Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Marky's song #16: Ornette Coleman – "Angel Voice"

Ornette Coleman did not invent free jazz; no one single person did. Free jazz was pushed forward by a collection of like-minded musicians willing to test acceptable boundaries. But Ornette did become the most visible proponent and spokesperson. More importantly, he was the first to be disseminated through the channel of a large label, beginning with his recording contract with Atlantic in 1959.

Paraphrasing from a small part of the liner notes from the Beauty Is A Rare Thing boxset: nowadays it’s hard to understand what was the fuss all about. What Coleman did reads simple enough: he ignored the chord changes. Whether this is a progression or a regression depends on whom you ask, but at the risk of sounding overly portentous, all will concede that jazz was changed forever.

By the time he took up his residence at Atlantic, Coleman already had a pair of albums out. The earlier of the two, Something Else (1958), was released on Contemporary (and eventually found its way to digital format through the Original Jazz Classics imprint.) In retrospect, his debut seems the least ambitious when held up next to My Name Is Albert Ayler (1963) and Jazz Advance (1956). But Coleman would eventually sail headlong into uncharted waters like the rest of them, with fascinating results. Coleman only recorded for Atlantic for three years, but released a walloping eight albums of material.

Like Ayler and Taylor, Coleman had to make his earliest records with musicians who weren’t always hip to what he wanted. And like those contemporaries, the music succeeds without sounding forced or like people unable to communicate with each other. Of the classic quartet, he had first mate Don Cherry in tow, but Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell were still giggin’ on the opposite coast.

Coleman wrote all the melodies for Something Else, which helps the cause; with all the attention his improvisation theories get, it’s easy to forget that he is a very good composer. Walter Norris deserves special mention, handling his piano role in the quintet admirably. Piano didn’t really fit into Coleman’s musical vision, and he would wait almost forty years before recording with a pianist again, but Norris’s keen ear and light touch suits the music well without inadvertently imposing excessive harmonic restriction on it.

Ornette Coleman - "Angel Voice"

The order of solos is as follows: Coleman, Cherry, Norris, bassist Don Payne, another brief solo from Coleman, and a quick solo by kit-man Billy Higgins after a return to the theme.

Although Coleman’s first solo is stronger, it’s his second, shorter solo that deserves attention. Notice how he pokes around the rhythm section, not really reacting to anything, just casually exploring – the sound of a guy both showing others what he’s looking for and working an idea out on the stand. Sure enough, he wedges the square peg into the round hole and directs the band back to the theme in a logical way.

If you've never heard Ornette before, this should be your springboard. Save the harder stuff for later, lest you dismiss the man as an insufferable avant-guardist. If all you know is The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz, you owe it to yourself to hear the early records, just to prove that his ideas didn't emerge fully formed. He earned his stripes the old-fashioned way: through dabbling and woodshedding. You know, like a jazz musician.


  1. Nice attention to detail about his 2nd solo. In those brief measures he changes the complexion of the entire group before leading it back to the melody. I need more people like you to show me things to pay attention to in jazz. Often I just get carried away by the overall picture and fail to notice really nifty things like that. Thanks!