Monday, January 24, 2005

Ornette Coleman – Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959)

Ornette Coleman blew into New York from Los Angeles riding a tidal wave of controversy. “Established” musicians walked off the bandstand when he tried to sit in. Some stepped up to bat for him like the composer Leonard Bernstein and pianist John Lewis, who sponsored him at a music workshop in Tanglewood and brought him together with Atlantic Records for a record contract. By now, Coleman had solidified his “classic” quartet with Charlie Haden on bass, Don Cherry on trumpet and Billy Higgins on drums.

This is Coleman’s opening salvo for Atlantic and of all of the albums he would subsequently record for them, this remains his best known and most respected. It’s hard to see in retrospect how this music was so controversial, as it has been by now so thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of jazz. Some of Coleman’s best known compositions are here. His R&B tinged alto saxophone comes blasting through in “Focus on Sanity,” undoubtedly a rebuttal for all those who had accused Coleman of having lost his mind. Coleman and Cherry play are nearly telepathic in their ability to play together without getting in each other’s way. “Peace” is a mournful, bluesy theme which allows the band to stretch out at medium tempo and dispels the notion of the group being involved in simply formless improvisation. “Lonely Woman” is Coleman’s most famous theme, deep and dark with the saxophone just jumping out of the speakers.

This was one of the most influential albums of post-war jazz. The compositions, improvisations and performances are really amazing and add up to what is simply a timeless record.

Send comments to: Tim