgins and Dolphy/Hubbard/Haden/Blackwell) do not compete, but complement each other in what the album sleeve refers to as "a collective improvisation"not the last time we would hear that phrase. The music is light years away from the predictable head-solos-reprise format.
The critic Howard Mandel observed at Ornette's funeral, "Ornette didn't play free jazz, what he did was he freed jazz." True, but most of all Ornette freed himself and his bandmates. He did play Free Jazz and this album's title christened the genre otherwise known as the New Thing or Avant-Garde. In addition to Ornette and alumni of his groups, the genre featured a host of like-minded players including Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and John Tchicai. Incidentally, four and a half years after Free Jazz, Coltrane recorded Ascension with Hubbard, Sanders, Shepp and Tchicai in attendance. The two albums are often mentioned in the same breath, but it is useful to remember that Ornette led the way...
At The 'Golden Circle,' Stockholm (Blue Note, 1965) In the immediate aftermath of the Atlantic recordings, Ornette had a fallow period of five years during which he taught himself to play trumpet and violin (he was playing them in concert by 1965heard on just one track here). During these years, he recorded little in the studio other than two soundtrack albums. Other albums released in this period were live recordings, with the two volumes of At The 'Golden Circle,' Stockholm being the pick of the bunch. (The two volumes have not yet been released as one, a move that is surely long overdue.)
The saxophonist is featured in his new trio (which had debuted in December 1962) with classically-trained bassist David Izenzon, who had not played jazz prior to playing with Ornette, and drummer Charles Moffett from Fort Worth, a former school-mate of Ornette's. The three were on a nine-month tour that began in Croydon, London, in August 1965. These Stockholm recordings date from early December 1965, by which time the trio were clearly played in and attuned to each other's instincts. The repertoire was all new, with nothing from the Atlantic period included. As so often, Ornette had moved on to pastures new. Compared to the Atlantic quartet recordings, this trio places far more of the onus on Ornette, as there is no second horn to share the load. His playing is fluid and free, but just occasionally he sounds as if he has been on the road rather too long and is on automatic pilot. Strongly recommended nonetheless.
Skies of America (Columbia, 1972) Throughout his career, Ornette wrote compositions and strove to integrate them, with equal status, alongside his jazz. As early as December 1962, in his self-organised concert at Town Hall, New York, he included a self-composed piece for string quartet, "Dedication To Poets and Writers," and the August 1965 Croydon concert opened with a wind quintet playing his "Forms and Sounds." Skies of America was the first recording of one of his compositions by a full orchestra, the title symphony played by the London Symphony Orchestra, with Ornette himself playing alto saxophone on seven of the twenty-one tracks. The composition did not have the structure of a symphony but featured a series of richly orchestrated melodic pieces, some with Ornette as featured soloist.
Ornette's own sleeve notes for the album were notable for the first appearance of a new word that soon became synonymous with him and his music"harmolodic." Referring to a book The Harmolodic Theory Ornette wrote that Skies of America " uses only melody, harmony and the instrumentation of movement of forms." The book was never published and no full explanation of harmolodics was ever forthcoming; nonetheless, for decades the word was much used of Ornette and, in 1995, he set up his own Harmolodic record label.
Dancing in Your Head (A&M / Horizon, 1977) Skies of America was notable for its inclusion of a catchy theme entitled "The Good Life" that also appeared on the Science Fiction album entitled "School Work." Despite those two previous incarnations, many listeners first sat up and paid attention when it appeared on this album (entitled "Theme from a Symphony" because of its role in Skies of America). Although those multiple titles were confusing, after this it became commonly known as the "Dancing in Your Head" theme and Ornette used it so frequently in concert that it became a popular and distinctive trademark, guaranteed to draw applause from a concert audience.
The reason that listeners paid greater attention to this album's versions was simple: Prime Time. Dancing in Your Head contained the first recordings by this new group, two versions of "Theme from a Symphony." Alongside Ornette, the group featured the electric guitars of Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbe, the bass guitar of Rudy MacDaniel (a.k.a. Jamaaladeen Tacuma) and the drums of Ronald Shannon Jackson. Together, the five produced music as funky and danceable as any in jazz, which attracted new converts to the music. Ornette had clearly moved on again. After this, his group would always be called Prime Time (and their music called harmolodic.)
