The Shape of Jazz to Come by free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman is a groundbreaking jazz album that sounds as fresh today as the day it was recorded, all the way back in 1959.

Ornette Coleman’s Early Career:

Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas in March 1930, and perhaps more than other jazz musician shook the music to its very core, and in doing so created a great divide amongst musicians, theorists and jazz fans alike.

Initially starting out as a tenor saxophonist, playing in rhythm ‘n’ blues bands, Ornette always had a waywardness about his playing that would frequently lead to the disapproval of his bandleaders and often to him being fired.

In one unsavoury incident in 1949, where he had let this wayward spirit take over him during an engagement in Louisiana with an R&B band led by Clarence Samuel, he was assaulted after the gig.

Having been punched and kicked, and his saxophone damaged beyond repair, Coleman travelled to New Orleans with the band where he stayed with a friend for the next six months.

Martin Lassiter, who supplied Ornette with an alto saxophone, which would be his primary instrument for the rest of his career.

Still playing with blues-based bands, Ornette made his way to Los Angeles.

Finding work hard to come by the saxophonist stubbornly continued to work on his music, even if it did not find favour with the musicians in Los Angeles.

He was often heard practicing in the elevator during slow periods in the day when his elevator was not required.

He continued working on his music, often independently and at the consternation of the other musicians working around the area.

He met like-minded spirits in trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist, Charlie Haden, and drummer, Billy Higgins.

By early 1958, Ornette had got his music together along with small a group of musicians who were open to his new way of improvising, and was ready to record his first album.

Still in L.A. he made a couple of albums for the Contemporary label, creating not much a stir upon release, but more a shock and outrage.

The first of these Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman had the saxophonist playing in a quintet with piano, and still hearing him with a chordal instrument in his group still sounds quite strange.

For his follow up recorded a year later, Tomorrow Is The Question, the piano has been relinquished, and the group is starting to find its own sound and identity.

Just a couple of months later, in May 1959, Coleman was back in the studio recording for Atlantic Records the first of an astonishing run of albums.

Over a two-year period these would establish him as a pioneer of free jazz; an iconoclast, charlatan or genius.

Like it or hate, there was no denying that Coleman’s music was different and it was impossible not to have strong opinions once heard.

The Shape of Jazz: Coleman’s Peak of Perfection

The Shape Of Jazz To Come is the first release for Atlantic, and for many on the top of his achievements of the time.

The line-up was stable with regular colleagues who understood Coleman’s music, and were more than willing participants in this exciting new music.

Don Cherry was heard playing pocket trumpet instead of his full size more conventional instrument, and Ornette is featured on the album cover holding a plastic alto saxophone.

The bassist is Charlie Haden who had fully grasped the concept of not playing over a chord sequence but playing melodies and accompaniment based on what the soloist was playing.

He added his own melodic and rhythmic input in following and supporting them.

This concept was greatly enhanced by Billy Higgins on drums who was able to keep the pulse going yet able to turn around on a sixpence whenever there was a shift in the rhythmic emphasis that was dictated either by the freewheeling compositions or the soloist.

What makes the album ‘Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come‘ so compelling is the rapport between the quartet, and this what also tripped up many jazz fans and critics.

Astonishing counterpoint, long melodic sequences and solos coupled with a frequent “How do they know when to come back in for the theme?”.

The music was so new and fresh that with no rules being followed or explained it was difficult for even schooled musicians to figure out how the music worked.

What is immediately apparent is the link with the blues and a tenuous connection with bebop.

If the playing by all was astonishing at the time, so too were the compositions. With the first appearance on record of Ornette’s most well know, and  most often covered ‘Lonely Woman‘.

A lovely tune, the opening statement from the horn can still jar and shock after all these years with the tonalities of pocket trumpet and Coleman’s blues inflected but sometime brash alto sound.

Quite rightly regarded as a classic composition, we should not let ‘Lonely Woman’ overshadow some of the other tunes on the album, which is remarkably varied in the depth and conception of the material.’

Peace, for example, has a delightfully light and elegant theme statement played by Cherry and Coleman underpinned by light brushwork from Higgins and brief arco interlude from Haden’s double bass.

The alto solo that follows is full of grace, and a melodic line that is deceptive in its apparent simplicity, but speaks succinctly and directly.

This is matched by Don Cherry accompanied by Haden’s astute note placement and superb sense of time and the continue sensitive drumming of Higgins.

Almost as good is ‘Focus On Sanity’ that again showcases the sheer inventiveness and musicality of both Haden and Higgins as they duet superbly after the compositions brief but jarring theme.

At a brisker tempo, Ornette’s solo is full of slurs, bent notes and blues inflections as he weaves his magic.

Cherry really is the perfect foil and totally in tune with the concept and music, and his contribution is perhaps still underrated.

‘Congeniality’ is just that, a congenial melody and unison line that feeds naturally into a flowing straight ahead section for the solos.

Once again there is solid support for Higgins who keeps the momentum light yet propulsive for Coleman’s flights of fancy. ‘

Chronology’ works in a similar manner and, after all, still based on the time honoured method of theme statement, solos, theme and out as did bebop.

However, it is the construction of the solos that continues to fascinate, beguile and surprise in an album and music that sounds as elemental and fresh as the day it was recorded.

The Shape of Jazz To come: Album Info

Tracks:

  1. Lonely Woman
  2. Eventually
  3. Peace
  4. Focus On Sanity
  5. Congeniality
  6. Chronology

Personnel:

  • Ornette Coleman (alto saxophone)
  • Don Cherry (pocket trumpet)
  • Charlie Haden (bass)
  • Billy Higgins (drums)

Recorded:

May 22, 1959

Nick Lea
Nick Lea

Nick Lea is a British jazz writer who has been publishing articles, interviews and news about jazz for more than 20 years. He is editor and writer for Jazzviews.net