Jazz is freedom – sonic and cultural freedom.
If we try to refine that definition, we begin to polarize the approaches of even the mightiest of giants. You can’t define it as improvised or black or virtuosity or instrumental, because at each turn one can provide an example(s) of a key exception, without which the jazz canon would be infinitely impoverished.
Jazz is meant to be enjoyed, and it can be awe-inspiring.
Jazz is meant to get you thinking… Not thinking of what choice of scale degrees or tritone substitution an artist used, but rather what was going on at a certain time and place that spurred that artist’s moment of expression.
We’re kicking off a new Land of the Free series of articles to feature key moments throughout roughly 100 years of that musical and cultural freedom known as jazz. (In no certain order, other than we hope you enjoy one recording enough to look forward towards the next).
So with all this talk of freedom, let’s talk some Free Jazz, and let’s talk Ornette Coleman.
Starting in the late 1950’s a number of musicians sought to free themselves from various constraints that had been worked into the jazz lexicon that point. The most evident was a song’s dependency on a progressive chordal harmony – A remnant of classical schools of thought, further codified into popular song form(s), ultimately given to more complex (yet often, predictable) structures by the bebop school. Melody had become completely subjective upon the harmonic structure, typically in the 8-8-8-8 measure format.
By eschewing these harmonic constraints, jazzmen were now able to say what the wanted to say. This very quickly led to a new freedom in how they wanted to say it, adopting novel instrumentation, ways of attacking these instruments, and rethinking the lead soloist approach that had dominated the jazz landscape, for a more truly group improvisation.
Ornette Coleman was a seminal voice for the modern jazz revolution. Between 1958 through 1960, Ornette recorded his first six albums, including the hallmark The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 (Ornette wrapped-up 1960 with the phenomenal, but too-infrequently-regarded Free Jazz). Coleman’s focus is more on melody – simultaneous improvisations laid down by multiple instruments. Ornette’s approach is perhaps aided by his choice to not include piano, without which there is no distinct harmonic enforcement.
Start with “Lonely Woman. The drone-like opening bass figure almost suggests a harmonic backbone, but the ensuing melody meanders elsewhere very quickly. Coleman and Don Cherry’s phrasing the melody is tight, particularly given the atypical underlying rhythmic structure. Though seemingly played in straight octaves, the timbre of their instruments (Cherry’s coronet and Coleman’s ‘plastic’ saxophone) has so much contrast as to provide a certain discord to their performance. The soloists do take off, but not too much further than their counterparts in Miles’ great band of the same year. Yet today (and I’m going to safely bet, in 1959) the overall reception of this track was of more wonder, awe and confusion than anything from Kind of Blue.
The Shape of Jazz to Come is an extremely aptly-titled album. It is still heavily-rooted in jazz traditions, like song forms and yes, quite a lot of bop melodies. But it was a key preview into what Ornette Coleman himself, as well as Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Anthony Braxton, and The Chicago Jazz Ensemble, and a host of other artists would produce throughout the 1960’s.