The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet – Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation

Free Jazz

The Ornette Coleman Double QuartetFree Jazz: A Collective Improvisation Atlantic SD-1364 (1961)

“It is an insight of speculative philosophy that Freedom is the sole truth of Spirit.” – Hegel, Reason in History

There is much confusion over what “free jazz” means and what Ornette Coleman’s album of the same name really means.  There is a Paul Bley interview (The Wire, Sept. 2007) that I cite as much as possible that explains much about Ornette Coleman’s role in this debate.  But let’s step back a bit further.  If “free jazz” means totally spontaneous improvising, then it long predates Ornette or the 20th Century.  Cavemen banging on logs with sticks were playing free jazz by that definition.  Obviously, this is not what people really mean, or, if they do, their point is trivial.  Rather, as Bley explains, Ornette’s approach was to tear down barriers and instead construct his own musical system instead.  Basically, this is the sort of political project that goes back quite a ways, exemplified by Age of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose social contract theory posited that groups invested authority in themselves).  There were also certainly other people working in this direction just within the realm of jazz music in the 1950s and even late 1940s (Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano, Stan Kenton), though Ornette did more than most to convey a sense of an identifiable and lasting new system of performance, rather than merely tearing down the old systems for a kind of one-off experiment.  The importance of “free jazz” as a “genre” is that it is positioned within a very particular time, place and social structure, and gains meaning primarily in relation to those contextual reference points, including the history of atonal music in the Euro-classical tradition.  This was near the end of the Jim Crow era, thinking well beyond its limits to questions of the ways people would relate to each other beyond such systems of institutionalized discrimination.

G.D.H. Cole wrote and introduction to The Social Contract and Discourses of Rousseau.  In that introduction (pp. xxvii-xxxvi), he wrote about different types of social contract theories of politics, and contrasted the views of Thomas Hobbes with those of Rousseau.

“All Social Contract theories that are at all clearly defined fall under one or other of two heads.  They represent society as based on an original contract, either between the people and the government, or between all the individuals composing the State.  Historically, Social Contract theories tended to pass from the first to the second of these forms.


“Hobbes agreed that the original contract was one between all the individuals composing the State, and that the government was no party to it; but he regarded the people as agreeing, not simply to form a State, but in one and the same act to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it.  He agreed that the people was the final source of all authority, but regarded the people as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself and as delegating its powers, wholly and for ever, to the government which its members agreed to set up.  As soon, therefore, as the State is established, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no further question of popular Sovereignty but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill.  It has alienated its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master.


“Not until we come to Rousseau is the second form of the contract theory developed into a thorough-going assertion of democratic rights.


“Philosophically, Rousseau’s doctrine finds its expression in the view that the State is based not on any original convention, not on any determinate power, but on the living and sustaining will of its members.


“Pure democracy, however, meaning the government of the State by all the people in every detail, is not, as Rousseau says, a possible human institution.  All governments are really mixed in character; and what we call democratic governments are only comparatively democratic.  Government will always be to some extent in the hands of selected persons.  Sovereignty, on the other hand, is in Rousseau’s view absolute, unalienable, and indivisible.”

Perhaps that is a rather long explanation, but it makes for a useful analogy here.  The features of bebop (and hard bop and cool jazz) resemble in certain respects a Hobbesist view.  The players of that style/genre invest in a set of governing rules, and perhaps a set of pioneers who establish those rules (Charlie Parker, etc.); all those players then follow those rules and surrender their ability to change the rules.  Maybe this is an oversimplification, but when Ornette Coleman came along he very clearly marked a transition toward a Rousseauian conception of jazz.  Suddenly, all the players in a combo could have a say in making the rules.  Sure, they ceded some organizational authority to Ornette as the bandleader and composer to put forward some elements of the music on their behalf, but there was no privilege in that that could not be withdrawn at any time (even during performance).  The very structure of the music was always open to the will of all the band members (to a point at least; for a discussion of limits on that approach see Jo Freeman‘s classic essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” which is a more recent and nuanced version of a set of arguments that runs from Robert Michel‘s reactionary tract Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy).

Rousseau himself once wrote:

“In our day, now that more subtle study and a more refined taste have reduced the art of pleasing to a system, there prevails in modern manners a servile and deceptive conformity; so that one would think every mind had been cast in the same mold. Politeness requires this thing; decorum that; ceremony has its forms, and fashion its laws, and these we must always follow, never the promptings of our own nature” A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750).

These “promptings of our own nature” are precisely what Ornette and his band offer up on this album.  And to do so requires an impolite, impertinent break from servile conformity.

