Review by Ms. Ann
Ornette Coleman “Shape of Jazz to Come”
1959 Atlantic Records
Lonely Woman 4:59
Focus On Sanity 6:50
Alto Saxophone: Ornette Coleman
Drums: Billy Higgins
Double Bass: Charlie Haden
Cornet: Don Cherry
Producer: Nesuhi Ertegun
Composer: Ornette Coleman
Recorded: May 22, 1959
Recording Location: Radio Recorders in Hollywood, California
If you are going to color outside the lines on purpose artistically you must prove you know how to color inside the lines of tradition. In an overall summary, I could state that the structure of the six pieces is a presentation of a theme (or to jazz it up, a traditional head) followed by free improvisations usually done by Coleman and cornetist Don Cherry followed by a restatement of the theme, multiple times, in some cases, for all six tunes. At times, the band swings along in a moderato tempo, and it is truly reminiscent of cool jazz. This statement rather leaves out the chaos that bubbles up and falls all over the cracks of traditional jazz though, which is what this album represents.
There is a Picasso painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it is in the Impressionistic style, and quite frankly, it is horrible, in my humble opinion. I looked at it and thought, thank the Goddess the man decided to find his own style and paint, to create art, to be authentic because if he had pursued this, he would have never created brilliant art. I have viewed some early works of Picasso that are good, quite good, but the spark of genuine brilliance, the leap of faith into what could be disaster or infamy and the courage to take that step, this intrigues me. In life, for me, this leap, who takes it and who does not, this act is everything. Is the artist willing to risk it all, be vulnerable, and create past what is safe and known to go explore the edges of the undiscovered.
1959 is a tough year to claim King of the Hill because the all-star hitters are at their best. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” was released only a few months earlier than Coleman’s album. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” recorded July 1959, is an album that includes one of the biggest single hits in the history of jazz, and forever identifies the legendary Dave Brubeck. Charlie Mingus, “Mingus Ah Um” with “Better Get it in your Soul” is a sentimental favorite of mine, recorded October 1959. “Ella Sings the Gershwin Songbook” is recorded January, March, and July 1959 and that album is exquisite. Some years just claim all the fine wine.
To take in “Shape of Jazz to Come” I recommend you listen to the whole album first, as if you were sitting in your favorite bar listening to a jazz set by the featured band. Then replay it. This album, taken as a whole art work with Ornette Coleman on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums, sets a high bar for spontaneous invention. Having this context, I can appreciate the subtly of each song, the purposeful non-tonality corrections of instruments. Natural tuning, not tempered, is used. It is my understanding Ornette is playing a plastic saxophone and Don is on cornet. There isn’t a chord instrument in the house, we are sans piano or guitar, and into the void we go.
Without a chord instrument, “Lonely Woman” can be in D minor and be improvised chromatically. There aren’t any clashing notes and it is all good when the artist leads us back to home base. “Lonely Woman” is as palpable and painful as you can get.
“Peace” is a beautiful ballad. Ornette and Don Cherry improvise at the same time. This is reminiscent of the Renaissance idea of independent melodic lines intertwining to form harmony. Employing this concept, Ornette Coleman presents a groundbreaking concept at the time this jazz album was recorded.
“Focus on Sanity” starts in a bebop groove and heads out to free improvisation with bass and drums. We are privy to an exploration between the rigidity of bebop and the chaos of free jazz.
I find this album enjoyable in its free style, big swagger ways. It is contained chaos, rather like riding a wild stallion who chooses to obey you. Perhaps it is the audacity of holding the reins of a free spirit beast and riding on the edge of danger that makes it thrilling. In 2012, the Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry. 1959 jazz would not be the same without it.