For quite awhile, I've wanted to write a piece about why a guy who could listen to Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gorden, etc. also has a streak that just loves Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, the most outre John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and many other "new thing" or "free jazz" artists. My wife, who hates this stuff (the phrase I've heard more than once is "pig killing music"), would like to know as well.
I'm not ready to write that piece today, but today's WSJ had a very nice piece about saxaphonist Ornette Coleman and his first big record in 1959, (subs. may be necessary to get to this) "The Shape of Jazz To Come." Amazingly, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a lovely pianist but not exactly a trailblazer by my lights, talked the Ertugans at Atlantic Records into signing Coleman, and what we got was this revolutionary, beautiful free jazz masterpiece.
I hadn't heard this album in awhile, and Martin Johnson's article inspired me to put it on during lunch. It really is magnificent. I think what moves me about it is a combination of the vital drive created by Charlie Haden's bass and Billy HIggins' drums, the urban, gritty new harmonies in the ensemble playing by Ornette and Don Cherry on trumpet, and the really strange sweetness of the melodies themselves. Lonely Woman, now a standard, is just the most obvious example.
It looks as though Ornette or Atlantic have been able to keep everything from this album off of YouTube. But you can see and hear a pretty good example of what I'm talking about in the first few minutes of this video, almost 30 years later in Barcelona, with Ornette on alto, Cherry on pocket trumpet, Billy HIggins on drums and Charlie Haden swinging his bass back and forth. Beware, the sound on the left channel starts to cut out about half way through, but it's still worth sticking around to the end.
To see what Ornette is up to now, take a listen to this live performance of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time (which some people call his punk band) at Bonaroo last year. The band can't compare with the original quartet (and now Ornette plays both his own and the Don Cherry trumpet parts), but I think he's fundamentally doing the same things.
Ornette, you will recall, won a Pulitzer prize in 2007.