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Free Jazz Fans of the World, Unite!

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I had very carefully bootlegged disc after disc of avant-garde jazz–enough that it took me months to actually listen to every CD that I had burned. And when I got to the very last one yesterday, Forms and Sounds: The Music of Ornette Coleman, it wouldn’t play. Wouldn’t even register as a disc…it was a coaster. (Literally; I actually use bad CD-Rs as coasters.) And here I was, cursing “dammit, dammit, dammit,” because the album is long out-of-print, was bloody near impossible to find when it was in print, had been a very long search on the P2P software, and how was I ever going to find it again?

I may be the only person who recognizes that Ornette is one of the three most important jazz musicians who ever lived (even though I’m right), but everyone should recognize that he is a titan and a genius who reset the paradigm for jazz with his six revolutionary albums on Atlantic. (Revolutionary? Hell, they WERE the revolution.) And yet most of his 1960s output after Atlantic, arguably his most adventurous period (and among the most adventurous in all of jazz), is unavailable in America or sometimes anywhere else. That’s ridiculous. Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Miles…all people whose (nearly) every recording is easily available–and usually very cheap. Meantime I have to get my copy of Coleman’s Chappaqua Suite from a wholesale distributor in Poland??!??

In fairness, the two magnificent Live at the ‘Golden Circle,’ Stockholm Blue Note sets are back in print as part of the Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) remaster series. Coleman’s two 1968 sessions, New York is Now and Love Call, are also fairly easy to find; they also happen to be the two worst albums of his career: stagnant, listless, and uninspired.

But what about Live at Town Hall, 1962? It was released by ESP, but flickers in and out of existence like a ghostly apparition. In truth, a lot of this concert has never been released at all, including a set Ornette plays with a rhythm & blues band whose very idea leaves me salivating…but what is here is enough for a burst of flavor. There are four long tracks: three with the trio (David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums) and one with a string quartet called “Dedication to Poets and Writers” that is closer to, say, Lumpy Gravy-era Frank Zappa than Shape of Jazz to Come. At the same time, though, every instrument plays what sounds like a distinct Coleman solo. On the other tracks, the trio is all creative energy and onstage tension, particularly in “Doughnuts.” But the standout is “Sadness,” with Izenzon playing a bowed (“arco”) bass that sounds like a man weeping. There’s no reason that the only way you can get this right now is as an Italian import.

Ditto for The Great London Concert, which ended the two years of retirement that Ornette proclaimed in late 1962. This set is where Coleman premiered the piece known as “Forms and Sounds for Wind Quartet.” It’s a lot like “Dedication” from Town Hall, but it’s simultaneously wittier and more ponderous. The rest of the set overlaps somewhat with Town Hall and has the same kind of crackling tension…but where the previous record is all a jolt of artistic excitement, this one is crisp with the anxiety and nerves of a comeback.

It was a successful one, of course, and it spread throughout Europe with great acclaim and incredible musical accomplishment (as documented on the Stockholm Golden Circle sets). Europe, certainly (and unfortunately), has always been more welcoming of jazz in general–and the avant-garde in particular–than America ever was, and it was packed with musical and artistic types who were desperate to make Ornette’s acquaintance. Among these, apparently, were a surprising number of filmmakers, all of whom had soundtrack commissions in their hands.

Chappaqua Suite, for example. It was the first commissioned score for Conrad Rooks’ film Chappaqua–which, although made by an American director and named for a Long Island town (the same place where the Clintons now live), it was a French production and was filmed almost entirely in Paris. Rooks asked Coleman to compose the music for his exploration of drug addiction, and in response our man took his trio, fellow freeman Pharoah Sanders, and several string and woodwind players into the studio in June of 1965 and made a mammoth, four-part masterpiece that showed off his plaintively emotional saxophone wailing AND his mesmerizing skill at orchestral composition. It was, in fact, so beautiful and complex that Rooks was ultimately afraid that it would overshadow the film, so he commissioned another score and released Ornette’s suite as a double album.

Kind of an unlikely, fantastic story, ain’t it? It didn’t happen again…but it came damn close. In 1966, Coleman was asked to write and record another soundtrack, this one for a Belgian flick called Who’s Crazy? Again Coleman took his trio into the studio–although this time he played his bizarre and self-taught trumpet and violin along with the trademark plastic alto sax–and again he produced a fearsome double album. This one was much less of a unified piece than was Chappaqua Suite, but it showed the Coleman trio doing one of the things it did past: playing like they were on fire, a savage and barely-controlled fury that bleeds right through the speakers.

