Friday, March 02, 2018

Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz (Atlantic Records, 1961)

Subtitled A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, this remains on of the most contentious of Coleman’s early Atlantic Records catalog, inspiring the pre “hot box” Downbeat Magazine to print simultaneous five star and zero star reviews. It remains a bracing and thrilling album to this day and the Jackson Pollock painting that originally graced the cover is the perfect visual analogue to music contained within. Bringing together a jaw-dropping group of musicians, Coleman split them into two quartets, recorded in a such a way that their music would come from one of two channels in the stereo format. In the left channel there was Coleman himself on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Scott LaFaro on bass and Billy Higgins on drums; while in the right channel are Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. The original album consists of one continuous track, “Free Jazz” which had a fade in the middle in order to fit the music onto a standard LP. Modern digital versions of the album has that track presented seamlessly in addition to “First Take” a valuable addition to the Coleman canon showing that the more famous piece didn’t develop in a vacuum, but was was one that evolved in the studio over time, allowing soloists to be cued and ensemble passages to be worked out. Each of the musicians in the ensemble gets a solo section, in addition to collectively improvised full band sections that take surging sub-themes and use them as launching points for the group collaborations. The first side of the original LP focuses on ensemble passages and solo sections for the horn players, led off by Dolphy’s unmistakable bass clarinet, and the leader’s own blues drenched searing alto saxophone. The brass players are contrasted between Cherry’s pinched pocket trumpet and Hubbard's powerful blowing, proving that he was equally at home in the avant-garde as he was playing swinging hard bop. The second half of the original LP has ensemble passages connecting solos from the bassists and drummers, showing the nature of rhythm and pacing with a free context. It’s fascinating to compare the doomed virtuoso Scott Lafaro with Coleman mainstay Charlie Haden, and Higgins and Blackwell would alternately hold the drum chair until the leader’s son Denardo was ready to take over in the late sixties. They have unique yet complementary approaches to to music which are fascinating to hear and provide further fuel to the fire of the group’s extraordinary sound. Much of Coleman’s Atlantic Records output has been so fully absorbed into the language of modern jazz to the extent that they don’t seem all that revolutionary in retrospect today. No so this masterpiece, with an octet of hall of fame worthy talent set loose an atmosphere of supportive freedom, the results are seismic, and would echo through the ages to landmarks like John Coltrane’s Ascension, Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun and beyond. It is a towering achievement and one of the most important albums in jazz history. Free Jazz - amazon.com

Send comments to Tim.