Monday, October 26, 2009

October 26: Ornette Coleman, "The Shape Of Jazz To Come"

Artist: Ornette Coleman
Album: The Shape Of Jazz To Come
Year: 1959
Label: Atlantic

The idea of being unique, innovative, or "free" within the confines of the jazz genre are often rather subjective, and are usually only so in reference to other performers and albums. This is due to the fact that, for the most part, even the most open and free jazz compositions still follow a handful of structural rules formats. Whenever an artist attempted to break from these constraints, it was either a chaotic failure, or they were shunned by the masses due to their extremely unorthodox sound. Clearly, many of these performers were some of the most innovative and important figures in jazz, and at the top of this list of elite musicians stands the legendary Ornette Coleman. Making more roads in "free jazz" and constantly labeled as "avant," there are few artists of any genre who have re-shaped a style and brought into question every rule that was considered "unbreakable." With brilliant experimentation in both structure and style, the music of Ornette Coleman remains some of the most exciting and original recordings in the history of music. Having recorded over five decades, Coleman's catalog is beyond massive in terms of both size, as well as musical content, and it is nearly impossible to find any Coleman recording that is anything short of phenomenal. Though there may have been a few albums before it that were considered "avant," it was Coleman's watershed 1959 recording, the appropriately titled The Shape Of Jazz To Come, that is widely considered as the "breakthrough" avant album, and the record that completely re-wrote every rule on jazz music.

After releasing a pair of stunning records for the Contemporary/OJC label, Coleman was offered a multi-record contract, and he and his quartet quickly entered the studio to record what would become one of the most important albums ever made. With Atlantic Records executive Nesuhi Ertegun working as the producer on the album, the musicians were given all the freedom they desired to craft and shape the album in any way they wished. Upon its release, The Shape Of Jazz To Come was extremely controversial across the jazz scene due to its non-traditional sound and structural approach. Making the album massively important, as well as outright enraging many members of the jazz community, The Shape Of Jazz To Come is the first major jazz record to be recorded without a pianist. This purposeful lack of piano, as well as any other instrument to guide the chord changes leaves the musicians completely free to explore the musical theme, and the songs are as open and unique as anything ever written. The fact that all of the musicians are improvising simultaneously stands as one of the most courageous and innovative approaches, and this reality also did not sit well with many jazz critics. By throwing all of the traditions of every jazz style to the side, The Shape Of Jazz To Come is beyond a pivotal album, and the unsettling and polarizing nature of the exploration is still controversial to this day.

As innovative and visionary as Ornette Coleman was, without the aid and playing of his phenomenal backing band, the album simply would not have existed. Without question, the key element to the success of The Shape Of Jazz To Come is Coleman's partnership with pocket trumpet/cornet master, Don Cherry. Having recorded with the likes of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, there are few performers as respected and revered as Cherry. The way in which the two interact is truly stunning, as both musicians freely explore each composition, often completely ignoring the tonal and melodic structure. This freedom was the key to the controversial nature of the album, yet Coleman and Cherry are clearly pushing one another to greater heights on each track, and the results remain among the greatest and most important moments in jazz history. Along with Cherry, on The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Ornette Coleman finally found a rhythm section that was open and talented enough to stick with the free nature of the lead instruments. Double-bass legend Charlie Haden, known for his almost lyrical basslines, stands today as one of the most important and well respected bassists in history. Throughout the album, most notably on "Focus On Sanity," Haden is absolutely fantastic, and his work here represents the finest of his career. Rounding out the quartet is free jazz and bop drummer extraordinaire, Billy Higgins. With well over seven hundred sessions to his name, Higgins stands as one of the most recorded artists in history, and his ability to understand and keep up with Coleman's wild experimentation serves as a testament to his unrivaled playing ability. While Ornette Coleman wrote and leads each piece on The Shape Of Jazz To Come, the reality is, the backing musicians he has with him are the key element that makes the album so legendary.

In the long line of jazz saxophone legends, Ornette Coleman stands alone due to his constant innovation and completely unique musical approach. Often painted as an iconoclast, Ornette Coleman was far more exploratory then his bop-based peers, and his seemingly unbounded nature led him and his music to be largely misunderstood at the time. In retrospect, it is almost amusing that The Shape Of Jazz To Come was so controversial, as throughout the following years, jazz would get so "out there," that one can now see Coleman's album as a swinging, and easily accessible jazz album. Constantly concentrating on playing "what he heard and felt," as opposed to the "proper" harmonic structure of the songs, Coleman often had difficulty finding musicians who could understand and execute his signature sound. His playing was not only more free any open, but far more lyrical and raw than than of his contemporaries, and his sound remains instantly recognizable to this day. The Shape Of Jazz To Come presents every aspect that makes the music of Ornette Coleman so fantastic. From the dark, mesmerizing "Lonely Woman," which is a true jazz classic in its own right, to the more upbeat, smooth and swinging sound of "Congeniality," Coleman proves that, regardless of tempo or mood, his approach is simply stunning. The constant improvisation throughout The Shape Of Jazz To Come is like nothing else one can experience, and the fact that there is not a note out of place serves as a testament to both the musicianship of the band members, as well as the unparalleled writing and leading ability to Ornette Coleman.

Though over time, most albums that were considered "controversial" upon their initial release end up being seen as less "offensive" and become iconic. However, in the case of Ornette Coleman's The Shape Of Jazz To Come, more than fifty years after it appeared, many still argue it is too free and unstructured to be considered "jazz." Clearly, when placed next to some of the most "out there" records that came out in the wake of The Shape Of Jazz To Come, it is far more structured, and easily accessible by even the most casual jazz fan. Yet at the time of its release, the album truly smashed every barrier and tradition of the jazz style, as Coleman did away with any need for a tonal or melodic structure. Proving that one could be just as successful and musically brilliant by almost constant improvisation, the lack of structure put far more pressure on the musicians to deliver, and on every song on The Shape Of Jazz To Come, the quartet delivers in unparalleled fashion. Re-writing the books on how to function as a jazz rhythm section, Haden and Higgins stand today as true innovators of style, and their work on the record is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Making their claim as one of the greatest pairings ever recorded, Cherry and Coleman are clearly musical soulmates, and the flawless way in which they interact with one another remains absolutely unrivaled anywhere else in music history. Serving as the catalyst for the wild, unconstrained, free-jazz exploration that would follow over the next two decades, there are few musicians who have had as much courage and vision as Ornette Coleman, and his 1959 album, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, remains one of the most pivotal, iconic, and truly amazing albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Lonely Woman," "Focus On Sanity," and "Congeniality."

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