Friday, June 12, 2015

Ornette Coleman

As I'm sure you know by now, Ornette Coleman died yestertoday, age 85. He was the first jazz musician I developed a real interest in and affection for. That was in the mid-1970s, at least 15 years after Coleman made his initial big splash, about the time he was inventing a second wave of jazz-rock fusion, one much more radical than the funk-oriented Miles Davis or the prog of John McLaughlin.

Coleman was part of the first wave of jazz avant-gardists, a group which variously sought to explore and find novel sounds, rhythms, and harmonics -- to violate the known rules of jazz, to do things that are wrong and somehow make them sound right. (Mingus put it most succinctly: "It's like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right.") Most of that wave wound up contributing to the postmodern synthesis jazz students today are taught: what we call postbop. Martin Williams was so impressed with Coleman that he concluded his Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz with three Coleman pieces (plus a Coltrane), arguing that [early] Coleman was the endpoint of the classic jazz tradition. Yet even today most novices find [early] Coleman puzzling before they are swept away. I saw this at work when my hip-hop-loving nephew wanted to get acquainted with jazz and I handed him The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Later Coleman pushed further and harder, but by the time he cut his last album, 2006's Sound Grammar, all the stars aligned: no jazz record in the past decade (or really, ever -- and I've been involved in a lot of critic polling on such things) has been so universally exclaimed. It even won the Pulitzer Prize that had so notoriously been denied Duke Ellington. Yet it sounded so offhand you could imagine him knocking sequels out every year -- so it seems odd that it came ten years after his previous album, and nine years before his death. He had remained active well into last year -- playing at a tribute concert in his honor in Brooklyn (and suing to keep the ablum from being released). He never got comfortable with the record business as he hopped from label to label, taking long breaks, never settling in -- he didn't even seem to be happy with his own labels, going back to Artist House in the late 1970s. One imagines he has hoards of tapes that greedy heirs will eventually dump onto the market. Or respectful ones, given that his son Denardo has been his preferred drummer ever since puberty in the 1970s. (Denardo first played on an album in 1966 when he was 10, but it took him a while to finally push Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, and Shannon Jackson out of the picture.)

My semi-obligatory database dump:

Mainline Albums:

  • Ornette Coleman: Something Else: The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958, Contemporary) -- ([1988], Contemporary/OJC): B+(***)
  • Ornette Coleman: Tomorrow Is the Question (1959, Contemporary) -- ([1988, Contemporary/OJC): B+(**)
  • Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959, Atlantic) -- ([1990], Atlantic): A+
  • Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century (1959 [1960], Atlantic) -- ([1992], Atlantic): A-
  • The Ornette Coleman Quartet: This Is Our Music (1960 [1961], Atlantic): A-
  • Ornette Coleman Double Quartet: Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960 [1961], Atlantic): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Ornette! (1961 [1962], Atlantic): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Ornette on Tenor (1961 [1962], Atlantic): B+(***)
  • Ornette Coleman: Town Hall, 1962 (1962 [1965], ESP-Disk): B+(***)
  • Ornette Coleman: Chappaqua Suite (1965, Columbia): B+
  • The Ornette Coleman Trio: At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm: Volume One (1965 [1966], Blue Note) -- (1987, Blue Note): A
  • The Ornette Coleman Trio: At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm: Volume Two (1965 [1966], Blue Note) -- (1987, Blue Note): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: New York Is Now! (1968, Blue Note) -- ([1989], Blue Note): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Love Call (1968 [1971], Blue Note): B+(**)
  • Ornette Coleman: Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street (1970 [1972], Flying Dutchman) -- ([2013], BGP): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Skies of America (1972, Columbia) -- ([2000], Columbia/Legacy): B+
  • Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head (1973-75 [1977], Verve) -- ([2000], Verve): A
  • Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden: Soapsuds, Soapsuds (1977, Artists House) -- ([1996], Verve/Harmolodic): B+
  • Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (1976 [1978], Artists House) -- ([1996], Verve/Harmolodic): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (1979 [1982], Antilles): A
  • Ornette & Prime Time: Opening the Caravan of Dreams (1985, Caravan of Dreams): B+
  • Ornette Coleman [The Original Quartet & Prime Time]: In All Languages (1985 [1987], Caravan of Dreams, 2LP): A
  • Ornette Coleman: Virgin Beauty (1988, Portrait): A-
  • Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Tone Dialing (1995, Harmolodic/Verve): B+
  • Ornette Coleman: Sound Museum: Hidden Man (1996, Harmolodic/Verve): B+
  • Ornette Coleman: Sound Museum: Three Women (1996, Harmologic/Verve): B
  • Ornette Coleman + Joachim Kühn: Colors: Live From Leipzig (1996 [1997], Verve/Harmolodic): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (2005 [2006], Sound Grammar): A