Back in New York that September, Ornette took perhaps the most controversial action of his career. Izenzon and Moffett left the band and in their place Coleman installed Charlie Haden, his Atlantic-era bass player (my favorite bassist) and his own son, Denardo, on drums…Denardo, who was ten years old and had only played the drums for less than two years. Actually, though the jazz world was in an uproar over it, Denardo was the perfect choice for his dad’s sound: Ornette, after all, loved freedom more than any other quality in music. Who could be freer than a player who was completely innocent of the conventions?

That creative innocence shines through on the strange and delicious next album, The Empty Foxhole (Blue Note). With Haden’s pointillism and Denardo’s whatever-the-Hell, it frequently sounds like Ornette (who again alternates between sax, trumpet, and violin) is building gorgeous and exotic structures on bizarre, unsteady foundations; though there is one clashing free-form experiment (“Sound Gravitation”), there is also the title track, where Ornette’s trumpet is sheer, blissful beauty rising slowly out of the bedlam.

Then came Forms and Sounds, which contains three performances of Coleman compositions by the Philadelphia Woodwind Quartet (“Forms and Sounds,” which also features Coleman on trumpet) and the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia String Quartet (“Saints and Soldiers,” “Space Flight”). It’s more classical than jazz, but Forms and Sounds doesn’t really fit that mold either: the title track, the woodwind one, sounds something like Varese or early John Cage, but “Saints and Soldiers” and “Space Flight” have almost no point of comparison. They’re not really melodic, although they have a certain flow to them; they have a sense of drama that defies all convention; and they don’t evoke the images in their titles (at least in any way I can find so far). The closest I can come to explaining them is “high-speed playback of Bernard Hermann (the guy who wrote the score for Psycho and other Hitchcock films).” However you define it, it’s challenging and fascinating listening.

Coleman’s next two albums were the aforementioned shitty Blue Notes Love Call and New York Is Now, which he recorded with Dewey Redman (Joshua’s father) on tenor saxophone and John Coltrane’s rhythm players, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, on bass and drums. It couldn’t be the lineup, all of them jazz nobility, that was the problem; from the sound of the records, Ornette just didn’t have any new ideas. But he quickly remedied that in 1969 by moving to Impulse! Records–the premier avant-garde label of the era–and recording two new albums: Crisis, recorded in March, and Ornette at 12, recorded three months later.

Crisis, a live set at NYU, is an incredible piece. Denardo is back on drums–apparently having learned a lot more about rhythms–and Redman plays tenor again, but Coleman is also joined by two stalwarts from the Atlantic period: Haden on bass and Don Cherry on trumpet. It’s often said that the original Atlantic quartet (Coleman, Haden, Cherry, and drummer Billy Higgins) could read each other so precisely that it was like telekinesis, and with three-fourths of that quartet joining 13-year-old Denardo and Dewey Redman, it seems there really might be psychic phenomena at work. This is especially true with Denardo Coleman: he follows the atonal blues shrieks of his father, the melodic bursts of Don Cherry, and the wandering growls of Redman with equal precision and extremely creative and avant-garde drum fills (the best example is the longest track, “Comme Il Faut”). Altogether, the band sounds like the wildest, yet most tightly-controlled, hurricane you’ve ever heard.

Finally there’s Ornette at 12; I don’t understand the title. It could refer to Denardo, whose full name is Ornette Denardo Coleman, but I’m pretty sure that he was 13 by the time the album was recorded. Maybe it’s referring to how Coleman sounds at midnight? Or at noon? I’m not sure. But anyway, this is another live one with the same lineup (minus Cherry) and is, at first glance, something like half-and-half: tracks 1 (“C.O.D.”) and 3 (“New York”) seem to be more structured, more-or-less melodic cuts, while tracks 2 (“Rainbows”) and 4 (“Bells and Chimes”) sound like the all-out squalls on Crisis. But like that earlier album, this one is deceiving. While Crisis was always more focused than it initially sounded, it did have a kind of manic energy and echoey sound that you only get in a concert recording; Ornette at 12, on the other hand, has both the high fidelity and musical finesse that you’d associate with the studio. That gives the proceedings an unexpected wallop–especially on “New York,” where you’re set up by Ornette’s high-powered trumpet barrage, then completely disarmed by Dewey Redman’s sudden melodic expedition in the middle of the track. It’s quite fantastic, I assure you.

But I shouldn’t have to assure you. Why should I even have to be the one to tell you about these albums?

Even if you hate free jazz, don’t these records sound interesting? And if Ornette Coleman is one-tenth as important a force as I say he is, shouldn’t all of his interesting work be readily available, even if it’s not as revolutionary (which in some cases it IS)? Imagine if the powers-that-be decided that Beethoven’s 4th, 7th, and 8th Symphonies could safely go out of print because they were good work but didn’t have the soaring reputation of symphonies 3, 5, 6, and 9 (although the 7th was likely the most popular in Beethoven’s lifetime). Would that be asinine, or what?

