Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come”

Album cover for The Shape of Jazz to Come

I’ve been listening to Ornette Coleman’s third album “The Shape of Jazz to Come” from 1959. This release receives credit for creating the genre of free-jazz. The producer suggested the title “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” because of the innovative nature of the compositions and performances. Free Jazz intentionally resists established conventions of jazz music, while further embracing the jazz’s improvisational aspects. Coleman’s quartet take a major shift from convention by lacking any instruments capable of voicing chords. Billy Higgins plays drums, Charlie Haden plays bass, Don Cherry plays a pocket trumpet, and Coleman plays a plastic saxophone. There is a noteworthy absence of piano or guitar.

Each week, I devote time to a different album widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My main purpose is to broaden my horizons and improve my own songwriting, performance, recording and production. Writing about them forces me to think further about what I’ve heard from a more technical standpoint. I often give most attention to the lyrics and chord progressions. From there, I may look at the instrumentation and rhythmic structure, the mixing and production, the atmosphere and attitude, and maybe some of the cultural significance.

Each time I get a jazz album, it presents a great challenge. My experience as both a listener and musician is primarily in descendants of folk, country, and blues music, especially rock music genres. Songs in these genres generally have a foundation of lyrics sung melodically over chord-progression based accompaniment. So far, I’ve for this weekly-album project I’ve listened to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and now Ornette Coleman. These jazz albums are considered great for having innovated and challenged convention. I enjoy listening to these albums, but I feel woefully ill-equipped to talk about them. Still, I proceed…

Lonely Woman

Ornette Coleman had worked in a department store; during a break, he “came across a gallery where someone had painted a very rich woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world.” The memory of this painting inspired him to compose “Lonely Woman.”

The song opens with a slow bassline, like a mellow march, joined by fast drums in the background. Both are panned center, with the drums fairly low in the mix. The high-hats dance frantically, as if they have some place to be, pulling the song along. At 18 seconds, the pocket trumpet and saxophone separated into the left and right channels. They play in unison the same melody in slightly different ways, usually about trumpet a few notes higher. It gives the feeling we are hearing two recordings of the song in different keys being played at the same time. Heard in mono, there’s some strange dissonance that happens, but in stereo, they come together in a beautifully odd way.

Coleman developed a concept he called “harmolodic” which allows for improvisation, with emphasis given to melody over harmony. Harmlodics encouraged breaking from the convention of the tonal center. Tonal center is the idea that the tonic note of a chord is the home to and from which melody and chord progressions dance. In the key of F, a song will typically start with the F chord through a series of progressions return to the F chord, usually returning to F in patterns to keep the song grounded. Melodies in the key of F, likewise consists of melodic phrases that often begin with F and end on F. Recognizing their inherently limiting nature, Coleman sought to knowingly work around conventions like these.

Congeniality

“Congeniality” jumps right into an optimistic melody played on the sax and trumpet at an upbeat tempo. This lasts for 3 seconds, a short snare drum roll, and then the tempo drops as the two horns play a mournful melody briefly. The first minute of the tracks mostly consists of this back and forth between cheerful up-tempo and slow mournful melodies.

Then the drums drive in bopping along with bass that almost feels like it’s constantly rising in mood. The horns take turns improvising and dancing with occasional references to the melody introduces at the beginning. The songs on this album follow a structure much like this. Themes are introduced, then the song changes feel often with the drums picking up, and the lead instruments improvising. They make call-backs to the themes, they turn themes upside-down and inside-out. They throws the themes back and forth, exploring the possibilities. There may or may not be another section that introduces different themes. And at the end, all those mutations and experimentation are brought together to return to the original themes. In a way, it’s like replacing the “tonal center” idea with melodic themes instead. With these compositions, Coleman questions the definition of music: what can we change, what rules can rewrite, and still create something musical?

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