Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come



by something vague USER (16 Reviews)
February 3rd, 2006 | 46 replies | 12,818 views

Release Date: 1959 | Tracklist

8 of 8 thought this review was well written

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.

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Comments:Add a Comment 
February 3rd 2006


Album Rating: 5.0

Don Cherry is bitchin'.

I like this album alots.

February 3rd 2006


Great work. Your review was detailed and informative while there are only six tracks on the album.
I'm always up for some good jazz music, so I'm tempted to check this out soon.

February 3rd 2006


Very good review, Nick. I haven't heard much avant garde jazz, besides Coltrane and Hancock....

February 3rd 2006


This probably wouldn't be classified as avante-garde.

Oh well.

February 13th 2006


Hey I didn't notice this, probably because you're a loser :cool:

I may check this out, seeing as how my musical jazz frolicking is quite poor.

February 13th 2006


I wouldn't be talking, n00bula.

And yes, you will check this out.

May 5th 2006


This hasn't gotten as many comments as I would have thought.

La Revolucion
August 1st 2006


This album is excellent. Lonely Woman is my favorite.

March 25th 2007


Album Rating: 4.5

Lonely Woman just kicks. That bass at the beginning and that sax theme! Orgasmic! The rest of the album is excellent too. I think it has a very bare-bones feel, soundwise due to the lack of any chordal instruments.

Excellent review too.

April 28th 2007


Album Rating: 5.0

Fantastic review. Ornette's playing style is so expressive.

June 21st 2007


Awesome review, Ornette Coleman is a genius.

October 25th 2009


Good review. but one of most important things about this album you didnt touch on was the lack of form, which was important in the exploration of jazz.

and one of Ornette's features was playing the 'song' rather than chords. You may have noticed that the mood of the tunes reflects the title, 'Congeniality' is a nice happy tune, and 'Lonely Woman' is quite melancholy.

October 26th 2009


Album Rating: 4.5

This is like the best thing ever.

Digging: Labyrinth Ear - The Orchid Room

Staff Reviewer
October 26th 2009


Album Rating: 4.5

pretty much

Digging: Sad Lovers and Giants - Feeding the Flame

October 26th 2009


i want this. reminds me of refused for some incredibly obvious reason.

December 26th 2009


I can't stand this album or any Ornette Coleman, or any free jazz for that matter.

Staff Reviewer
December 26th 2009


Album Rating: 4.5

you would...

September 21st 2010


I don't know, this seems pretty cool, but it was so crazy on first listen that it made me want to throw up. I'll have to listen to it again.

April 14th 2011


I'm having another look through classic jazz albums, probably over 10 years since I have. Anyway on looking at this again the first track is definitely the best for me.

April 29th 2012


Album Rating: 5.0

Absolute classic. Album basically got me into Jazz aside from some Miles Davis albums.

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