Saturday, August 16, 2008

ORNETTE COLEMAN: The Shape of Jazz to Come

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come

This is unpredictable, organic stuff with all sorts of gnarled twists and turns and gorgeous solos. Typically, the pieces on this record consist of a brief melody, then a lot of improvisation, then a reprise of that melody; a pretty familiar way to structure jazz. What was innovative (though probably not unprecedented) about The Shape of Jazz to Come when it was first released was the absence of chord structures. Ornette Coleman’s quartet has no piano or guitar; just Ornette on alto sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on the drums. All four are dynamic, expressive musicians and the music they make together is incredibly engaging thanks to the ramshackle spontaneity Ornette allows them with his anything-goes approach to leading a combo. Unlike the tyrannical perfectionism of Charles “Fisticuffs” Mingus, Ornette allowed his sidemen to play things as they pleased in a democratic collaboration. While certain things are sacrificed, like Mingus’ compositional genius and the immaculate accuracy of his groups, what we get in exchange makes this one of the most invigorating records of its era, an era brimming with invigorating records.

Don Cherry’s trumpet flutters like some so-far undiscovered jazz sprite from another dimension or swings like headturning dancefloor hips. Higgins is an ideal anchor, energetic and playful. Haden’s dexterous bass is so snappy that not only does he make it sound easy, he’ll leave you convinced that without it, Western civilization would implode for lack of bottom. And Coleman…oh man.

Ornette Coleman plays the saxophone like Jimi Hendrix plays the guitar. Or, to correct the chronology of that statement, Jimi Hendrix plays the guitar like Ornette Coleman plays the saxophone. He plays saxophone the way I imagine saxaphones being played in my wildest dreams. He plays his horn the way people talk, he makes it human; sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming, and sometimes not making a whole lot of sense. His clear, bright tone is supposedly thanks to a plastic sax (though I suspect it has as much to do with the user as it does with the hardware), melodic lines sway and snarl with a snaky stride, and his splintering, seizuring solos flicker and dance like a good campfire. Listen to that boppy solo on “Congeniality”! Listen to those acrobatic bursts of sound! It’s the kind of moment that makes you want to root him on with a hearty “Go cat, go!”

This jubilant sax is located in the left channel of the stereo mix, with the trumpet in the right and the rhythm section steadily centered. While some may see the sax/trumpet interaction as sloppy, particularly when they play unison rhythms, I like that Coleman’s sax and Cherry’s trumpet retain their own identities even when playing together. They don’t sound like two notes on the same keyboard. They slither over their rhythm section as two unmistakable singularities in a tenuous tandem. These guys don’t play it safe, and the fact that they can sound like they’re going to fall apart at any moment gives the proceedings a sense of tension. If you’re into rock music, think of this quartet as the jazz equivalent of The Who in their prime: four musicians seemingly determined to make their part interesting enough to stand on its own, while somehow, against all odds and logic, fitting together as an ensemble.

Every one of these songs has something great to distinguish it from the others, even beyond their memorable, unique melodies. There are some nice details here. “Focus on Sanity” has a great bit at the start that sounds like the saxophone is laughing, (that horn is like a human being!) and then there’s a fantastic upright bass solo before the performance climaxes with a wonderful, understated drum solo. (Everyone gets a chance to shine on this most democratic of records.) The opening few minutes of “Peace” alternate bowed bass with bursts of winds, with the drums completely dropping out or playing in unison with the winds from time to time. It’s really, really neat. And don’t even try to tell me that Haden and Higgins don’t get your toes a-tappin’ during “Chronology”.

Like all the best jazz groups, The Ornette Coleman Quartet doesn't simply conjure up images of musicians in a studio and musings on structures and scales. They invoke real emotion. Give a listen to this album’s opening number “Lonely Woman”, with its quiet locomotive cymbals and its seductive melody swelling and swaying like moonlight and ruby red lips. That saxophone cries and cries, not like a saxophone, but like a wounded lover.

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