Miscellaneous Albums: side-credits, compilations, live albums that only appeared much after the fact:

  • Paul Bley Quintet: The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet (1958 [], Musidisc) -- also released as Paul Bley/Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry/Charlie Haden/Billy Higgins: Live at the Hilcrest Club 1958 (1958 [1976], Inner City), and Coleman Classics, Vol. 1 (IAI): A-
  • John Lewis Presents: Contemporary Music 1: Jazz Abstractions (1960 [1961], Atlantic) -- compositions by Gunther Schuller and Jim Hall; other cover names: Coleman, Eddie Costa, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro: A-
  • Ornette Coleman: To Whom Who Keeps a Record (1959-60 [1975], Atlantic) -- ([2007], Water): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: The Art of the Improvisers (1959-61 [1970], Atlantic) -- ([1988], Atlantic): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Twins (1959-61 [1971], Atlantic) -- ([2008], Water): A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Beauty Is a Rare Thing (1959-61 [1993], Rhino/Atlantic, 6CD) -- collects all the Atlantic recordings: A-
  • Jackie McLean/Ornette Coleman: New and Old Gospel (1967, Blue Note) -- ([2007], Blue Note): Coleman plays trumpet: A-
  • Alice Coltrane: Universal Consciousness (1971, Impulse): B
  • Ornette Coleman: The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (1971-72 [2000], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD) -- collects Science Fiction [1972] and the outtakes later issued as Broken Shadows [1982]: A-
  • Ornette Coleman: Ken Burns Jazz: The Definitive Ornette Coleman (1958-75 [2000], Columbia/Legacy): A-
  • Charlie Haden: Closeness (1976, Horizon) -- one of four duets: B+
  • Charlie Haden: The Golden Number (1976 [1977], Horizon) -- one of four duets: B+(***)
  • James Blood [Ulmer]: Tales of Captain Black (1978 [1979], Artists House) -- ([1979], DIW): A-
  • Jamaaladeen Tacuma: Renaissance Man (1983 [1984], Gramavision): B
  • Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman: Song X (1985 [1986], Geffen): A-; Song X: Twentieth Anniversary ([2005], Nonesuch): A
  • The Ornette Coleman Quartet: The 1987 Hamburg Concert (1987 [2011], Domino, 2CD): A-
  • Geri Allen: Eyes in the Back of Your Head (1995-96 [1997], Blue Note): B+
  • Rolf Kühn & Friends: Affairs (1997, Intuition): Coleman on 1 cut: A-
  • Lou Reed: The Raven (2003, Sire/Reprise): B+
  • Jamaaladeen Tacuma: For the Love of Ornette (2010 [2011], Jazzwerkstatt): B+(***)
  • Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 2 (2010 [2011], Doxy/Emarcy) -- one cut: A-
  • The Master Musicians of Jajouka, et al.: The Road to Jajouka: A Benefit Album (2013, Howe): A-

Selected albums I have not heard:

  • Ornette Coleman: The Empty Foxhole (1966 [1967], Blue Note)
  • Ornette Coleman: Ornette at 12 (1968 [1969], Impulse!)
  • Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band (1968-70 [1970], Apple) -- Coleman played on the one 1968 track
  • Ornette Coleman: Crisis (1969 [1972], Impulse!)
  • Louis Armstrong: Louis Armstrong and His Friends (1970, Flying Dutchman) -- no dream date: Armstrong only sings, and Coleman's credit reads "backing vocals"
  • Cosmetic With Jamaaladeen Tacuma: So Tranquilizin' (1985, Gramavision)
  • Ornette Coleman: Prime Design/Time Design (1985, Caravan of Dreams): composition only, played by string quartet + Denardo Coleman
  • Ornette Coleman: Naked Lunch [Soundtrack] (1988, Portrait)
  • New Vocabulary: New Vocabulary (2014, System Dialing) -- Coleman sued over this "unauthorized" release.

Miscellaneous unheard live albums:

  • Ornette Coleman Quintet: Complete Live at the Hillcrest Club (1958 [2007], Gambit) -- see above, usually attributed to Paul Bley Quintet
  • Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry/Jimmy Giuffre/Kenny Dorham: The Lenox Jazz School Concert: August 29, 1959 (1959 [2009], Free Factory)
  • Ornette Coleman: The Great London Concert (1960 [1975], Arista/Freedom, 2LP) -- also released as An Evening With Ornette Coleman ([1967], Polydor, 2LP)
  • Ornette Coleman Trio: Live at the Tivoli (1965 [1992], Magnetic)
  • Ornette Coleman Trio: Croydon Concert (1965 [2008], Free Factory)
  • Ornette Coleman: Who's Crazy? (1966 [1982], Affinity, 2LP) -- previously two separate LPs, 1 and 2 ([1979], Atmosphere)
  • Ornette Coleman: Lonely Woman Trio '66 (1966, no label): Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Ornette Coleman: Live in Milano (1968 [1989], Jazz Up)
  • Ornette Coleman: The Unprecedented Music of Ornette Coleman (1968 [1996], Passport)
  • Ornette Coleman: The Belgrade Concert (1971 [1995], Jazz Door)
  • Ornette Coleman: European Concert (1971, Unique Jazz): Berlin
  • Ornette Coleman: Paris Concert (1971 [1977], Trio, 2LP) -- later Live in Paris 1971 (1971 [2008], Gambit)
  • Ornette Coleman: Lonely Woman Quartet '74 (1974, no label): Italy
  • Ornette Coleman/Prime Time: Jazzbühne Berlin '88 (1988 [1990], Repertoire)
  • Ornette Coleman Quartet: Reunion 1990 (1990 [2010], Domino, 2CD): Reggio Emilia, Italy

I expect many more live albums will appear in the future, especially as his estate swings into action, and as Europe's 50-year copyright limit legitimizes more bootlegs.

An informal scan indicates that at least 500 albums have Ornette Coleman compositions on them (maybe more than 600; I couldn't check, but "Lonely Woman" is undoubtedly the song leader). I'd hazard a wild guess that two dozen or more albums are tributes/dedicated to Ornette Coleman: most obviously, everything by Old and New Dreams (Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell -- note that Coleman outlived all the members of his ghost band); also (hard to check this precisely): Affinity [Joe Rosenberg], Borah Bergman, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Dave Liebman, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, John Zorn.

Ornette Coleman was one of the few jazz musicians Robert Christgau continued to review regularly. His own Consumer Guide reviews are here. This reminds me that the first time I heard Dancing in Your Head was when Bob played it for me. The symphony theme was the most deliriously joyful piece of music I had ever heard. That wasn't the first time I heard Coleman, but it pushed my interest to a higher level.

Some links as others write about Coleman:

Some older pieces:

For a final word, Sonny Rollins (quoted in Gans, above):

We're all happy that we had an opportunity to witness the work and life of Ornette Coleman, and the human race is better for it.

Ask a question, or send a comment.