The music of Free Jazz features a “double quartet” (so named rather than just an octet because it was Ornette’s regular quartet plus other musicians, including a former drummer of his regular quartet, who doubled up on various instruments with the original quartet — some of the double quartet performers had recorded together the day before on John Lewis Presents Contemporary Music 1: Jazz Abstractions: Compositions by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall).  They play themes and variations.  In other words, a theme is stated, then variations on the theme are played.  The variations are not limited by strict tonality or chord changes.  The themes are sometimes described as “buzzing fanfares”.  To some, this is odd, dense, difficult music.  To others, this can be fun, enjoyable stuff.  There are also opposing views about this being formless, messy, insignificant music, and even some say that the use of a theme/variation approach makes this not free jazz at all (a bit of hindsight thinking there).  It is possible to ask about critics who think this is formless whether they are socially conservative or reactionary.  Perhaps they don’t admit it, but do they pine for a sense of “order” or “sensible limits” that just so happen to depend on certain groups having power over others, that reject the idea that people can set rules for themselves and instead believe that only certain people (or even deities, if we include here the lunatic royalist/theocratic fringe) are capable of establishing rules that all others must obediently follow.  If all this seems removed from the music of Free Jazz, it shouldn’t.  Listeners do tend to split along these very lines, and therefore this is about something inherent in the music.

The album itself is just one long track (spanning two sides of the original LP).  There was another song recorded, “First Take,” which was released on the archival collection Twins (1971) and then later appended to reissues of Free Jazz as a bonus track.  John Coltrane was heavily influenced by Ornette — he took private tutoring from Ornette for a while.  This album inspired Coltrane to record Ascension.  So if this album is to your linking, perhaps that is another recording worthy of a listen.

Coleman plays well.  His performance is somewhat typical of this period.  Eric Dolphy appears on bass clarinet.  If there is any other jazz musician that needs to be considered alongside Ornette it has to be Dolphy.  A talented multi-instrumentalist, he played with a very “vocal” quality and often leaped between registers.  His phrasing was more atonal than Ornette’s.  The bass clarinet, with its woody sound, it a good compliment to Ornette’s brash and sour tone on alto sax, and it manages to cut through the sound of seven other players well.  Dolphy was one of the few performers worthy of keeping up with Ornette in a setting like this.  Yet he never hogs the spotlight.  Ed Blackwell is a crucial piece of the puzzle too.  Billy Higgins plays somewhat conventional cymbal rides, while Blackwell moves around his drum set, and plays his toms more frequently, adding hints lyricism to his drumming.  Bands with two drummers often drift into a morass of indistinct bashing around, but here the two percussionists are able to both provide a sense of forward propulsion through a steady beat and range through rhythmic improvisations — many modern jazz groups in the coming years tended to choose only one or the other.  They get some solo time near the end of the performance.  Charlie Haden is the most prominent of the two bassist.  Scott LaFaro is here too, and he would replace Haden in Ornette’s regular combo until his death in 1961.  The bassist get some solo time as the horns drop out roughly two-thirds to three-quarters into the performance.  The two trumpet players are Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard.  They are very different players, with Hubbard playing more conventionally melodically.  The contrasts that the brass players contribute is another key ingredient in making the music distinctive.

The original album jacket featured a painting (White Light) by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who painted using “loaded brushes” and drips.  There is a story about Pollock (possibly true) that an unsympathetic critic came to see him paint at his studio.  Fed up, Pollock flung a gob of paint across the room and precisely onto the doorknob, telling the visitor: there’s the door.  He both rebuked the critic and demonstrated his precision (which the critic denied) with that single gesture.  Ornette was less brash and far more soft-spoken.  And yet, he faced many of the same criticisms as Pollock and used similar artistic techniques.  Visiting a Pollock exhibit, Ornette once said,

“See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.  It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”

Sometimes unacknowledged is that Pollock was interests in jazz, especially be-bop.  There was a definite affinity between his painting and jazz music.  Ornette obviously saw parallels.

Listeners who say Ornette was not really playing “free jazz” because others had less structure miss something.  Being more chaotic, with less delegation of organization, is merely a matter of degree.  The fundamental character of self-determination, along the lines of Rousseau, is the major break that Ornette Coleman represented within music (and jazz music especially).  And more so, Rousseau rejected the idea of total direct democracy as impractical, and Ornette likewise tended to reject the idea of complete unstructured, chaotic total improvisation.  The music does reject a center, tonal or social, and for that reason is anti-essentialist (there is no “essence” or “core” of the music or its performers).  Instead the music focuses on what the performers do.

There is another criticism of all “free jazz” that it is elitist.  This is a thorny issue.  On the one hand, it was music that was never widely popular, and its main audiences tended to be educated, well-off urbanites.  But, on the other hand, given how this music fits so well with the sorts of political theories that have been considered dangerous to social and political elites since the beginning (Rousseau had to flee his home under threat of death due to his writings; The Communist Manifesto is just a refinement of Rousseau’s concepts), this would seem like the very opposite of elitist music.  Could it be that those who see this as elitist music simply assume that ordinary people are incapable of changing their views, to adapt to a new kind of music, which is almost like saying they are inherently conservative?  Or like saying they are inherently stupid?

