When one mentions "free-jazz" in a conversation, it is almost expected that someone in participation will cringe. But by now, it's expected; free-jazz and avante-jazz are both synonymous with more liberated forms of art, often times following no specific rhythm, melodic or harmonic form, etc. These ideas are what generally turn off a casual music fan when concerning jazz, and this I understand. Jazz can commonly be a challenging and misunderstood genre, whether it sparks the thought of geezer-pleasing 40s swing tunes, or the most excruciating, ear-demolishing freeform jazz.
1959 can also be considered one of the most important years in jazz, and obviously a year full of great albums. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue
implified the use of modal soloing, and John Coltrane's Giant Steps
took his playing to even more revered levels. But what sets Ornette Coleman apart from these other musicians of that particular time is his understanding of harmony. The one most important innovation that takes place on his 1959 masterpiece The Shape of Jazz to Come
is the lack of chordal structure. While most jazz music relies on a chorded instrument, such as a piano or guitar, Ornette's group, comrpised of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, did not rely on the significant limitations provided by chorded instruments. Instead, Ornette devised a way of improvising which relied on the soloist as the director of the music. If, say, the soloist changed rhythm, key, etc., the rest of the band would do so in orderly fashion, a result of the amazing chemistry between the whole group. While the music on The Shape of Jazz to Come
almost entirely lacks chordal structure, there are still a few instances where there are hints of it, whether it be through the occassional bass chording or harmonies hinting at a particular chord; a ghost chord.
However, to say that Ornette Coleman's music is unaccessable or truly "free-form" is quite misleading. While at times particular melodies may strike one as out of key or obnoxious (this isn't what I would call a rare ocassion), most of the songs have a subtle breeziness to them; a sort of abrasive beauty to them. And while some of the pieces here do verge on abrasive, they are never
ugly and overbearing. Take, for instance, the opener "Lonely Woman". While Ornette and Don harmonize away in a seemingly drunken way, the rhythm section chugs along at an almost steam-engine like fashion, making it clear that they are seemingly playing in a different time signature than the two soloists. However, despite the slurs sometimes odd choices of notes, taken out of the D minor scale, "Lonely Woman" comes out sounding reminiscent of old mystery films; a gal sitting on a desk in a haze of cigarette smoke, a witty sherlock in brown or grey with a hat over his head, all of that.
Another strongpoint is the balladeering of Ornette Coleman's quartet here. "Peace", the nine minute centerpiece of The Shape of Jazz to Come
, is a relaxed and fruitful adventure through several melodic passages and solos. Never does a member's playing sound out of place here; the rhythm section's playing is leniant and mellow, with Charlie Haden backing up whoever may be soloing with warm, complete walking bass lines. Ornette and Don Cherry's soloing are both melodic and unabashedly restrained in comparison to the rest of the album, whereas on such songs as the frantic, chromatic-honking intro of "Focus on Sanity" and the bright, cheerful "Chronology" are full much more interesting and true to the liberal aesthetics of Ornette's writing and improvising. "Congeniality" constantly switches from upbeat bebop to sweet, nostalgiac figures which interrupt the much more colourful sections of the song, once again showcasing the whole quartet magnificently. There's even a "wooh!" nearing the end of the solo around the five and a half minute mark.
The Shape of Jazz to Come
, however difficult it may seem to be at first (trust me, it does), is undoubtedly one of the most important jazz albums of the last fifty years, if not of all time. The advancements made here, whether it be the lack of chordal instruments or Ornette's own unique style of playing (he was for the most part, self-tought), are wonderful even in their most basic and early state. Besides The Shape of Jazz to Come
being particularly innovated and influential, it also contains some of the most wonderfully improvised and written music in jazz; Ornette's sharp tone and surprisingly creative improvising, Don Cherry's warm cornet sounds and harmonizing skills, Charlie Haden's particular skill with walking bass lines and punctuated chording and note choices, and last but not least, Billy Higgins' pervasively consistant drumming and skill with tempo, though he is nothing particular amazing in the world of jazz. However much the individual members may be recognized, the fact is that the chemistry between the members of the quartet are what make The Shape of Jazz to Come
what it really
is: a classic jazz record.
What a prophetic title.