It’s a wonder I ever got into Ornette Coleman at all. When I first started assembling some basic jazz albums for a starter collection for the genre, I included The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman’s breakthrough third LP, among my selections. After I’d listened to primer albums by Bird, Miles, Mingus and Satch, I queued up Ornette on my iPod...and damn near broke the thing flinging the device away in shock. What in the hell WAS this?
It’s not that Ornette was so radically unlistenable that I couldn’t come to grips with it; I had, in fact, already listened to and loved works by out-there artists who bore Ornette’s influence, chiefly the magnificently weird Captain Beefheart. But even what little work I’d heard by his disciples didn’t come close to capturing the full energy, the urgency of it. What threw me was not some crackling wall of white noise (which is what I had been expecting) but how asymptotically close the music came to conventional melody, only to burst at the seams with impatience, with exuberant overeagerness. Everything I’d read to prepare myself for Ornette talked about the avant-garde otherworldliness, the historical impact of so daringly titled an album. What they hadn’t mentioned was the joyousness of it all.
That’s been the greatest consistency in Ornette’s frequently upended career path: the overwhelming elation of the music, whether in a classic jazz quartet working just outside the boundaries of bebop or as a beyond-fusion outfit pushing electric squall toward harmony. To listen to one of his records (and nearly all of them are high-quality) is to be reminded of the eternal freshness of jazz, of why this music remains after flaring out so unfortunately when tastes shifted.
Although, truth be told, Ornette’s music features quite a lot of consistency. Critics of free jazz contended that it was all just random playing, irreproducible collections of un-notes that did not constitute true composition. Yet themes from Ornette’s work pop up years down the line. “School Work” from the 1971 Science Fiction sessions (later released on Broken Shadows in 1982) resurfaced five years later massively reworked for Ornette’s first full-on electric work with Prime Time, Dancing in Your Head. And when Ornette and his lineups play, they don’t simply caterwaul around even at their most chaotic. Form clearly drives them along a recognizable pattern, but that doesn’t prevent them from throwing in melodies of their own, pulling apart but also hanging together off the main melody.
That adherence to melodic forms, to the emotional effect of a composition rather than its formal perfection, is one of the basic tenets of Coleman’s hamolodics philosophy, an outlook I’ve never fully grasped. But maybe Ornette doesn’t either, as he’s been putting off a book on his theory since the ‘70s. Or maybe he cannot put it into words; I know I can’t. But the basic foundation of harmolodics is the equality of several elements, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, time/speed and more. Each player in his lineup is given space to develop ideas, but they all push toward a unified whole. Listening to them intuit their way toward each other is the greatest thrill of Ornette’s music.
But even if these bands operate through a group dynamic, Ornette is still the clear leader, and one can never truly accuse the man of immodesty. Only someone born in Texas could be so bold as to give his earliest albums names like “The Shape of Jazz to Come” or “Change of the Century.” And it takes a special kind of endurance to keep on with the violin and trumpet despite sounding as if he never practiced either of them longer than a single weekend. (Truth be told, I’ve never had a huge issue with his trumpet or violin playing, but that’s only because even he seems to know to keep that stuff to a minimum.)
But on the saxophone, he’s alive, spiky but elegant. I genuinely cannot think of an alto saxophonist who plays as beautifully. His style, obviously, is anything but smooth, but even at his fastest and squawkiest, Ornette displays an elegance so few, if any, of his followers could ever imitate. That elegance has only strengthened with time, regardless of how easily the jazz purists can still dismiss his later work as chaotic nonsense. Endless playing and constant reshuffling have made Ornette even more assured and vibrant, and if you peg his age solely by his playing and tone, you’ll never guess he’s older than 30.
Sifting through Ornette’s storied career for highlights is next to impossible, especially as he did not record when uninspired. In a two-year period recording for Atlantic, he composed enough material to fill six LPs, with a basket of leftovers that filled three more albums and change, but later he took 7 years off before the Sound Museum records and Tone Dialing and another decade between those releases and Sound Grammar. But to help provide an overview for one of America’s most important artists, here are 10 albums that manage to stand above the rest.
1. The Shape of Jazz to Come
Five minutes is all it took. In five minutes, the opening track “Lonely Woman” jubilantly lives up to the album title as it draws a line in the sand between the open-minded and the traditional. No longer so out-there in the wake of Albert Ayler, Sonny Sharrock, late-Trane and all the rest, this is still ground zero for a critical juncture in jazz history, and it makes for as revelatory a listen now as it was then. The first of the material to come out of Ornette’s historic two-year gold run at Atlantic, and still one of the landmarks of 20th-century America music.
2. Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation
The title may be a lie compounded by the repeated falsehood of the subtitle (the composition was sketched out and rehearsed), but Free Jazz nevertheless stands as the second most important contribution Coleman made in his frenzied Atlantic years. Coleman’s double quartet lineup features so many up-and-coming cats who would become all-stars in no time that I half-suspected Miles Davis of scouting for Ornette. Or at least, I would, had Miles not been one too many drinks away from killing all of them for this wretched noise. But never mind; this is gorgeous, epic music, so advanced it goes beyond merely breaking musical forms but technical ones as well, what with its daring LP-length composition and the stereophonic separation of the two individual quartets. The Shape of Jazz to Come heralded Ornette’s arrival, but Free Jazz put him in the pantheon.
3. Of Human Feelings
My favorite Prime Time recording is one of the group’s more concise affairs, but that only makes it even more dense. Rarely has Ornette and co.‘s ability to travel along separate musical paths to the same delta been so finely executed. Rhythms collide into catastrophic but cogent funk, and Of Human Feelings proves a danceable despite jagged textures. Be careful, though; this album surges with such purpose that you just might boogie ‘til your legs give out.
4. Change of the Century
Against all odds, Ornette found an even more arrogant title than The Shape of Jazz to Come. Even more bafflingly, he lived up to this name too. More openly giddy than the joyous but declarative Shape, Change demonstrates the solidification of the band’s chemistry and mutual understanding, leading to more confident melodies and variance. Building off its predecessor in every way, this is no less essential to understanding Ornette.
5. Science Fiction
Science Fiction sounds like what the uninitiated have in mind when they think of Ornette Coleman. Forget the melodic strains of the Atlantic years; this is a furious musical assault, more swirling and daunting than even Free Jazz. More of a dividing line between epochs than even the first Prime Time album, Science Fiction plunders the depths of Ornette’s creativity, throwing together fuzz bass, vocals and acoustic instruments played so aggressively they could drown out electrics hooked up to stacks of Marshall amps.
6. Sound Grammar
Technically, only one of eight cuts on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sound Grammar is an outright re-recording, but much of the album revisits previous compositions for drastically altered sister songs. But this is anything but a rehash, instead reworking various forms the bandleader picked up over the years and mixing and matching them to works across his long, varied career. Ornette seems to use “grammar” here the way the poststructuralists do, as a means of clarifying and establishing the discursive system. As such, Sound Grammar, made nearly 50 years into the artist’s recording career, offers one of the most comprehensive (and comprehendible) summaries of his output available.
7. In All Languages
Split into two halves, one reuniting the classic quartet of Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins and the other featuring Prime Time, In All Languages showcases the best of both worlds. It also serves as a demonstration of just how far not only Ornette had come but how much he’d reshaped music. Set against the dense electric sounds of Prime Time, the quartet that used to raise so much hell now sounds conventional, even retro. Repeated compositions across the two discs show how completely Ornette can restructure a basic melody with a different lineup, even as he maintains that melody to prove the method to his madness.
Easing off the density of Free Jazz, Ornette! finds the happy(?) medium between that composition and the earlier, more accessible Atlantic work. Its four numbers are complex and filled with ideas, but they are also remarkably easy to follow and not a bad place to introduce newcomers. Scott LaFaro’s nimble playing is a particular delight, making his forthcoming death in a car accident all the more tragic. Though it does back off from Free Jazz’s audacity, this album also shows Ornette consolidating the gains he made in that improvisatory maelstrom into compositional clarity. Here is the proof that what Ornette and co. were doing was not just noise.
9. Skies of America
Ornette’s foray into third stream stands as his most ambitious attempt to crystallize his harmolodic theory in composition. The London Symphony Orchestra starts normal but soon leaps into peaks and valleys of spiky instrumental attacks and rending elegies. Though the music is greatly varied, it is all part of a single movement, using recurring motifs and melodies that not only draw upon the composition itself but prior motifs in Ornette’s work. In some cases, they laid the foundation for future extrapolations. On paper, this looks like the ultimate vanity project, but Skies of America is not merely one of Ornette’s most important works but one of his most engaging.
10. Song X
The black sheep of Pat Metheny’s discography is the album that reminds me of his true versatility when the lighter side of his playing grates. But Coleman’s influence shapes even Metheny’s lightest moments, and their collaboration here brings out the best in both. Metheny’s guitar bends and jerks around Ornette’s impassioned saxophone, finding such wonderful harmonies it’s a shame they (so far) haven’t collaborated again. The epic “Endangered Species” is one of the career highlights of both of them.