The Ornette Coleman Ten-Pack

A quick trip through old new things

Ornette Coleman's sui generis approach to melody, harmony, and movement (in the early '70s, he dubbed his musical system "harmolodics") broke most of the rules and set in place several new ones. What follows is a glance at 10 of the alto saxophonist's best albums. --Dylan Hicks

 

FIVE GREAT ORNETTE ALBUMS, EARLY-TO-MID PERIOD

The Shape of Jazz to Come, Atlantic, 1959
Western musicians who fool around with microtones are sometimes said to be playing the notes found in the cracks between piano keys. Here Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry (playing cornet), bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins turn those cracks into canyons. There they stumble on a bop-aware Texas blues bar that doubles as modern art museum. A lonely woman sits in the corner, sipping ginger ale, occasionally drumming her fingers to the apparent expansion of beauty.

The Change of the Century, Atlantic, 1960
The same quartet, with Cherry switching to pocket trumpet, on a serious roll, ready to change the world by making anxiety sound optimistic and optimism sound anxious. Whistle-ready tunes like the dusty blues-not-blues "Ramblin'" and the cubist love song "Una Muy Bonita" make this one of Coleman's most accessible albums. Feel, feel, feel!

Free Jazz, Atlantic, 1961
Eight musicians (two pianoless quartets) with no predetermined chord changes or time signatures to keep them from making music to which Jackson Pollock could properly paint signs for a civil rights march.

At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm, Vol. 1, Blue Note, 1966
With less to prove but no less to offer, Coleman teams with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett (dig the cymbal fury!) for a set of forward swing. Ornette is perhaps most important as a composer and great-souled conceptionalist, but this album best documents his searing improvisations of happy-sad everything.

Science Fiction, Columbia, 1971
Old cronies and new compatriots on Atlantic-years-esque Martian folk-pop tunes, plus wah-wah guitar, pretentious poetry, and a leadoff track that sounds like "Somewhere" delivered from somewhere very, very far away. --Dylan Hicks

 

FIVE GREAT ORNETTTE ALBUMS, MID-TO-LATE PERIOD

Dancing in Your Head, A&M/Horizon, 1977
In which Ornette cracks his second generation of skulls. How piquant that many who championed his late-'50s uprising would summarily dismiss the "rock rhythms" of this squiggly squall, which heralded the onset of his electric band Prime Time. The leader's alto is rapturous and relentless, yet barely more in-your-face that the teeming gaggle of chicken-scratch guitar chords, whomping bass lines, and pile-driver drumming.

Of Human Feelings, Antilles, 1979
The best of the Prime Time ensembles caught in full bloom, nourished by their mature grasp of Ornette's harmolodic approach. The result is harmonically dense funk-jazz that's sleek, supple, and elusive, slithering all over the scale while it keeps your toes tapping. Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma courses through the mix like a mountain stream in early spring.

Song X, Geffen, 1985
Released under the name and label of guitarist Pat Metheny, this auspicious pairing forever erased Metheny's rep as an amiable wuss and enabled Ornette to flash back to the arresting blare of his '60s material while reaching a much wider audience. Metheny's harmonic sophistication earns him co-ownership of the prime solo space Ornette rarely cedes. Haden and a pair of drummers sketch and shade the contours of the leaders' playfully daunting repartee.

Tone Dialing, Harmolodic/Verve, 1995
Easily Ornette's most eclectic disc, with earnestly rapped hip hop, a gorgeous Bach prelude, a calypso, tape loops, Cuban jazz, and a Texas-tropicalia hybrid all passing through the harmolodic lens. Aside from Ornette's son Denardo on drums and tabla player Badal Roy, it's a pedestrian Prime Time lineup, buoyed by bracing compositions as musically deep as they are stylistically broad, especially the spooky, multi-textured, aptly named, "Sound Is Everywhere."

Sound Museum Three Women, Harmolodic/Verve, 1996
On this and the companion Hidden Man (all but one of their 14 songs are the same, albeit with the musicians choosing different harmonies), Geri Allen lays waste to the myth that pianists are redundant or otherwise incompatible in Ornette's ensembles. Ingenuously emphasizing rhythm over harmony, her phrases dog the heels of Ornette's solos, or echo them at a distance, or spread anticipatory garlands to announce their arrival. --Britt Robson

 
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