The album's other track was a total contrast but just as remarkable. Recorded in Morocco in January 1973, the shorter "Midnight Sunrise" featured Ornette on alto saxophone, journalist Robert Palmer on clarinet with the reeds and percussion of the Master Musicians of Joujouka (with whom Rolling Stone Brian Jones had previously recorded). The result was a mesmerising meeting of musical cultures. Ornette reportedly recorded enough music for an album with the Master Musicians but, regrettably, no record has ever been released. Thirty-six years later, when Ornette curated the annual week-long Meltdown festival at London's South Bank in 2009, the Master Musicians were one of its highlights, performing every day and receiving a great reception. Charlie Haden was another highlight of that week...
Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House, 1978) Charlie Haden talking about a meeting that changed jazz history: "I first heard Ornette at this club on Wilshire Boulevard called The Haight. And they started playing and it was so brilliant and so human sounding. You know, I'd never heard anything like that in my life. It was like the human voice, you know? I said, Man this guy can play, man, I've never heard anything like this in my life! This is the way I hear! You know? I told him, I said, man you sure sounded beautiful. He said, thanks man, not many people tell me that. We got to his house and you couldn't open the door because there was music stuffed under the door everywhere, on the rug, on the bed, on the dresser, everywhere. I said man, this is fantastic. He said, Yeah, let's play this. I said, OK. I was scared to death, man, because I'd never played with him before and he was playing in a way that the normal, traditional jazz musician didn't play. He didn't play like that. He said, Now when I heard this song I heard some changes with the melody. But as soon as I play the melody and start to improvise, you just follow me. And I said, Man that's what I've been waitin' to do my whole life, man!" The rest is history; Haden was vital to the success of the Atlantic recordings and to every other Ornette group he played in.
Some twenty years after that meeting, the two recorded this album of duos, after they had recorded a couple of duos for Haden's own albums Closeness (A&M / Horizon, 1976) and The Golden Number (A&M / Horizon, 1977). All of these duos radiate the empathy between the pair that is so evident in Haden's quote above. In a throwback to his 1962 Atlantic Ornette on Tenor album, Ornette opts for the larger sax here plus, on one track, trumpet.
Song X (Geffen, 1986) This album was an unexpected collaboration between Ornetteon alto or violinand guitarist Pat Metheny, with Haden on bass and both Denardo and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Despite his use of guitarists in Prime Time, before this album appeared, few would have predicted that the combination of Ornette and Metheny could be as successful as it was. Recorded "live" at the Power Station in NYC, the music bursts with energy and empathy. Ornette and Metheny are considerate improvisers, showing generosity to one another, most notably on the duo version of Ornette's title composition. Their joint composition "Kathelin Gray" is as hauntingly beautiful as anything in Ornette's discography. The album was a runaway success, a hit, reaching number 9 in the Billboard jazz chart. In 2006, a twentieth anniversary edition trumped the original by adding six excellent unreleased tracks; that edition is the one to opt for.
In All Languages (Caravan of Dreams, 1987) After the intensive two years of recording the Atlantic albums, Ornette's quartet with Haden, Cherry and Higgins only reconvened occasionally, notably in 1971 during recording of Science Fiction and again in 1976 (frustratingly, the results of that latter session still remain unissued). In All Languages was the most high profile occasion when the four reconvened, not least because the album featured seven pieces in contrasting versions by both that Atlantic quartet and by Prime Time, allowing comparison of Ornette's two greatest groupings.
As well as those fourteen tracks, there were three just by the quartet and six just by Prime Time. By now, alongside Ornette, Prime Time featured two guitarists, Nix and Ellerbe, two bassists, Tacuma and Al MacDowell, and two drummers, Calvin Weston and Ornette's son Denardo (who had controversiallyor provocatively?debuted in Ornette's trio at age ten alongside Haden; thankfully, in the intervening twenty years his drumming had improved, and for decades he remained a mainstay of Ornette's groups.)