Free Jazz is one of those albums that some listeners will immediately like, even just upon hearing about the concept and the title.  This is the sort of music that has the capacity to change a listener’s entire conception of what is possible in music.  On the other hand, there are and will continue to be detractors.  But even those who don’t immediately like this, or consider listening to it to be hard work, should at least give it a try, if for no other reason that to gain some exposure to the pioneering conception of music that gave rise to it in the first place — a musical education without something like Free Jazz will necessarily be incomplete.

Ornette Coleman – Skies of America

Skies of America

Ornette ColemanSkies of America Columbia KC 31562 (1972)

Skies of America is one of the most perplexing — and frustrating — albums in the Ornette Coleman discography.  For one, it was recorded with significant technical and logistical restrictions: the performance would not fit on a single LP and had to be edited for release; it was recorded in the UK and local musicians union rules prohibited Ornette’s desired staging (which would have included his regular band alongside a full symphony orchestra); and rehearsal time for the symphony was limited to the point of inadequacy.

This album was an unmistakable signpost that Ornette was having what can only be described as delusions of grandeur.  The humility that was always one of the most attractive features of his music was receding.  In his early career he sought to find any avenues to pursue his music, first by finding musicians who would play with him, then to having paying gigs and some recognition by other musicians.  Those things seemed like enough for him for a while, though he was notoriously fickle about compensation and sought to sidestep the music industry through self-staged performances like the famous Town Hall 1962 concert.  Now he seemed to be seeking external validation and acceptance by the musical establishment, the general public, and the bourgeois.  These weren’t exactly humble goals.  By the end of the 1970s he seemed genuinely convinced (according to his mangers at the time) that he should achieve popular fame to equal that of any pop superstar, and also that he should earn millions of dollars (as he noted in interviews).  If these things don’t seem to bear directly on the music, a quick comparison of his recordings from a decade earlier reveal significant departures, and these are plausible explanations for them.

The music itself is what is typically called “third stream” music: a synthesis of jazz and classical music, usually in the form of completely notated, scored music that resembles the improvisations of jazz.  Ornette has mostly written music for a full symphony that sounds a bit like what his small jazz combos played, with him soloing in brief passages.  Yet a nagging issue with the score is the orchestration.  It makes scant use of the possibilities of a full orchestra.  Mostly the players play homophonically, with the entire orchestra moving in unison (for what it is worth, conductor John Giordano re-orchestrated the entire piece in the mid-1980s, with Ornette’s assistance, and that version was performed multiple times).  This brings up a number of contradictions.  Ornette often spoke about “unison” as a principle of his music, but in the jazz context that meant having independently improvising players choosing to work cooperatively, whereas in the symphonic context it meant merely a kind of dictatorial power over the score that the entirely symphony plays.  Also, using a full symphony seemed decadent, and the same results could seemingly be achieved using a smaller chamber group.  For instance, Ornette had composed other (and underappreciated) pieces for smaller chamber groups, like “Dedication to Poets and Writers” (on Town Hall, 1962) and “Forms and Sounds” (on The Music of Ornette Coleman).  In some ways, these things seemed less like musical achievements than social grandstanding, with Ornette putting a feather in his cap to say that he had commanded the sorts of resources necessary to have a full symphony perform a composition. Moreover, the insertion of Ornette playing jazz saxophone solos on a few songs seems to add little to the piece, other than to insert Ornette as a distinct and individual personality into proceedings that are otherwise dominated by the collective sound of the orchestra — though “The Men Who Live in the White House” does point to his light, airy later-career performance style.  The syncopation added by the symphonic percussionists at times also seems a bit clumsy.

In all, this is a problematic recording to say the least.  The underlying compositions do have merit, which does shine through.  However, the way it was realized and recorded leaves much to be desired.  In hindsight, this was a sign that the 1970s were going to be rocky when it came to Ornette Coleman recordings.

My own view of the album tends to vary widely depending on when I hear it.  I can listen to it and think that Ornette is a complete dilettante, and another time listen to it and think it is inspired if still hampered in how it was recorded.  My feelings are mixed.  I can say that I find a 1987 bootleg recording of a live Italian performance of a re-orchestrated version of the piece to be far superior to this one.

Ornette Coleman – Dancing in Your Head

Dancing in Your Head

Ornette ColemanDancing in Your Head Horizon 21 / A&M SP-722 (1977)

Here’s an album that finds Ornette Coleman, in many ways, reversing his musical approach.  Perhaps that’s unfair, or not strictly accurate.  This album points to the limits and hypocrisies embedded in Ornette’s musical approach all along, or how his musical approach could falter.

