Here’s Why Ornette Coleman Mattered

First off, check this out:

You probably saw some articles this weekend lamenting the loss of “Jazz Innovator” Ornette Coleman. If you would have clicked on one of them you’d read a polite article about the brilliant man who broke from the rhythmic and harmonic restrictions of the hard bop jazz that ruled in the 40’s and 50’s. Ornette Coleman broke all the rules and won. Ornette Coleman did what Charlie Parker did for bebop, he did what Link Wray did for electric guitar, he did what Lou Reed did for Rock and Roll, he did what the Sex Pistols did for punk, and Nirvana for Grunge. He wrote music that was impossible to ignore and had to be confronted by everyone who played after him.

Listening to Ornette today, I think we take his innovations for granted. We’ve all heard free-improvisation groups, many of which really do just create noise. Before you think Ornette can’t swing, give a quick listen to Ramblin’ off 1960’s Change Of The Century:

Nothing terribly offensive there, is there?

Ornette did some other really cool things too. He performed on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1991. Jerry Garcia also recorded with him several times and he played an entire set with the Grateful Dead in 1987. And, you know, he beat everyone else to the free jazz game by several years.

Free Jazz

While Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come is a masterpiece (Coleman’s unique musical sensibilities are showcased in a still-easily-digestible collection of yet-hummable compositions), his truly groundbreaking record is 1961’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet.

At nearly 40 minutes, Free Jazz was the longest recorded continuous jazz performance to date, and was instantly Coleman’s most controversial album. The Double-Quartet was literally two quartets functioning as one. Two reeds, two brass, two bassists, and two drummers (eat your heart out, King Crimson). With the recent invention of stereo sound, Ornette decided that each quartet should be played through their own channel—four musicians in the left speaker and four in the right. The double-quartet is organized as follows:

Left                                                            Right
Ornette Coleman – alto saxophone         Eric Dolphy – Bass Clarinet
Don Cherry – pocket trumpet                Freddie Hubbard - Trumpet
Scott LeFaro - bass                             Charlie Haden – bass
Billy Higgins - drums                           Ed Blackwell - drums

“Collective Improvisation” means just that—each member improvising at once with no preconceived key, themes, chord structure, chorus lengths or anything. As in common jazz tradition, each player takes a solo, but here the rest of the group improvises around the soloist instead of sticking to a set chord progression.

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These are not entropic clashes of the chaotic ether deconstructing the fabric of the universe, these are conscious, intelligent beings in musical conversation with one another: offering, responding, arguing and provoking one another. The album may begin with an off-putting barrage of unrecognizable harmonies, but there are moments of absolute delicacy tucked within each of the solos.

This may not make sense until you listen to the album, and even then it may not seem like much of a big deal.

This is the part where we listen to Free Jazz. You can stop here, I won’t be offended. Seriously, the first time I played my copy of Free Jazz I didn’t pick it back up for months. It’s disorienting to the unaccustomed.

I stuck with Ornette Coleman’s earlier releases for my regular rotation, only sometimes wishing I could dig Free Jazz. However, the liner notes on Free Jazz are a godsend. Using them, I mapped out the order of solos taken by the double-quartet (yes, there is structure in free jazz!) and recognizing the order to the album has opened my ears to a whole new understanding of the piece. Notice that each solo has an ensemble introduction—the only written parts on the album—that propels the soloist into musical exploration.

00:00    polyphonic introduction,
00:07    Ensemble introduction to Eric Dolhpy
00:22    Eric Dolphy – Bass Clarinet solo (right channel)
05:12    Ensemble introduction to Freddie Hubbard
05:40    Freddie Hubbard – Trumpet (right channel)
09:54    Ensemble introduction to Ornette Coleman
10:05    Ornette Coleman Alto Saxophone solo (left channel)
19:36    Ensemble Introduction to Don Cherry
19:48    Don Cherry – Pocket Trumpet solo (left channel)
25:21    Ensemble Introduction to Charlie Haden
25:26    Charlie Haden – Bass Solo (right channel)
29:51    Ensemble introduction to Scott LeFaro
30:00    Scott LeFaro – Bass Solo (left channel)
33:47    Polyphonic ensemble introduction to Ed Blackwell
34:00    Ed Blackwell – Drum Solo (right channel)
35:19    Ensemble pitch introduction to Billy Higgins
35:28    Billy Higgins – Drum Solo (left channel)

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