As much as anything, the contrasting versions of those seven compositions reveal the strength and versatility of Ornette's compositions which sound very different but just as compelling in the hands of the quartet or Prime Time. As ever, the seven-piece group played up a storm, both live and in the studio. On this album, the quartet was in top form. For many reasons, In All Languages is recommended as one of Ornette's best from the later years of his recording career.
The quartet did not play any material from the Atlantic years here, but after this release they were recorded live at a tribute event for Ornette, in Italy, in 1990; the resulting album, Reunion 1990 (Domino, 2010), featured a fine rendition of "Lonely Woman" (on which Ornette quoted "O Sole Mio"!)
Naked Lunch: Music from the Original Soundtrack (Milan, 1991) Ornette's recording career was peppered with soundtrack recordings or rumours of them, some of which never made it onto film or disc. In the years after the Atlantic recordings , he recorded the soundtrack for the little seen Who's Crazy (I.R.I. 1979) and the impressive but unused Chappaqua Suite (Columbia, 1965). His 1981 soundtrack music for the film Box Office has never been released. All of which makes the soundtrack for David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch quite uniquethe film was a success, the soundtrack was used, and it was released on disc.
The album was credited to the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Ornette Coleman as performers, and to Howard Shore as composer and conductor, with Ornette credited as composer of four tracks. In the nature of a soundtrack, it was somewhat reminiscent of Skies of America , melodic fragments some of which were enlivened by the presence of Ornette as featured soloist. As the film was set in Morocco, an added attraction was the presence of the Master Musicians of Joujouka track "Midnight Sunrise." On occasions, Ornette even got to play the soundtrack in concert with an orchestra, providing the music live while the film was shown. And mighty fine it was.
Interlude: Always a willing and generous collaboratorincluding on albums by Yoko Ono, Jackie McLean, Alice Coltrane, his former spouse poet & performance artist Jayne Cortez (1934-2012) , Prime Time members James "Blood" Ulmer , Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Al MacDowell, Geri Allen, Rolf KuhnOrnette unexpectedly appeared on a couple of tracks on Scar (Mammoth, 2001) by singer-songwriter (and Madonna's brother-in-law) Joe Henry; Ornette contributed a stunning solo to the track "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation" and a hidden bonus track contained an extended version of the solo. If you have never heard the Joe Henry album, prepare to be amazed by this YouTube clip with Ornette's solo:
Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar, 2006) This was Ornette's first album release in nine years, but it is a good onethe album that won him his Pulitzer prize for music. It features Ornette in a quartet with Denardo on drums and the two bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga (a format he had first employed in the late sixties with bassists Haden and Izenzon in a quartet).
Recorded live in concert in Germany, it features compositions from across Ornette's career, including "Turnaround," first recorded on his second album Tomorrow is the Question (Contemporary, 1959), "Sleep Talking" from the early Prime Time release Of Human Feelings (Antilles, 1982), and "Song X." If that implies that Ornette was in nostalgic mood, the music belies that. The energy of the quartet is extraordinary given that the tour on which it was recorded marked Ornette's seventy-fifth birthday. The two bass format generates a warm soundscape and Ornette revels in it, his saxophone sounding as rich and human as ever. The audience cheered him to the echo. That Pulitzer was richly deserved.
After Sound Grammar, Ornette made a guest appearance on Jamaaladeen Tacuma's album For the Love of Ornette (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010) on which Ornette's credit reads, "Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone, wisdom" and Tacuma's sleeve notes pay fulsome tribute to the great man. Around the same time, unbeknown to most people, Ornette was playing and recording in NYC with trumpeter Jordan McLean, drummer Amir Ziv and (former member of Miles Davis' band) pianist Adam Holzman. The results were issued as New Vocabulary (System Dialing Records, 2015) on McLean & Ziv's own label, to little fanfare. So Ornette's recorded career ended with a whimper rather than a bang but, as indicated above, there seems to be enough unissued music in the vaults for us to hope and expect more great music to emerge over time. Meanwhile, all of Ornette's album releases are testament to his talent and vision. We shall not see his like again.
I was first exposed to jazz while learning to play chess with my uncles. They would play smooth jazz, and then switch up to more standard types of jazz. But, when they played Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, I was
hooked and I haven't looked back.