Howard Mandel wrote in his book Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz:

“Creating harmolodic music involves, for Ornette, restructuring the interplay of aspects of organized sound that in jazz and other genres produce a dynamic tension.  Musicians may seize any tone as a harmonic resolution, freed from the tyranny of fixed chord sequences and their closely related substitutions, the requirement of adhering to  a schedule for passing through whatever chords and substitutions are prescribed to accompany given melodies.  Ornette desires lightning rhythmic response to the structural realignments that can be inferred from melodic variation.  This means each and every member of his ensembles is expected to be listening to each and every other member, to be ready to react to what any and everyone is doing melodically and harmonically (the two being horizontal and vertical expressions of the same pitched material) and rhythmically, while hewing one’s own path through a composition.

This is a fairly astute description of Ornette’s music, at least into the early 1970s.  But Max Harrison wrote in A Jazz Retrospect about Ornette’s symphonic piece “Forms and Sounds” that “[w]hatever indeterminate procedures are written into the Sounds and forms [sic] score do not work, and he does not appear to have grasped that the demands and consequences peculiar to this kind of activity do not parallel those implicit in a jazz solo’s indeterminacy . . . .”  This is essentially a criticism that Ornette’s theories are incomplete, and they do not account for or explain the implicit assumptions of the particular musical habits he and his (small) band members had internalized.  This became apparent in the 70s when Ornette’s Prime Time band tended to draw its members from the ranks of a variety of post-rock-and-roll scenes, rather than from the fairly homogeneous bebop backgrounds of his earliest groups.  Harrison goes on to say that the “Forms and Sounds” recording “drifts on steadily, departing from nowhere and arriving nowhere: when there is no change of emphasis there is no scope for expression.”  This is much like saying the “dynamic tension” is missing.  Even if that commentary is perhaps overly harsh (if not completely wrongheaded) with regard to “Forms and Sounds,” it is the sort of criticism that could well be leveled at Dancing in Your Head.

An analogy that might be made here is to the long-standing philosophical debate over so-called positive and negative freedoms.  Under common definitions, negative freedom tends to mean “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints” while positive freedom tends to mean “the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.”  While Ornette often claimed to be opening up possibilities in his music, to free the performers to play as they chose, this sometimes seemed confined to negative freedom, in that Ornette did not externally impose restrictions on others in the band but he also did not urge any fundamental insights.  Did the other musicians use that negative freedom to pursue any fundamental purpose that is of any interest to listeners?  Did Ornette need to pursue positive freedom in order to make his groups’ music interesting, and was that aspect missing from his theoretical explanations of how his music operates?  These are significant questions when looking at the substance of Ornette’s music.

Ornette had made music before based on a freedom principle and an egalitarian attitude toward improvisation.  Though into the 1970s there was more aggression in his music, and he sometimes seemed a bit jaded and humorless. The egalitarian impulses are also subdued, and, at times, also his humility.  Ornette assembled his Prime Time band using many musicians considerably younger than him, and often without any jazz pedigree.  This tended to mean the musicians were extremely deferential to him.  Ornette was kind of like the group’s master, or guru, and everybody else followed him.  John Litweiler, in his useful and informative biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, makes some important observations about these recordings (and those of the follow-up Body Meta):

“Although Ornette’s own phrasing is considerably more symmetrical than in the past, with a great many sequences and repeated licks — he gravitates naturally to three-note phrases that accent strong beats, and to longer phrases that begin and end on downbeats — his improvising is by far the most varied, mobile and melodic of the group.  The net effect of these recordings, then, is of an alto soloist of uncommon stamina accompanied by rhythm players who take their cues from him and whose strong-beat accenting affects his own rhythmic organization.”

Litweiler continues by saying that the other players use Ornette’s lines for inspiration, and the influence of rock on their playing makes them “less rhythmically free than Ornette’s early players, and their roles are in a sense more restricted.”  This is not at all like what Mandel described — every other musician may need to listen, especially to Ornette, but Ornette wasn’t listening and reacting to the others much, aside from a very generalized shift in his rhythmic phrasing.

On Dancing in Your Head, performances by the electric jazz combo Prime Time are paired with one track of Ornette (and the critic Robert Palmer) playing with Morocco’s Master Musicians of Joujouka.  While Ornette saw this meeting of western jazz with the ancient sufi trance music of the Master Musicians as transcending parochial boundaries, and returning to an engagement with dancing audiences largely absent from the cerebral and sedentary audiences for avant garde jazz, there is an unacknowledged flaw in seeing this as transcendent, revolutionary music.  Really the relationship of other musicians deferring to Ornette is simply reversed from that of Prime Time, with him now deferring to the Master Musicians.  More troubling is the way that such deference potentially implies a silly longing for a return to “traditional values.”  The Master Musicians are exclusively male, and membership is hereditary.  They represent, in some ways, a pre-modern, aristocratic/feudal/guild approach to music-making.  So is this musical expression dependent upon hierarchies, like the traditional ones that have oppressed women (etc.) for millennia?  And hadn’t Ornette’s own bands largely lacked female membership (other than a few isolated exceptions)?  And hasn’t Ornette made various homophobic comments in the press through the years?  Doesn’t Ornette’s passion for musical freedom ring a bit hollow from this perspective? (Just as with certain other anarchist figures?)

