Ornette Coleman: The Shape Of Jazz To Come

C. Michael Bailey By

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Ornette Coleman

The Shape Of Jazz To Come



Ornette Coleman's Contemporary Records releases Something Else!!!! (1958) and Tomorrow Is The Question! (1959) documented the alto saxophonist's development from the last vestiges of bebop toward a harmonically freer jazz language. Coleman's album titles became more prophetic as they were released. The Shape Of Jazz To Come is a further, but not yet completed, evolution away from harmonic harnesses of the swing and bebop eras.

If Something Else!!!! brought the jazz literati's ears to attention with its spherical, untethered solos; and Tomorrow is the Question! further justified baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan's necessary sans-piano format, then The Shape Of Jazz To Come was the 16-inch shot across the bow of conventional jazz wisdom. It paved the artistic way for the next Coleman recording, The Change Of The Century (Atlantic, 1959). Gone are the chordal patterns that guided alto saxophonist Charlie Parker out of the swing era. Gone is the harmonic anchor of piano or guitar that was a jazz mainstay for years. What is left is a gently directed independent music trajectory, a concurrent and separate mode of invention for four instruments playing with only experience and self-understanding.

The structure (if that is what it can be called) of the six pieces comprising The Shape Of Jazz To Come is presentation of a theme (or traditional head) followed by free improvisation in the solo sections by Coleman and cornetist Don Cherry followed by restatement of the theme, multiple times, in some cases. Coleman hits upon his most empathic band with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, who remain reluctant last attachments to the old ways, providing a rock-solid swing to the recording as well as their own informed solo sections without interfering with Coleman's direction.

Coleman's approach is not unlike that employed by trumpeter Miles Davis that same year on Kind Of Blue (Columbia), recorded on March 2 and April 22, 1959, where Davis entered the studio with sketches of pieces and directed the band to improvise over scales rather than chords. What Coleman did differently with The Shape Of Jazz To Come (recorded May 22, 1959) was to do away with even scalar organization, opening up the solo canvas not simply two-dimensionally, but to fully four dimensions. The result to the jazz world was a full assault on two fronts that would eventually pave the way for post bop and fusion and bolder free jazz exploration.

The Shape Of Jazz To Come in a microcosm, can be heard in "Lonely Woman," a tune so far reaching yet amenable to coverage—by the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1962 on Lonely Woman (Atlantic) and saxophonist John Zorn in 1989 on Naked City (Nonesuch))—that it help ease Coleman's jazz medicine down critically. The rhythm is established by Haden, strumming bass chords, and Higgins, establishing the poly-rhythms of a near Eastern Indian mantra. Coleman and Cherry add their own Eastern flourishes saturated with the blues. It is mournful and searching, with enough dissonance to distract without covering first Coleman's and then Cherry's earthy, nearly down-home solos.

The ballad (if such definitions anymore apply) "Peace" is the most revealing track on the album. It offers Haden duets with the two soloists with appropriately minimal support form Higgins. Coleman and Cherry mix the entire history of jazz into their solos, expressing the results calmly and with purpose. Drawing from all of the genre influences surrounding him, Coleman plotted a course that led to this groundbreaking record, still, oddly, only the beginning of the revolution. In the meantime, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, who, by the end of the next decade, would have exhausted what Coleman starts here, was in New York with Davis making a history of a different sort.

Tracks: Lonely Woman; Eventually; Peace; Focus on Sanity; Congeniality; Chronology.

Personnel: Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone; Don Cherry: coronet; Charlie Haden: bass; Billy Higgins: drums.

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