So there’s no excuse for Coleman’s being so hard to find, ESPECIALLY the ones on Blue Note and Impulse–two labels that rerelease even the stuff that nobody bought in 1966 or last year. If you care at all about the avant-garde jazz world, you want to hear this stuff…and if you care about jazz in general, you need to hear it. We can’t stand for this travesty! Call your local distributor. Email the labels. DEMAND the return to print of Ornette Coleman’s post-Atlantic ’60s catalog. Free jazz fans of the world, unite!

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About Michael J. West

  • Jay Collins

    Interesting piece, though your likely to get much argument concerning his status from many of the cognoscenti.

    Re: the Impulse! recordings (including the 45), they were licensed to Impulse! by Ornette himself. The label no longer has the rights to this material (blame Ornette if you must).

    Denardo was 12 when Ornette At 12 was recorded (1968).

  • Hee! I know…I’m making a pretty bold statement about his status here, but I think I’m right that he’s in the top 3 (yes, I place him above Coltrane) and I’ve got pretty good arguments. I’ll post them if I get enough interest on this article.

    Hmmm…I coulda sworn Ornette at 12 was ’68, but I’ve only got it on a CD-R. I’ve gotta do better research before I post these things. 🙂

  • from what i’ve read, Ornette is a stickler for getting a ‘good deal’ in his business transactions…causing him to miss out on releases/shows because he couldn’t get his price.

    man, i bet you he’s got a lot of cool concert material in the can.

  • godoggo

    I’d think a better slogan might be “Free jazz fans of the world, do whatever the hell you want.”

  • Eric Olsen

    great job Mike, I have had a few free jazz phases and love the energy and spaciosness, but eventually grow sentimental for structure

    How about “Free Jazz Fans For Sale”?

  • godoggo

    I guess I should mention that I really do like free jazz, although I recoil a bit at music critic hyperbole of any kind. There, my joke is now officially deceased.

  • Point taken. I usually like to think of myself as a historian instead of a critic, since that’s where my interest lies, but since I’m aware of how pretentious that sounds I’ll just stop right there.

  • godoggo

    One other quick comment. Ornette’s influence is huge, of course; offhand, I’d divide Ornett-influenced players into the following categories: 1) sidemen, 2)musicians who play in his style, 3)musicians who play in other free jazz styles, 4) straight ahead jazz musicans who occassionally in play free; 5) modal post bop players, and, (in order to cover my posterior) 6) miscellaneous (e.g. Ornette-influenced rock players).

    OK, so it’s kind of a lame list, but it gives an idea of his historical importance. However, his importance as a player is another matter. Whereas I often find his playing moving, and find his conception potentially rich, I have some reservations about his musicianship. There are four soloists of whom I’m aware who have mastered his approach to improvisation, and, because of their better musicianship (instumental technique, and superior mastery of the fundamentals of bop and/or post-bop) taken it far beyond anything Ornette can do. Here they are: Dewey Redman, John Carter, Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis.

    OK, one other comment, I’m not nearly as familiar with Ornette’s discography as you, but I felt confident enough to give an answer a few years ago when a friend asked for some buying advice. My first recommendation was “Stay away from anything with Denardo on it.” My second recommendation was “I don’t know if it’s available on CD, but Science Fiction is a good one.” Turns out the second was definitely good advice, for he bought the 2-CD “Science Fiction Sessions” album, which is very much in print, and called me the next day absolutely elated. Of course, I’ll stand by the first recommendation as well.


  • godoggo

    I know, I know – horrible horrible prose.

  • Aw, poor Denardo.

    I think you’re right, godoggo, about Ornette’s musicianship…but my understanding is that he’s remained purposely unschooled about it because he’s afraid that it would (1) undermine his approach to playing, and (2) ruin any chance he has of making new and unheard-of sounds on his instrument(s): after all, the more seasoned a player one is, the less likely open is to explore unconventional ways of playing.

  • Mike,
    I am a life-long (yet casual) jazz fan though I’ve only given over to avant/free jazz in recent years. A friend took me to see Ornette Coleman last year and it was the most purely exciting muscial moment of my life. That said, Coltrane is my jazz muse. I personally try not to compare them because they were doing different things with different motivation, but I am curious as to your “arguments” as to placing one above the other and also am wondering who your top three are?

    Meanwhile thanks for the post. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes peeled for some of these. Grazie!

  • Duke Ed

    Hey guys,

    I have been checking out a ton of Ornette. My favorite though is Shape of Jazz to come. that Lonely woman kicks ass. I have been trying to catch some live jazz around here in LA. Have any of you heard this Alto player Jason Goldman? He has some Ornette influence. I looked him up: http://www.jasongoldmanjazz.net. He sounds great. Also, this guy in John Birks. He plays a bit more like Joe Hen than Ornette but its still there.