For the most part, this music simply modulates over and over on the same basic theme, locked into a fairly static rhythm.  This is precisely the opposite of the quasi-serialism embedded in Ornette’s music for so long.  On the one hand, Ornette deserves to be commended for not limiting his music, and expanding the possibilities of what it could encompass.  On the other hand, this also lacks the qualities that made Ornette a name anyone paid attention to.  It seems almost contrarian.

When it came to synthesizing aspects of music from around the world, Ornette was a few steps behind his former musical associates like Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell.  And yet, “Midnight Sunrise” with the Master Musicians is the best thing here.  That is partly because the Master Musicians are always great, independent of what Ornette contributes.  But for his part Ornette manages to perform in a way that is reminiscent of his usual highly personal style yet not completely overwhelming, like his playing often can be.  “Midnight Sunrise” is as deferential a performance as anything in Ornette’s career.  Still, “Midnight Sunrise” makes up only a fraction of the album, while an entire album like it would have perhaps opened up a space for further development of a deeper rapport between Ornette and the Master Musicians, and offered more give and take — maybe even overcoming the leader/follower dynamic.

Dancing in Your Head is another polarizing recording — some even take a masochistic view of it praising how “annoying” it is.  Although this album tends to be one of the most highly regarded Prime Time albums, Of Human Feelings and Opening the Caravan of Dreams deserve to be reconsidered as possibly superior (if still slightly flawed) versions of the bulk of this music.

Ornette Coleman – To Whom Who Keeps a Record

To Whom Who Keeps a Record

Ornette ColemanTo Whom Who Keeps a Record Atlantic P-10085A (1975)

An “odds and sods” type collection of old/outtake material recorded for Atlantic Records from sessions in October 1959 and July 1960 that wasn’t already purged from the vaults on The Art of the Improvisers and Twins.  Some blistering moments are to be found, and most musicians would die for rejects this good, but by and large the performances are flawed.  For instance, the opener “Music Always” features a listless bebop ride by drummer Billy Higgins that is stiff and leaden.  Yet “To Us” and “P.S. Unless One Has (Blues Connotation No. 2)” are high-quality cuts, the latter falling only slightly shy of the issued take of “Blues Connotation” on This Is Our Music.  Fans will enjoy this in spite of its uneven qualities (all the songs are included on the box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing), but there are much better Coleman albums to explore.

The Ornette Coleman Quartet – This Is Our Music

This Is Our Music

The Ornette Coleman QuartetThis Is Our Music Atlantic 1353 (1961)

The biography of Ornette Coleman in the late 1950s and early 1960s is fascinating.  He recorded all his early studio albums in Los Angeles, and This Is Our Music came from his first sessions in New York City in later summer of 1960.  A lot had happened since he departed L.A. for good.  For one, he had finally, after many years, secured a running stand of gigs performing live (at The Five Spot Cafe) in 1959, and had become a polarizing sensation in the New York jazz world.  He followed that with a tour, and then back to more gigs in New York City.  What is more, while continuing to work with core collaborators Charlie Haden (bass) and Don Cherry (trumpet), his working band underwent an important shift.  Drummer Billy Higgins lost his cabaret card (essential for live performers in New York City at the time), which provided Ornette with the opportunity to reunite with innovative New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell, who moved the group’s rhythmic structure further away from bebop.  Blackwell was an old friend of Ornette’s.  Suffice it to say, this version of the Ornette Coleman Quartet was well versed performing together by the time they entered the studio to record what became this album.

In the liner notes to the following year’s Ornette!, Gunther Schuller described the overall structure of an Ornette solo this way:

“Little motives are attacked from every conceivable angle, tried sequentially in numerous ways until they yield a motive springboard for a new and contrasting idea, which will in turn be developed similarly, only to yield another link in the chain of musical thought, and so on until the entire statement is made.”

This almost equates Ornette’s musical approach with the cubism of the likes of Picasso, a style frequently described as when a visual artist depicts a subject from a multitude of viewpoints in a single work.

George Russell also commented in 1960 about his own concept of “pan-tonality” and how Ornette represented a kind of implementation of an overall sound not bound to any one tonal center, whereby, as critic T.E. Martin later added (“The Plastic Muse, Part 2,” Jazz Monthly June 1964), all tonalities are possible.

