Earlier this week I retweeted a link to a Bandcamp article discussing the early career of Sonny Rollins saying that his album Saxophone Colossus was the key that unlocked Jazz for me. I’ll stand by that claim. It really clicked when I spun a few Rollins records for the first time. However, I had snuck over the gate 6 years ago to marvel at something I still don’t fully understand. That foray into the unknown was prompted by the news of Ornette Coleman’s passing which passed across the break room TV screen while I listened to The Ventures Live In Japan ’65 of all things. With some minor ceremony I returned to my desk for a Thursday afternoon slog and cued up the ’59 landmark The Shape of Jazz to Come. In remembrance of Ornette’s passing and that subtly pivotal moment for me as a capital letters music guy I spent the last few days listening to a few records from the avant-garde upstart that I had not heard yet.
By no means is this meant to be a guide through the Saxophonist’s career. These records aren’t cornerstones of Jazz or artistic reinventions for Coleman. They are however, very good.
This is the last proper record released from Coleman’s unimpeachable run on Atlantic and his last significant work with stalwart sideman Don Cherry. This is also his last studio release for 5 years. Often regarded as a disappointing end to a trailblazing run but I’m with Harvey Pekar, this “is a major success.” I won’t go so far as to call it a 5 star release like Pekar but among the many underrated records in Coleman’s discography, this is one of the most rewarding listens. The mix splits the rhythm section and the brass players across the stereo field with Ornette playing in a new register with unfamiliar metallic tone and drummer Ed Blackwell in your left ear and Cherry sticking with his signature pocket trumpet and new face on the bass (pre-Coltrane Quartet) Jimmy Garrison are in the right. Cross-Breeding starts the record with 10 seconds of the band all in on an anti-thematic spasm before Coleman clobbers you for 7-minutes before Cherry picks up the second solo. The shorter tracks find the band more unified melodically and the stereo field better balanced as Garrison doesn’t have to spend so much of the time out on his own. Coleman’s pure plastic Alto is missed but on his most melodic turns the rich, dark and heavy sound of tenor makes the association I have with Coleman to Rollins in my mind that much stronger. Garrison keeps things pretty harmonically rooted and Cherry and Coleman joyfully stroll through implied compositions.
I skipped over the live records and the abandoned third-stream soundtrack assignment Chappaqua Suite for the most difficult listen on this list. Despite it’s reputation though, The Empty Foxhole to me is a charming, warm and comforting due in large part to the familial implications of Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s son, toddling at 10 on the drums and the return of classic Quartet bassist Charlie Haden all wrapped up in Ornette’s own colorful abstract painting. For all the talk of Ornette Coleman’s unconventional sensibilities at least three tracks on this record follow the bop structure of introduction of theme (known as the head), solo breaks and reestablishment of the head section. Of course as is typical of a Coleman record there’s no changes to play through and the melodies are thus unfettered. After listening to Tenor I sort of wish we had gotten a heavy brass period from Coleman but I’m always happy to listen to Ornette wail and scream and laugh on his little plastic Alto and those are the best moments on this record. The hardest part of this record to swallow, besides Denardo’s juvenile drumming, is perhaps Ornette’s insistence on not sticking to his primary instrument. Three of these six tracks feature an untrained Ornette on trumpet and violin. “Sound Gravitation” is the bitterest pill, seven minutes of violin, bass and shapeless drums only made palatable by it’s sequencing after the impressionist trumpet led title track and the surprising shredder “Freeway Express”. The album closes with Ornette on Alto with the beautiful down tempo “Faithful” a soulful, somber opening theme to rival “Lonely Woman” and the bluesy Bop workout “Zig Zag” which features a bass break by Haden with a rich overtone that sounds like steel drums.
By 1968 Coltrane had pushed Free Jazz into the Spiritual realm, modal Jazz weirdos Davis and Hancock were borrowing from Soul Jazz and nascent funk to formulate Fusion, even Max Roach who physically assaulted Coleman when he was first ruffling feathers was playing music that sounds kind of free form. The context makes New York Is Now seem out of touch with the times. Coleman’s R&B roots are baked in and he just can’t resist a catchy tune when the mood strikes. “Garden of Souls” sounds tormented and angular until Coleman ditches the theme for an extremely fun solo and it takes everything in the rest of the bands power to redirect back to the brooding theme with the returning Garrison bowing his bass occasionally, Coltrane drummer Elvin Bishop polyrhythmically skittering around the beat and Free Jazz pupil Dewey Redman upping the weirdness with multiphonics. The original sequence of the record includes another violin excursion from Coleman right in the middle of the record that has been subsequently bumped to the end. “Toy Dance” and “Round Trip” sound like classic uptempo Coleman numbers and it’s fun to hear a double dose of sax but Don Cherry is missed here. The standout of the record though is the most outdated piece here “Broadway Blues” with a melody so old school it’s hard to believe it’s an original Coleman composition and not a previously existing standard though it’s easy to see how it has become a standard since. This quartet is a lot of fun but their most ambitious and with the times material from these sessions was shelved until 1971 as Love Call where yet again it sounds behind the times with Funk and Fusion at the forefront of the genre.
Last but not least, let’s bring it all back home with 1970’s Atlantic outtakes collection which acts as a sort of apocrypha to Coleman’s legendary run. The two opening tracks from the ’59 sessions and the pulse pounding ’61 number “The Alchemy of Scott Lafaro” make this record one of the most essential listens from this list. Overall the collection is an easy next step if you have heard all of his previous Atlantic recordings but I enjoyed circling back around to this period of his career on this excursion. Ornette Coleman’s playful and sassy style always shines through and it’s always a treat to hear that ebullience unencumbered by the sense of some dubious theory he was bullied into concocting as a justification for his rebellious streak and lack of formal education. Ornette Coleman at his best is pure joy and at his worst he’s still having too much fun to be annoying