Ornette and his sidemen have never offered any satisfactory explanation of “Harmolodics,” the musical theory Ornette applies.  Ornette tends to describe this as playing in “unison”, but the problem is that he uses that word in a way that is sui generis and therefore non-explanatory.  One of the more useful comments they have made (both Ornette and sideman Don Cherry are on record making such comments) is that the players think through all the chord changes in a song and then play something beyond the changes.  This comment doesn’t entirely make sense either.  Ornette’s bands didn’t exactly play atonally.  So this seems to circle back, perhaps, to George Russell’s comments about “pantonality” and Gunther Schuller’s comments about “motives”.  The underlying question is what links each sound together, harmonically (when played simultaneously) and melodically (when played over time).  Playing “beyond the changes” might mean that the subject of each song is never stated directly, but instead a copious amount of indirect statements (untethered to chord changes) imply what is missing and perhaps cannot be directly expressed by chord changes.  But really the reason why Ornette attempts any of this in the first place seems to lie beyond pure musicality and rest somewhere in the realm of sociopolitical ideology; Ornette’s worldview put him squarely on the political left, close to anarcho-syndicalism (don’t know what that is?  Read Ursula K. Le Guin‘s classic sci-fi novel The Dispossessed).

This Is Our Music is one of the essential Ornette Coleman albums.  It opens with the stupendous “Blues Connotation,” one of the songs that draws from Ornette’s background playing in R&B bands.  He does a few low, rumbling growl/squawks close to the R&B sax tradition.  The song is a great example of one of Ornette’s most endearing qualities.  This is a song with a melody that has an innocent, childlike simplicity, and yet, this is precisely not some sort of retreat to a fantasy of a safe and secure childhood.  No, this is about mature adult things, the sort of music that is beyond the capacity of infant children.  Yet it is an argument that mature adult topics should include a space for innocence and simplicity and goodness (compare here the physicist character Shevek in Le Guin’s novel mentioned earlier).

“Beauty Is a Rare Thing” is a slower tune that is an early example of Ornette’s interest in orchestral composition.  Haden plays his bass arco (bowed) insistently and deliberately to provide subtle and slowly evolving support, and Blackwell plays lightly on his toms (not unlike how a symphony would play tympani) and switches to cymbal rides and washes for a stretch.  Cherry plays brief squeaks behind Coleman, quite atonally.  The song is nothing if not a piece that builds and develops a sense of momentum in spite of the angular and abrupt soloing that would normally seem to lead in the opposite direction.

Kaleidoscope” is a twisting, complex composition.  It is a fast number drawing from bebop.  It quickens the tempo to something allegro (fast) after the largo (slow) “Beauty Is a Rare Thing.”  It’s also a chance to hear the players stretch out with showier solos.  Blackwell is all over his kit.  The horn players have been described as playing violently (relatively speaking).

“Embraceable You” is a rare standard (rare for Coleman albums that is).  It gets an appropriately sarcastic reading, complete with the horn players offering swaying, almost staggering lines, at times like a band playing gag lines to get a rise from the audience.

The rest of the album continues at a high level, mostly reaffirming what had already been mapped out earlier on the album.  But the compositions are strong, especially the quirky charm of the lyrical “Humpty Dumpty.”

This Is Our Music stands as one of the finest Ornette Coleman albums from top to bottom.  Even the cool indifferent photo of the group on the album cover, carrying the humbly provocative title “This Is Our Music,” has become iconic (and frequently tributed on other album covers).

Ornette + Joachim Kühn – Colors: Live From Leipzig

Colors: Live From Leipzig

Ornette + Joachim KühnColors: Live From Leipzig Verve 314 537 789-2 (1997)

If there is a problem with Ornette Coleman’s later years, it is that the central question of “freedom” addressed by his music lost its immediacy.  This is to say that the problem of a lack of freedom had an immanent character in the late 1950s and early 60s when he first rose to prominence, when racial segregation and so forth were the norm.  But after the 1960s came to a close, and as Ornette became (perhaps grudgingly) accepted as an elder statesman of jazz.  At this point wasn’t he “free” and the game over?  This is to say the pursuit of freedom in “free jazz” doesn’t really mean much if the listening audience doesn’t recognize that pursuit juxtaposed with certain conditions of non-freedom.  So the question becomes, yes he is free, why does that matter?

There was plenty of space for Ornette to pursue amusements from the 1980s onward.  There was much more of a tendency for his later music to be meditations on very elemental but also very innocent pleasures.  Songs like “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages) come to mind here.  But, that is also misleading.  Because as time went on Ornette managed to use that approach to probe the banality of modernity.  With mixed results, this lead to Virgin Beauty and Tone Dialing, though the approach started earlier (like “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” the theme song from a daytime TV show, on Soapsuds, Soapsuds). He was also doing comparisons between his musical ideas and established ones.  So Tone Dialing included “Bach Prelude.”  This was a more academic approach, perhaps, a kind of open dialog.  But it also was a kind of scientific attitude of sorts that looked at the way his (arbitrary) methods emerge from the conditions around him and how other circumstances faced by others produce different, or even slightly similar methods.

Joachim Kühn is a pianist raised in the former East Germany (GDR).  He had classical music training but turned to jazz when beginning his professional career.  It is Kühn’s classical training and seeming affinity for the Second Viennese School‘s chromatic expressionism that makes him a rather perfect pairing with Ornette.  The two players are able to meander endlessly, usually independently, but also with Kühn reacting to Coleman.  There is plenty of space in these performances for reflection.

Coleman notoriously avoided working with pianists most of his career, to avoid locating a tonal center on the fixed keys of a piano.  But late in that career, he kind of had nothing to prove, and in fact could prove that he was not bound to tonality best by working with a pianist anyway!  Ornette still plays in his trademark way, with practically no vibrato and with lines that tend to sustain the high notes.  There is little of the R&B influence of Ornette’s early recordings.  No matter.  These performances are wonderful.

Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come

The Shape of Jazz to Come

Ornette ColemanThe Shape of Jazz to Come Atlantic SD 1317 (1959)

Ornette Coleman’s second album as a leader has the bold title “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (selected by the producer Nesuhi Ertegun) and few albums earn such bold statements as this one does.  His music has always pushed anarchic tendencies.  In 1959, he was still accustomed to the format of bop and hard bop, and those habits of thought definitely inform this music.  The songs open with a head played by the entire group, and the performers trade solos before returning to the head.  Now, the catch is that both the head and those solos don’t sound at all like any others around in 1959, excepting perhaps a few forward-thinking performers like Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra.

The opening “Lonely Woman” is perhaps the single best-known Coleman composition.  The sour, dissonant melody played by Coleman on his plastic alto sax (he was unable to afford a metal one in his early career) and Don Cherry on cornet stumbles along, falling forward.  Ornette said he composed the song after coming across a painting of a wealthy woman who looked sad to him.  As was Ornette’s key approach to music, the song features unusual improvisation with the players free to melodically improvise without fixed harmonic relationships to each other or a tonal center.  The result is that music theory and the limiting rules inherent in that kind of knowledge are subordinated (if not completely discarded) to the ideas (Ornette referred to “emotion”) that the performers hold form in their performances.  The performers may have been habituated to the format of bop jazz, but they were clearly heading in a completely different direction.

When Ornette plays a slurred trill on “Eventually,” he almost sings into his horn in a way that drives home the new set of values embodied in the music.  For if anything, Ornette’s music represented the expression of different political choices that couldn’t be expressed in the old forms.  So he crafted new ones.  When you hear this, note how fun and happy much of the music is at its core.  In a context in which feeling good expressing yourself without guilt is deemed unacceptable, then going ahead is radical.  But with Ornette, he does this amazing thing.  He fights for this arena to express things in music without positioning himself as some kind of messiah-like figure with unique talents.  The way he plays makes you think you could maybe do it too.  The Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini said in an interview, “My nostalgia is for those poor and real people who struggled to defeat the landlord without becoming that landlord.”  This is precisely what Ornette’s music represents, and why it seems right to have a certain fondness for The Shape of Jazz to Come decades later.  You can gauge anyone’s politics by how they react to this album — those who want to retain modes of domination in society won’t take a liking to it.  And people who claim Ornette had limited abilities should be asked: by whose standards?

It is a commentary on the lack of meritocracy in the world, but Ornette owed much of his “break” into the professional music world to John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet, who helped Ornette find gigs, a record label and gain some kind of credibility from an endorsement by an acknowledged star.  Of note, though, is that it was a respected musician like Lewis, who had a masters degree in music and taught music at prestigious conservatories associated with European classical music, had enough credentials to allow him to support Ornette’s music without being criticized as not knowing what he was talking about.  Other self-taught musicians who lacked such institutional credentials would risk being labeled as know-nothings for supporting Ornette’s music.  But, all that aside, Ornette did well with the opportunities available to him.

With his time in the spotlight on Atlantic Records, Ornette recorded music as radical as anything heard before in jazz.  Musicians who worked their entire lives to perfect their skills playing chord changes were probably chagrined to see Ornette throw all that out and place an emphasis on other elements, improvising with composition as much as interpretation in his solos.  The more open-minded found in Ornette a visionary.  No doubt, Ornette had a much more individualistic conception of musical performance than most listeners (and society writ large) were ready to accept in the late 1950s, which is to say he thought everyone should have much more latitude to express themselves in their own ways without deference to established modes of expression (which invariably are the products of institutions that reproduce social hierarchies).  So perhaps under the old critical standards this music is played “poorly”, but the point is that the old standards are self-serving and this music steps outside them.

Ornette plays in a harsh way, with a sound always about a quarter cent sharp.  This was partly due to playing a plastic Grafton saxophone.  But even after he bought a new metal one, his sound retained its biting qualities.  It was simply his sound.  Don Cherry played cornet in a similar way.  He had a knack for keeping to Ornette’s melodic lines with a characteristic phase-shift, always a split second off of Ornette’s timing.  Bassist Charlie Haden plays with a warm, R&B tinge, occasionally playing double stops (“Focus on Sanity,” “Chronology”) in a fluid, buoying way that contrasts with the dissonant horns.  Drummer Billy Higgins is basically a very forward-thinking bebop drummer, who grew into the free jazz movement.  His playing is rather rooted in bop structure here, which is a major reason why The Shape of Jazz to Come is an easier listen than some of Coleman’s later works with more free-wheeling percussion and rapidly shifting polyrhythms.

“Peace” is the longest track here, and the group plays with a lot of space, at a slower tempo.  The song says as much in the notes left out as in the ones played.  Is peace about their being less in the world?  Less what?  Take a listen and wonder.

The Shape of Jazz to Come is certainly one of Ornette’s most likable albums.  He made more challenging ones, in hindsight at least.  The vestiges of bop structures make this a bit less demanding, without being a cake walk.  Any jazz education should include this album as essential listening.  Yet this is also a work well worth revisiting.  If the flaws of this album are the ways it can’t get past bebop structures entirely and the overabundance of optimism about unleashing music this radical, those are as endearing as flaws come.

The Ornette Coleman Trio – At The “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Volume One

At The "Golden Circle" Stockholm, Volume One

The Ornette Coleman TrioAt The “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Volume One Blue Note BST 84224 (1966)

In 1962 Ornette briefly retired from recording and public performance. He returned to public performance in 1965, after teaching himself violin and trumpet, and then spent the remainder of the decade bouncing between record labels.  He recorded a number of albums for Blue Note in the late 60s, as that label started to fade from prominence.  Both just before and after his retirement he worked with a trio featuring Charles Moffett on drums and David Izenzon on bass.  Most of the Blue Note recordings are considered somewhat second-rate entries in the Coleman catalog.  But two volumes of live recordings from Sweden at the “Gyllene Cirkeln” club have definitely withstood the test of time and can stand alongside Coleman’s best work.  It was Ornette’s first tour of Europe.

The music here is a refinement of what Coleman did in the late 1950s and early 60s with his combo that featured trumpeter Don Cherry.  There is a lightness and optimism in this music that is rather rare in free jazz circles, where dour seriousness all too often predominate.  Coleman plays many songs here with melodies that could well double as nursery rhymes.  The sparseness of the trio format, without any other horn to play harmony with Ornette, and with Izenzon and Moffett both playing in ways that recall standard bop jazz, make this music a bit less demanding on the ears than Coleman can sometimes be.  But for all those reference points, this music also reflects the growth and change in Coleman’s music from the preceding years.  This is transitional music.  The amazing thing about Coleman is that no matter how radical his approach to music was, it wasn’t static.  Here, the radicalism comes in a most unexpected way.  It introduces complex, novel structures by appearing to do anything but that.

These songs often find Coleman playing for a long time, without repeating himself and without relying on another wind player to add independent melodic statements (much like on Chappaqua Suite, recorded earlier the same year).  He also throws in short little riffs of surprising complexity.  No, this is not a performer limited to simply melodies; this is a performer choosing to play them.  The effect all this brings about in the music is subtle.  At any moment, Ornette doesn’t seem to be playing differently than he was five years earlier, but he’s playing that way for so much longer without tiring that this represents a whole new level of that same type of playing.  Reaching that new level opened up new horizons for compositional structures in the music.  The group doesn’t return to “heads” (group statements of a theme) in a planned way, as on early Coleman recordings.  Izenzon and Moffett are largely free to solo simultaneously with Ornette — though both are fairly restrained players who do so without much flash or pageantry.  This becomes the heart of Ornette’s musical theory of “Harmolodics”.  This is a trio of musical equals.  None of the instruments is privileged over the others.  Moffett plays a key role in this.  His drumming is bop-inflected, but also more skittering and decentered.  He drops a few bass/kick drum “bombs” like Art Blakey, but he works in a lot of hi-hat rides and runs on his tom drums during Ornette’s playing time, with a touch so light and effortless that he turns what would be a Blakey solo feature in a Jazz Messengers performance into supportive “accompaniment” that suits concurrent playing by the other trio members.  As the players work together, they are able to react and shift directions as a unit, without tearing the fabric of the performance apart abruptly.  Rarely does jazz performance this angular and sharp sound, if not smooth and easy exactly, at least as smooth and well-incorporated as it does.

There is an earnestness in this music that makes it difficult for even Coleman detractors to bag on it.  At The “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Volume One is certainly Coleman at his most approachable.  It is probably advisable for newcomers to his music to start closer to the beginning, with some of the Atlantic recordings; however, this live set makes for an excellent second course, so to speak.  His music reach a pinnacle of complexity in the coming decade, as he began to realize works at the furthest reaches of what his “harmolodics” concepts suggested in music.